A pilgrimage of social justice and solidarity

Stories from El Salvador and the 25th anniversary of the UCA martyrs


The sound of gunshots pumped out of the loudspeakers. Bathed in an eerie crimson light, the crowd fell silent.

The dance re-enactment delivered the heavy emotion of the historical moment. The six Jesuits and two laywomen were dead. The very people who had selflessly given a voice to the country’s oppressed during El Salvador’s civil war had been killed.

With the actors’ bodies strewn across the grass, the hundreds of people looking on were asked to remember.

Twenty-five years later, the events of the morning of November 16, 1989 have not been forgotten. The echo of the gunshots intended to end the Salvadoran civil war still ring out. Unlike the re-enactment though, it’s not over loudspeakers but in the hearts of the country’s people.

Commemorative artwork for the Jesuits at the Universidad Centroamericana.

The events at the Universidad Centroamericana for the 25th anniversary celebration were not ones of sorrow. As the candlelight procession weaved through the UCA campus, I was struck by the sense of resilience I had seen again and again in the eyes of the Salvadoran people. The commemoration masses, the re-enactment and the artwork all found a way to make beauty out of brutality and create hope from horror.

A speaker on our trip summed El Salvador for us, saying, “A week in this country really changes people.”

In the time between when our plane touched down in Central America and when we stepped back into the States, something happened. For each of us, El Salvador means something different, this the best account I can give.

We called ourselves ‘pilgrims.’ Pilgrims go on a journey. Here’s ours.


In God’s Hands

Members of the Marquette University delegation on the bus.

Our Marquette University delegation was made up of 34 people, the largest university delegation to visit El Salvador for the commemoration. We consisted of students, administration and faculty. In a group this large the backgrounds were inevitably diverse. Our academic interests and connections to Marquette ranged from a criminology major to a nursing professor to the director of a spiritual center. Yet, one thread connected us — we all arrived willing to have our hearts broken.

In a country still healing from a brutal civil war, it wasn’t difficult to come face-to-face with harsh realities.

Although nearly 13 years have passed since the Chapultepec Peace Accords that ended the civil war, El Salvador remains a country of intense suffering. According to the United States Overseas Security Advisory Council, per capita, El Salvador has the second highest murder rate in the world. Between 2011 and 2012, the country averaged almost 10 homicides a day, making it a nation-wide violence epidemic. In 2013, there 1,070 people reported as missing, the result of an estimated 20,000 people who are involved in the hundreds of street gangs.

These numbers must be interpreted through an even more troubling lens — few crimes are actually reported. For instance, the OSAC estimates that less than 20 percent of rapes are reported to authorities. With little faith in the country’s police force and judicial system, crimes are generally not reported because citizens fear they will be victims again since the government cannot protect them.

“one thread connected us — we all came willing to have our hearts broken.”

Reading the statistics can’t tell the full story, which is why we had to go to El Salvador. We had to see beyond a condensed report or a news story.

In one of the last homilies delivered by Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, he petitioned for a Catholic church that was active in the community, not just for the church’s benefit but for the benefit of the world. Entitled “The Church and Human Liberation,” Romero stated, “we have the duty, dear brothers and sisters, to point out facts that show how the plan of God is being reflected or distorted in our midst.”

The five-day pilgrimage came with an understanding that our group was not there to try to fix El Salvador. A short-lived mission trip such as that could actually be more damaging. The trip was the opportunity for us to learn what social justice work truly looks like and the cost of living for and with the oppressed. It was our opportunity to see how God’s plan was followed without hesitation.

Stepping off the plane and into the Salvadoran night, the change in surroundings from Wisconsin was striking. The air was thick and humid, a light breeze swayed palm trees overhead. In the warm winter night, people congregated outside, talking and laughing under streetlights.

To get to San Salvador, we boarded buses painted bright orange and blue. The windows were decorated with decals, one of which read “In God’s Hands.” As we ventured closer to San Salvador, the blinking light atop the bus illuminated flashes of the country. In the glimpses of farms, stores and homes, it was unlike anything we’d see in Milwaukee.

This was good. This was a trip that depended on us becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable.


