Sunday, November 21, 2010

Simpl(y extraordinary) gifts

I received an extraordinary gift yesterday. No, scratch that - I have received dozens of gifts every day of my stay here. But this week, and yesterday in particular, have a couple standouts.

On Friday night, several of us from the Center went to El Sitio to take part in and document (for the museum) their community vigil for Copapayo. Effectively all of the families in the community come originally from Copapayo and the sole survivor of the massacre lives there. There is a sister parish in Michigan that always sends a delegation this time of year to celebrate the commemoration together, which is why the vigil was this weekend. We ate in the house of one of my students then went back to the gazebo/plaza and saw a couple short videos before folks gathered for the procession. Then we all worshiped together in a mass said by the priest from St. Catherine's (this MI parish). After the mass, which was wonderful in so many ways, we went back out in front of the church for music (provided by a group from the neighboring community of El Barío, including Alex's Davíd and Nico, with whom we work in the museum). After the music, the youth of El Sitio - about 90% of them students in 7th-9th grade at the school - got up on the gazebo platform and read the names of the people who were killed in the massacre. After every name, we repeated está presente, "is present" (here/with us). This is a most powerful way recognizing the life and continued presence of people who were killed. And we said it 155 times, including once for an infant of 8 days. It was a gift and an honor to be there sharing the evening with the students and the community that has so opened its arms to me and Christy in our time here.

The gift from yesterday actually starts a couple weeks ago on Margaret Jane's birthday. We (Ariel, Christy, Rosa, Eva, and I) had just gotten back from the actual community of Copapayo on Sunday morning after the vigil the night before and a friend of Margarita's came over for breakfast to celebrate her birthday. The three of us breakfasted together as Margaret Jane and Lita (who is a health promoter in her community) shared stories of their friendship during the war and a trip they took to Geneva to present a paper on health issues among refugee women in El Salvador (of which Lita was then-currently one). This in and of itself was a gift.

During the meal, Lita told me about a book about the experiences of displaced and repatriated communities during and after the war. She told me she would bring it to me and I was really excited, but it sort of fell out of my mind. Well, yesterday, while Ariel and I were doing a lunchtime loop that included food, the ATM, and buying baby shower things for our friends Marvin and Karla, we ran into Lita who was in town for the HUGE confirmation Sunday. (Jay, if you're reading this: 270 confirmands. I think HTLC's new confirmation strategy should include something along the lines of "be Catholic." Just a thought.)

When we saw each other, Lita reached into her bag and pulled out a bound photocopy of the book she had been describing during breakfast. When I told her that I was so thrilled to read it and would get it back to her asap via Susan or Margarita, her response was, "no, no, no - te lo regalo" (basically, "no way, I'm giving it to you"). She made and bound the copy of this book for me after one breakfast conversation and brought it with her since she knew she was coming to town and could give/leave it for me. I almost wept.

Then, back at the museum, I got to looking at the book. It has testimonies, songs, poems, drawings, chronologies, maps - all from people who lived either in refugee camps in Honduras or Nicaragua or in internally displaced camps within El Salvador, such as Calle Real (where Margaret Jane worked for five years in the 80s - and where she and Lita met). Vilma, the other person working the museum for the day, recognized the book and we looked through it together. As it turns out, she was born in Mesa Grande, one of the camps in Honduras, and lived there until she was 6 years old. She knew the tunes of several of the songs and sang them for me, right there in the entrance to the museum.

I...don't know what to do with all of this. I mean, I know of course that we're going to make another copy of the book for the museum and probably a couple more for the other volunteers. The practical, obvious steps. But what I'm actually going to DO with this embodied, copied, bound love that I received yesterday? That is still developing.

Meanwhile, we have grand plans for a Thanksgiving feast this Thursday and I will have no problem thinking of things I'm thankful for.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Matthew and nunca, nunca mas

I don't believe that God opened my bible to any certain page this morning when I decided to sit down and read a bit. I'd finished what has become my morning ritual of breakfast and coffee on the roof, listening to the sounds of Suchitoto coming to life and watching the color change against the trees, buildings, and distant rolling hills. I didn't have to be at work until 7:45-ish and I'd showered last night (that's the real reason I had extra time), so I figured I'd sit down with either the bible or my crossword puzzle book. This time, the bible won. (Full disclosure: usually it goes the other way.)

