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I have this thing about coffee: it makes me gag, or close to it. I wish coffee tasted as good to me as it smells in the morning. I wish I could walk around with a big cup from Starbucks and debate the nuances of flavor from various beans or grinds with other java junkies, but I’ve never been determined enough to drink enough to develop a taste for it.

And yet, I drank a full cup of black coffee in El Salvador, right down to the grounds. I still didn’t like it. I worked hard to sip naturally and tried not to make ugly faces. So why drink it at all?

We were in the remote town of Perquin, deep in the eastern mountains of El Salvador, just a few kilometers from the site of the El Mozote massacre and within shouting distance of jungle camps where FMLN guerillas based some of their operations during the country’s long civil war.

All day long, I had heard stories of suffering and had seen the evidence of it. I’d met people whose parents or siblings had died in the long struggle for basic human rights. I’d seen the kind of conditions under which the peasant farmers had to live, and many still do. I’d visited the place where U.S.-trained soldiers murdered hundreds of innocent civilians in cold blood.

Near the end of the day, our team of fourteen sat on wooden or plastic chairs circled around a table in a small room, listening as Father Ponselle Rogelio (left in the photo, with Edgar Palacios) spoke quietly of his ministry among the people, and as town officials described their efforts to improve the lives of people who have suffered greatly, yet cling to hope of a brighter future.

On the table was a large cake and a stack of plastic coffee cups, their bright colors stained with long use. As the conversation waned, our hosts shared the cake with us, and passed around cups of locally-grown coffee, black. I could have asked them for water instead, but I didn’t want to add even that little thing to the trouble those people had been through.

I decided to drink the coffee as a tribute to their pain and hardship and hope, a tiny taste of suffering to honor a people whose courage and commitment had touched my soul.

The coffee tasted bitter to me and was hard to swallow, but the cake was delicious. Together, I saw them as a metaphor of the bitter suffering and sweet hope that we had seen evidenced throughout the country. Even so, I made a point of finishing the cake first so that the taste of the coffee would linger, and I would not forget.

Some things ought to be rememberd.

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