El Salvador November 6-21, 2011
From November 6-21, 2011 I travelled to El Salvador to visit and stay with a friend
(Pastor Brian Rude, Evangelical Lutheran Church Missionary). Brian has lived
in the capital city San Salvador for the past 23 years. His current work is
with an organization (AIEPES) which is an association of ex-prisoners that does
programs in several of the prisons in that country. Two other team members
that I spent time with were Jorge and Jesus. These programs have focussed on
AIDS awareness, Human Rights, support to live a safe life, men`s issues and
planning for reintegration. There are no other programs offered in the prison
system like this. The AIEPES programs are supported by volunteers and outside
funding. My visit to the country was to spend time with Brian and understand
his prison work, find connections to my own background in prison ministry in
Canada and experience life in this violent country. I hoped to understand how
El Salvador works with the "poor" and to learn something for our approach with
people in Nanaimo. I would value any comments or reactions that you have to my
My best image for reflection on this trip took place a few days into it. We had visited a prison in San Vincente,
an hour from San Salvador. At 4:00 pm we (the team, including Jorge, Jesus,
Brian and I) began the trip home. Before we were out of the city a small car
slammed into the front of our vehicle at an uncontrolled intersection. It tore
off the bumper and grill of our Mitsubishi truck and ricocheted onto the
sidewalk across the street. The other car carried a group of family members.
No one was seriously hurt. In many different ways, the people of El
Salvador keep running into each other.
One of the features about life in El Salvador is that night on the streets is not a safe time. It is dark at
6 pm. We were delayed until 9:30. When the police came to investigate and
record the account from each driver, the other driver said that Jorge was talking
on his cell phone while he drove our truck. He was not doing this and his cell
phone record bore this out. The truth is often victim to fear and anxiety.
The officer`s first impulse was to arrest Jorge and impound our vehicle – incarceration
is a convenient response to trouble – but as I was to learn about most
things there – wait a while and it will change. An hour later he
decided to ticket the other driver for not having a drivers license and because
none of the lights worked on that vehicle. Jorge and Jesus were meeting with
the family from the other car. Restitution was agreed upon as a result of that
discussion since Jorge was technically in the wrong. This astonished the
policemen. Restorative justice approaches are almost unheard of in the
country. At 8:00 p.m. the tow truck arrived and we were told that Brian and I
could ride with the driver but no one could ride in the damaged vehicle. An
hour later the driver changed his mind and we all made our way back to San Salvador.
After leaving the small truck at the repair shop where we woke up anervous guard with a shotgun – there is uncertainty about everything and everyone -- we still needed to find our way home. We walked up a dark street toward the traffic to find a taxi. Jesus had us wait around a corner while he negotiated the fare because, we were informed, if the driver saw our white faces it would be twice as much – who you are makes a difference as to how you are treated. That backfired because the driver thought Jesus was up to something and he wouldn`t take us at all. We walked further down dark streets, finally hailed a taxi and made it home at 11 p.m.
The Enshrinement of Violence
Does an enshrinement of violence have to do with religious perspectives or is it is a learned response in the culture? My visit took place during the time when martyrs were honoured for the loss of their lives: Jesuit priests and students of the Jesuit University of Central America had been murdered 23 years earlier. Approximately 5000 people showed up for a Vigil walk and several days at the University were devoted to remembering the horror. Grisly pictures of those who were murdered and dragged out onto a lawn were on display in photo albums. Jarring artwork of death and torture in El Salvador fills the wall of the University chapel.
small museum at the University is dedicated to these local martyrs. Their bloody clothing is on display as well as Bibles shredded by bullet holes. Even the blood-stained grass where they lay was collected and enshrined. Not far from the University is the location of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. The small hospital chapel where this took place has a memorial statement on the wall behind the altar that reads: At this altar is where Msgr Oscar A Romero offered his life to God for his people
. His former residence was just a short distance down the road. His small car was up on blocks in the driveway and his typewriter was on a table next to his cot. In the adjoining room his bloodied vestments were on display. Is the enshrinement of such memories a means of keeping the pain alive so that this kind of violence does not happen again?
A Tyranny of Skepticism
When we went to the Super-metro store to buy groceries. Three guards with rifles in the parking lot scrutinized us as we got out of the vehicle. As we walked the aisles of the store another armed guard kept watch. A guard was also stationed near the tills who sternly watched all those who were purchasing their groceries.
The behaviour of traffic is unpredictable. Defensive driving is unknown and the driver who hesitates loses any opportunity that was present. Pedestrians stand on the curb with worried looks as they wait to try and cross the street. The few crosswalks had little meaning. I was told that any driver who hits a pedestrian will be immediately arrested and thrown in jail. Such accidents are frequent since people are often all over the roads. The law states that pedestrians have rights. But if you are a pedestrian, you have few rights as far as the traffic is concerned.