For whatever reason, after flipping through a couple of non-starters (the Exodus and Hosea included), I landed in the Passion section of Matthew. I am leaving Suchitoto this afternoon to spend the evening and night at the Universidad Centroamericana for the vigil commemorating the massacre of six Jesuits and two of their colleagues. There is much to be said just about this particular event in history. I will leave this to your own research, only to say that they were massacred by the Salvadoran military – by US-trained officers – on the night of November 15/16, 1989, on the grounds of the University where they lived. Brutal doesn't even begin to describe the manner of their assassination. Because they were in many ways the intellectual core of the church-based liberation and peace movements, the soldiers removed their brains and strew them across the garden outside their dormitories. It is this level of violence that we commemorate tonight – and to which we say “never again,” though we know that that is an unachievable reality. In any case, we recommit ourselves to the struggle that this might one day be true.

I don't know that I've ever read any of the Passion narratives outside of Holy Week before, so doing so in the fall, a good six months away from last Easter and this, seemed appropriate. It wasn't until I actually got into the thing that I started to realize just how appropriate it was for this day – this time in which we are celebrating the lives of massacred people all over the country, with Día de los Difuntos, the Copapayo massacre, and now the Jesuits. There are plenty of possible parallels to draw between the two stories, but more than anything, several new things just jumped to my eye.

Matthew 26:40 – Since our last spirituality night, we've been talking recently about all of the different ways that a seemingly small comment or gesture can be a profound word of “I love you.” Even while we were at Peggy's discussing this last Sunday, Alex's campo brother called him to check on how he was doing and to make sure he was going to be able to catch the bus home. When Alex sat back down from the call, Peggy very gently interjected, “That was Chomingo saying I love you.”

I read Jesus' words in this verse as an I love you. So much is lost when you only have text, so I'd always read and heard these words as a rebuke before. But think about it. “Can you not keep watch with me for one hour?” Jesus might have a better idea than the others how precarious things will be after his death, and the fact that they wipe out quickly – certainly understandable given what seems to have been an intense period in their ministry together! - is not promising. It is out of concern, not anger, that I hear Jesus underlining that (more or less) “you have to be able to do this.” “I love you.” I love you and I'm about to be not here in the same way that you are used to me being here and it scares me to think that you aren't ready. And I love you. [I feel I should follow this by saying that it does really freak me out to put words into the mouths of biblical characters. But here I am, doing it anyway.]

26:50 – Only ten verses later. Judas kisses Jesus and Jesus says to him, “Do what you came for, friend.” FRIEND. He just coined the phrase “the kiss of death” and Jesus calls him friend. There is, as I see it, a profound understanding there of Judas's helplessness in all of it. I think about the kids here who end up in gangs because...they have no other options. Because they are threatened (or more likely their families are) and so they have to join. Or because a person has to eat and unemployment hovers around 70% here. Or because they simply live in an area that already belongs to a particular gang and in order to be protected in their own neighborhood, they must belong.

I think about the sixteen kids (all but one between 18 and 22 – aka, between Ella's and my ages) burned to death in the fire that raged through the juvenile prison this week, and the 22 more in hospitals, many with burns so bad that they will definitely die as well. They were all put there under the new anti-gang law passed this summer. The gangs here do terrible things, usually to people who have done nothing to call their attention. Not that one can ever earn the violence that is rained down by the gangs. But the kids in that prison – so many of the people in El Salvador's crowded-three-times-past-capacity prisons – were not the folks calling the shots. All too often, those are the same people who own the private security firms, whose pockets thicken when ordinary people feel so much fear that they hire guards.

I think about those guys and the fact that they were in prison, like so many of their (my) brothers and sisters around the world, because of actions that they had only a small part in actually taking on. And I hear Jesus call them “friend.” Clothed in tattoos in a country where that only means one thing, to the extent that my “pollito” (little chicken – it's actually a hummingbird) tattoo catches attention and interest from all sides, I hear an understanding in Jesus's voice that rejects completely what they have done, but sees the utter lack of choice (or at least seeming lack, which is just as crushing) that these guys faced, embraces them, returns a kiss of death with a kiss of life and peace, and says “I love you.”

So this week we celebrate the Jesuits. We will say the presente after the names of Ignacio Ellacuría, Segundo Montes, Celina Ramos, Elba Ramos, Ignacio Martín Baró, Amando López, Joaquín López y López, and Juan Ramon Moreno. We will also say, maybe silently, presente in the names of Antonio Cartagena, Juan Carlos Romero, Gerardo Enrique Alvarado, and the rest of the young men who died in the fire. We will celebrate the lives and grieve the deaths of children of God put to death by violence and poverty. And we will offer our small but resolute nunca mas.