Blind to the world is blind to love

Everyone experiences trauma. However, what causes that trauma is what makes us different. Americans experience trauma from having too many choices. The poor of El Salvador experience trauma from not having any choices. The lesson was blunt, but that’s the way Sister Peggy teaches. It’s the truth that becomes clear when someone takes the time to look at the world.

Sister Peggy speaking to the Marquette delegation.

In a meeting room at the Centro Arte Para La Paz, a community center that uses art to cope with trauma and unite people, Sister Peggy recognizes our blindness. No matter how many books a person reads or how many facts they may have memorized, no knowledge surpasses that of taking a long, hard look at the world. It’s beyond snapping photographs at a tourist site or admiring local architecture. It’s seeing people for who they are, not what they are.

“Your context shapes you,” she says. “You have to be a generation that’s looking at the world.”

The sling holding Sister Peggy’s broken left arm falls limp as she needs both to animate her words. With each lesson her voice fills with more fire. Blindness has ruined charity, making it about hand-outs and not love. Love can’t exist without understanding.

Before a hand can be raised to ask the question we’re all wondering, she answers it herself. How does a person come to understand and, ultimately, to love? See the world and seek the truth, Sister Peggy admonishes.

See the world. Seek the truth.

Grounds of the Centro Arte Para La Paz.

The truth is that in Suchitoto, where the Centro Arte Para La Paz is located, there are families living alongside their kin’s killers. There are ex-government spies walking the streets next to those they endangered. That’s the reality, but hate and revenge don’t exist because the residents of Suchitoto understand. They realize if it had been a matter of feeding their children, they would’ve done the same thing.

Judgments may come quick, but none of us know what we’re capable of doing in the same situation. There is a pain with removing the blindfold and truly seeing the world. That pain is understanding and from that pain can come love.

“I found myself differently here,” she continues, explaining her journey to El Salvador. “It has a way of stunning you to silence.”

Sister Peggy came in the midst of violence. There were threats against the church, dead bodies strewn on the cathedral steps to scare the nuns away. At one point, she had to remove a child’s head from a pike. Yet, she remained diligent in her mission.

She explains that she’s driven by a “dogged faith,” a hope that motivates her each day. That faith and that hope keep her working in Suchitoto. It’s what gave her the courage to smuggle healthcare items past guards at military checkpoints who would’ve killed her had they known. The dogged faith is knowing what the world is, as well as what it could be.

“I want to be scarred more by a dogged faith,” Sister Peggy says. “And you should as well. You should walk the route that you know will bring you something challenging.”


A heart for El Salvador

The story we heard of Oscar Romero was that, in his early years as a priest, he was a pushover. But that wasn’t his legacy — more than 250,000 people don’t show up to the funeral of a pushover.

Oscar Romero. (Photo via University of Dayton).

Part of the reason Oscar Romero was chosen to be the fourth archbishop of San Salvador was he was quiet, reflective and the church leaders believed that he would not cause much of a stir.

They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Oscar Romero’s contact with the poor and the oppressed of San Salvador lit a fire in his soul. It drove him to preach to the least, using his ministry to walk in solidarity with them. He presented his homilies during Mass and on radio broadcasts where he would also disseminate news of missing persons and human rights violations by the government.

Bishops had warned Romero not to take such a strong stance. Romero was receiving death threats from El Salvador’s government. They told him not to deliver his message that military members should disobey the orders of generals and not kill. Romero sought to remind them that killing is not God’s will and that soldiers should follow their consciences, not their orders.

He delivered that message on March 24, 1980, the day he was assassinated.

Altar where Romero was assassinated.

Standing at the small altar of the Divina Providencia Chapel, the church where Romero was shot, there’s a presence that stirs one’s soul. The back of the church, where the gunman entered and fired the fatal shot, is close. As he finished his homily, Romero would’ve seen the gunman the entire time.

The shot pierced Romero’s heart, tearing apart the ventricles and tearing apart a community that had found faith in Romero’s messages and example.

In the Monsignor Romero Historical Center, the museum near the chapel, on display are the vestments Romero wore the day he died. The blood stains, over 30 years old, still stand in sickening contrast to the white of the robe. Romero’s clothing is on shown so that the brutality is not diminished, that his death is not romanticized and that history tells the truth — Oscar Romero was killed for following God’s Word and not the word of those in charge.