As we hurried across the road one evening, a vehicle actually slowed down for us to pass. Brian said "that`s unusual, I guess I can trust that guy!" I laughed and commented "Finally, someone you can trust! You can trust someone Brian, you can trust someone!" He replied, "Can I trust you?" All I could say was, "so far..."
In conversations about government, business, the economy, police, or anyone who has some type of responsibility – there is little trust. Water bills are delivered to the house but the address is wrong. When this is challenged the person delivering the bill insists that the wrong address is the correct address.
Such an argument continues until the delivery person finally yields to stubborn insistence.
Brian has a habit of checking the addition of every bill for a meal. In almost every case, errors were made in the favor of the waiter. In situations where large sums of money are involved such as contract work or funding for projects from outside agencies, it is not uncommon to hear quietly voiced suspicions of corruption. The manipulation of funds is often accompanied by changes in people who were once honest and respected. Clergy are not immune from this.
The Intimidation of Threat
Armed security people are everywhere. The most intimidating spectacle is that of members of the military who provide security in the larger prisons. They wear combat fatigues, have their heads in balaclavas and wear no identifying features such as name tags. They are anonymous.
Control is common in any prison setting. However, in El Salvador the use of intimidation is commonplace. In twenty years of working in the Correctional Service of Canada – coming and going from every federal prison in the country – I have never been searched as much as during my two weeks of visiting four prisons in El Salvador. I was "patted down" openly and also in a private cubicle; I was subject to the electronic wand, and electronic doorway (like at airports); an electronic scanning chair; and then both sides of my face had to be positioned on a counter so that a machine below could scan my jaw. Security is important in prisons, but there is also something else at work when those performing this role have only their eyes visible and could not in any way be later identified.
Stories were told by some of the prisoners that their partners had been roughly put through a body cavity strip-search in order to visit their family member. I had a Canadian passport and was treated carefully.
Lines of Defense
A strong sense of defensive protection exists everywhere. There are guns, large steel doors or gates, spooled razor wire like that seen on prison walls in Canada (but this wire is around homes), and barbed wire. There are armed security people at Banks, malls, repair shops, restaurants, in pharmacies, grocery stores, a Baptist bookstore, parking lots and at barriers leading into some neighborhoods. Security people with guns and clubs are present in public parks, at tourist sites and on the beach. On one beach trail near a beautiful stand of cacti we came upon two guards with side arms as well as another with a rifle and machete.
When we attended the Lutheran Church for Sunday morning worship, the large steel door rolled open and a security person gestured us to enter. Upon entry into the compound the door was rolled shut beneath the spooled razor wire. Although such a setting felt like worship in a prison chapel, this was a public worship service.
The street that Brian lives on has a barrier at its entrance which is guarded 24 hours a day. The guard did not have a gun but did carry a club. When I asked Brian about the absence of a gun he replied that it was probably a good idea for his neighborhood. In some cases a lone security persons were killed for a gun. Those guns have more value than human lives.
We alarmed the guard on the night when the tow truck delivered our damaged Mitsubishi to a repair shop in San Salvador. The large tow truck pulled up to the vehicle door and blew his horn over and over again. Finally the walk through doorway in the larger door began to move and a shotgun appeared. The nervous guard holding it pointed the gun in our direction. After the driver called out to the guard he very cautiously made his decision and let us in. The large door was quickly closed behind us.
Target Zones: Lonely Corners and Open Parks
Brian shared with me his stories of being assaulted. Once a gun was held to his head as he was robbed in a small postal station while picking up his mail. On another occasion in a public park near a volcano his vehicle was cut off, forced into a clearing and he and his friends were robbed. One friend was sent to the bank with a debit card to get more money while Brian and the other person were held hostage. The police were notified and upon arrival a gun battle took place. Brian was held in a headlock with the gun firing near his ear. He no longer goes to that park.
There is an unspoken plan to be home by dark unless people travel in groups. Some areas are very bad to be in at night alone or even in a group. Taxis are taken rather than walking in uncertain areas. On one occasion we ended up in a taxi even though it was midday – because of the uneasy “feel” of the place. “I don't really want to lose my camera or these manuals that I am carrying” was Brian's comment.
Most of the churches that I saw were protected by walls and wire and security persons. When we went to attend the Vigil at the Jesuit University (University of Central America), we had to step out of the vehicle while it was checked before we proceeded onto the property. One afternoon we went to a viewpoint just outside of the city (Puerto de Diablo, “Devil`s Gate”). We climbed up a rocky trail to a summit and as we looked in all directions, the spires and domes of churches were easily spotted. The especially violent areas in the vicinity were pointed out.
Religion and violence live side by side in this culture. One afternoon while driving through San Salvador two towers came into view. One was the spire of a large Roman Catholic cathedral and the other was a slightly higher tower of the largest Evangelical church in the city. This was a memorable demonstration of two Christian polarities in the country. Approximately half of the people claim their heritage with the traditional church and the other half has allied themselves with upbeat worship and a fundamentalist view of God and life. Although rare, a few Mayan practioners keep ancient forms of religion alive. The floor of this earlier civilization rests just seven meters below the current ground level.