Looking through the museum’s guest book, the number of names is stunning. Each page holds nearly a hundred names with the last two months of visitors alone taking up over 50 pages. People have traveled across the globe — from Maryland, Canada and France — to be shocked by the brutal truth of history.

Like us, they’ve come to pay homage to an example of faith seeking justice. Yet, Romero would not want visitors to focus on the past.

In one of his final homilies, entitled “The Church and Human Liberation,” the service included a reading from Isaiah 43:16–21. In the passage, God calls His people not to dwell on the past, but trust in Him to bring new victories. Part of the passage reads:

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:18–19 NIV)

The grounds of Romero’s house and the chapel culminate this passage. Next to the chapel, tucked behind a row of palm trees, is the Hospital Divina Providencia, a hospital where Romero worked that treats Salvadorans suffering from cancer.

Despite a universal healthcare system, public hospitals in El Salvador are underfunded and understaffed. Treatment, if any at all, may not be timely so many rely on private clinics that are more capable of meeting medical needs. However, the services of these private clinics are often too expensive for typical Salvadorans. That is why the Hospital Divina Providencia exists, its mission being to ease the pain for patients suffering from cancer and their families without burdening them economically.

Garden where Romero’s heart is buried.

Romero’s heart is buried in the garden outside his museum. It’s buried in the Salvadoran ground, the same ground he learned to love the country’s least and gave his life to walk in solidarity with. As pilgrims come to witness Romero’s home and the chapel, they walk on the same ground, passing by the hospital that continues the open-arms faith Romero preached.


“Para no olvidar”— In order to not forget

On the afternoon of the second day, our group sat in a circle, hanging on every word of Sister Anita, the leader of a Christian-based community in San Ramon. Each week, Sister Anita organizes community events such as Bible studies, female empowerment discussions and home economics classes.

Sister Anita addressing the Marquette delegation. (Photo by Ivette Zuniga).

San Ramon is home to one of the many Christian-based communities in El Salvador. The base ecclesial community model emerged in the country during the 1970s as part of the liberation theology movement and addressed the Catholic priest shortage by empowering clergy members or lay people to meet the needs of the poor. Liberation theology and this community model allows the poor and oppressed of El Salvador to reflect on the Bible in order to better understand their reality.

Getting people to discuss issues leads to discussing solutions, Sister Anita explained. For instance, getting drinkable water was a problem in San Ramon until community members gathered and created a group plan that did not burden any single person with the water-gathering process. The projects work to unite the community under a single mission.

The six Jesuit martyrs of the UCA were active members communities such as San Ramon. Sister Anita remembers their visits and the impression they had on residents. After they were killed, many people feared for their own lives, lost hope or wanted to leave. Sister Anita refused to be deterred.

She stayed because she can’t merely speak about what happened, she has to act; this is her home and her community.

Evident from the entrance, this a community of remembrance. The walls of the homes are painted with murals of Oscar Romero, rushing streams and couples enjoying the beauty of El Salvador. The artwork shows the potential of the country that extends beyond a brutal history.

she can’t merely speak about what happened, she has to act

Lining the walls of the room where Sister Anita speaks are posters of those killed or missing in the civil war. Each poster holds over a hundred individual photographs. In total, the room has 30 posters.

Photo by Ivette Zuniga.

One section of wall is filled by a large mural of El Salvador. The country is separated into sections that show 27 locations of the civil war’s 227 documented massacres. Above the mural is painted “Para no olvidar,” in order to not forget.

The old saying that we stand on the shoulder of giants holds true. Remembering the devastation and the hardship goes beyond a memorial for this community. It’s a place where hope is drawn and where the sting of the past marks a path for the future.

In order to not forget, the people of San Ramon keep those who were killed or taken on their hearts. In order to not forget, not a day passes where a face of a missing person isn’t seen by a community member. In order to not forget, San Ramon works for the justice the past needed and the future deserves.


Passing peace and love in three Masses

During the final three days of our trip, we attended three Catholic masses. The first began the weekend of activities at the UCA, the second was at the UCA to commemorate the martyrs on the night they were killed and finally, a Sunday morning service in downtown San Salvador.

Cathedral in downtown San Salvador.

Each service was given in Spanish so much of the messages was lost in translation, but there was a distinct element that transcended the language barrier. It was the passing of peace.

When the time came to share “la paz,” the cathedrals and its inhabitants erupted. People swarmed one another with handshakes, hugs and smiles. Everyone was welcome, even strangers from a foreign country.

The populations during each Mass were diverse. Hundreds of people attended the all-night vigil at the UCA. Congressman Jim McGovern, a representative from Massachusetts who’s worked to increase aid in El Salvador, was in attendance to the Sunday morning service in the basement. Family members of the martyrs had come as well.

Each brief interaction felt as genuine as a moment shared between close friends. While each handshake or hug lasted mere seconds, the effect of feeling welcome resonated long after the Mass. It was a sense of community greater than language, region or background. It was a community of faith and hope.

Voices thundered through the basement during the Sunday service. Led by a small choir and a few guitars, the parish sang songs of praise without hymnals. In the echo of the basement, the voices melded into one — one chorus, one song and one people. It didn’t matter who was singing, as long as the song continued.

A man prays at the tomb of Oscar Romero.

From my own understanding of the six Jesuits, the UCA and social justice, that is the most important lesson. It doesn’t matter who is working for justice — whether it’s a prominent politician, a college professor or a neighbor down the street — what matters is that the work and the mission is carried on. While the martyrs may have died for the work they did, their contribution to faith seeking justice is just a part of the larger force we all work for or against. We witnessed how the martyrs contributed to this effort up-close on one of our final days.


“Don’t cry for them. Imitate them.”

We all stood in awe, looking at the lawn where the Jesuits were murdered.

The residence where Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J; Ignacio Martín-Baró, S.J.; Segundo Montes, S.J.; Juan Ramón Moreno, S.J.; Joaquín López y López, S.J.; Amando López, S.J.; Elba Ramos and Celina Ramos were staying is preserved and looks exactly as it did the night they were murdered. A fence now surrounds the patch of lawn the Jesuits were dragged onto and shot. Where their bodies were found the morning of November 16, 1989 is now a beautiful rose garden.

Rose garden outside the Jesuit residence where the six Jesuit martyrs were murdered.

Standing near the rose garden, the entire experience came together. Before we arrived in the country, we read about the martyrs, the state of the Salvadoran civil war and the importance of the social justice work the UCA was doing. The previous days of the trip exposed us to the hard truths of El Salvador and the places the martyrs had worked. We witnessed some of the issues they saw and some of the people they worked to liberate.

We saw the reality they gave their lives to change.

The lesson was taught again and again. The lives of Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J; Ignacio Martín-Baró, S.J.; Segundo Montes, S.J.; Juan Ramón Moreno, S.J.; Joaquín López y López, S.J.; Amando López, S.J.; Elba Ramos and Celina Ramos are the ultimate example of faith seeking justice and selfless love. The trip blessed each and every participant with the opportunity to understand these martyrs, social justice in practice and El Salvador decades after war.

We learned to have a “dogged faith,” something to believe in that drives us to do good and keeps the mission alive in the face of opposition. We saw a slice of the massive and inexplicable suffering in our world. But, just as the rose garden showed, beauty can come from the most horrific histories.

In just five days we came face-to-face with a reality that isn’t forgotten.

However, the story doesn’t end here. It’s carried on by each and every one of us, just as the people who knew the martyrs continue to live out their mission. One of the speakers imparted in us a lesson about the Jesuits. He reminded us that, while the memorial service was important, it is not the end of our work. In speaking of the martyrs, he said:

“Don’t cry for them. Imitate them.”

For the members of the trip, the people of El Salvador and anyone who reads, this the story continues. Working for justice, seeking the truth and ending senseless suffering are missions we must unite under. We must under the truth behind the history and learn from it. It’s a story peppered with hardship and tough lessons, but those lessons can shape a better tomorrow not just for one or two of us, but all of us.


Wyatt Massey is a student at Marquette University, studying Writing-Intensive English and Advertising. He is a human rights journalist, social media nerd and self-diagnosed health nut.

Connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.