I asked prisoners that I met what was important to them. The same answers kept coming up: family, God and my faith. When I asked if the church was of help, they politely grinned and said “not much.” In the prison for women, I asked to see the chapel. It was a huge space with an altar at the centre. Although there was an inmate who kept it clean, it was not open unless the priest came for Mass. In a crowded prison with 1600 in space for 350, the chapel was large, clean and empty – a larger space than any Canadian prison chapel.
Lava fields cover huge areas near the volcanoes and have encrusted the surface of the land in an impossibly hard black landscape for decades. Although the soil is rich and fertile all around and probably remains so underneath this rock – these areas are barren of life and vegetation. This reminds me of how faith is not drowned but buried under an encrustation of historical violence and pain. Every so often there is a new onslaught of destruction that is volcanic in its effect. There is a spirituality among those whom I met which is below the surface. After the Vigil at the University there was a large outdoor Mass. Twenty-five priests came through the crowd with attendants who encircled them in a rope enclosure to allow them to pass. This group of clergy took their places at 25 stations for the reception of the Eucharist. Many of the thousands present went forward. Near the end I slipped away to one of the kiosks to buy a t-shirt and was gently reprimanded by the merchant, “... after Mass!”
At the farewell barbecue that took place for me, one of the AIPES members talked to me about spirituality. A small band that played Salvadoran and Central American music for me for two hours. My friend said, “Our spirituality is in our music. If you want to know us, listen to our music. That is why they are playing for you.” He further added, “We have the church here, but we still have violence. I follow what Jesus says: love your brother, love the stranger. I do not follow other doctrines or laws in the Bible.”
Violence – a Cancer
After I returned home from this country, it occurred to me that I saw very few children. I saw some in the malls with their families, some under the age of 5 with their mothers in prison and I saw a few near the homes of poor people. But the sight of children playing was something that I did not see. They are there somewhere but where. Perhaps they are keep deep inside the insular family community – as far away from the gangs and the streets and the violence as possible. Maybe the life of loving family and playing children is too sacred to be on display for the profane world all around.
Violence in this country is like cancer in Canada. Everyone is affected and nobody knows what to do about it. In Canada it is said that “cancer can be beaten.” Is the same true of violence in El Salvador?
Brian and the network of people who work with AIEPES tirelessly seek to do their part. By working with those already in prisons, their efforts intend to provide an intervention that may stem the flow of ongoing violence. If these folks can learn to do good and not harm, maybe they can lead by example. The leadership of AIEPES is made up of who are ex-prisoners and now reach out to incarcerated men and women with alternatives for life. The task is huge since there are no other groups that offer programs and the overcrowding of prisons in this country means that only a few from the population can participate when programs are offered. However, these volunteers persist.
Inmates are taught human rights, AIDS awareness and how to live life safely using basic principles of restorative justice. These efforts can lead to an integration of life`s pieces instead of disintegration of life through the vicious cycle of epidemic violence.
Brian's focus is on “consciencization,” an awareness-raising for the church and others about the pressures, realities and contradictions of the nearly destroyed sense of national community there. This includes identifying bizarre relationships between power and control, economy and corruption, politics, religion, the poor and the rich in this otherwise beautiful tropical country.
Brian's long-term ministry is built on relationships. Everywhere we went, people knew Brian and he knew people: embraces and conversations and waves and smiles were a daily, if not hourly occurrence. Ministry there is people first, (programs second): welcoming their company and having the time to listen. Presence, listening, waiting and responding to others with a radical kind of friendship and practical help are foundational to long-term credibility especially when answers or solutions are difficult to find. This calls forth a dynamic experience of fellowship and others experience a deep caring connection that Salvadorans begin to identify as coming from Brian's spiritual roots and the community that keeps him there. Life is, as Brian says, “a journeying with others.”
Another element of ministry that is also transferable is the concept of Open and Closed Doors. Opportunities come like doors to walk through and carry a curious sense of God's leading. Other ministry situations and activities come to an end due to circumstances or funding changes. Thanks are given and closure takes place, but life and journeying moves on. Such doors have opened and closed during Brian's many years there and have lead him from orphanage work to teaching to work with youth at risk to ministry with AIDS patients to the unpredictable and strange world of prisons. A calm spirit, listening ears and a deeply integrated faith in the One who welcomes all puts wheels on ministry in El Salvador.
This simple approach seeks to discern where the Spirit of God leads: one door closes and another one opens. Is that the way? Is there a new avenue? Will others help? Are we willing to go? St. Paul tells of a vision he had in which a Macedonian was calling for help. For Brian the voice has been Salvadoran. With many new insights we move forward to practice gentle and determined Christ-love for the marginalized in Nanaimo as we enter one door at a time.
Who calls to the church locally?
Do we have ears to hear ?
December 14, 2011