A Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond trip to El Salvador coincided with the Trump administration’s Jan. 9 decision to end temporary protected status for 200,000 Salvadorans.

The decision seemingly led up to the intolerable behavior of our elected leader’s sideways comment on Jan. 11 concerning immigrants from which he deemed to be “shithole countries,” stating that he preferred to receive people from Norway and Asia instead.

One could imagine the discomfort and shame we felt as guests in this beautiful Latin American locale.

During our 13-day trip, we fell in love with the Salvadoran people and shared their hurt, spending time with host churches, hearing their stories of how migration and gang violence has affected their lives.

El Salvador is a country rich in the remembrance of its recent history.

Everywhere you go, busts or portraits of Father Oscar Romero don the doorways of churches, public murals, businesses and homes, appearing almost as ubiquitously as Albrecht Dürer’s “Praying Hands” displayed in the homes of our grandparents throughout North America and elsewhere in the world.

We do not know who modeled for Dürer’s famous work. However, Salvadorans do know the person and life of Father Romero, who was gunned down on March 24, 1980, with one bullet to the head.

The archbishop of El Salvador fell dead at the altar while performing the Sacrament of the Eucharist at a cancer hospice chapel in San Salvador.

Later that year, members of the El Salvador National Guard orchestrated the rape and murder of four nuns who were involved with an international humanitarian aid mission, so it is likely you will see their portraits as well.

Images of the five Jesuit priests and two witnesses murdered in 1989 at Central American University appear sporadically in murals or pictures hung on the walls of businesses and churches alike.

Killed by the U.S.-backed right-wing extremist government under the suspicion of being Marxist guerilla operatives, the priests, missionaries and friends of the poor have become the Salvadoran version of Dürer’s “Praying Hands.”

In a more profound sense, the comparison to Albrecht Dürer does not do justice for what the remembrances of the martyrs mean to the Salvadoran people.

By their sacrifice, they are the sainthood of El Salvador, continually offering their selfless presence, love and message of peace.

While it is true that leftist guerrillas were responsible for many war crimes, the United Nations Truth Commission revealed that more than 85 percent of the conflict’s atrocities committed were by U.S.-backed government forces, many of whom trained in the United States.

Under the guise of fighting the spread of Marxism, the United States provided aid and training to those involved in the killings of innocent clergy in the civil war in El Salvador.

The Reagan administration famously denied reports of war atrocities as leftist propaganda and even went so far as to accuse the nuns of being Marxist guerrilla operatives.

In a strange and ironic twist, 26 years after the signing of the peace agreement, the political party of the guerrilla movement, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), is in power today with the last two presidential elections won by FMLN candidates as well.

The tragedy of U.S. policy and its negative impact on the Salvadoran people continue to this day.

Children sent away to escape the violence of the war found themselves alone in major urban centers throughout the United States, introducing the war refugee to gang culture.

It was in this environment that gangs like MS-13 and M-18 were formed. Due to both the U.S. “war on drugs” and rising anti-immigration sentiment, the wholesale exportation of gang culture to El Salvador became the next crisis for the tiny Central American nation.

There, the gangs have a stronghold with an estimated 25,000 members operating in the streets and another 9,000 in prison.

To make matters worse, our “draconian” rulings concerning U.S. immigration laws, which have ramped up to a near xenophobic dimension in our current political climate, have exported both gang members and victims of gang violence to El Salvador, many of whom face certain death upon their return.

The enormous popularity of the Reagan administration shielded it from outrage, both at home and abroad, for its support of groups committing wholesale slaughter of priests, nuns, women and children.

With the ascendancy of white supremacism and anti-immigration measures in our current political climate, we are stunned and often left speechless regarding an answer for the sufferings we are heaping upon the people of El Salvador.

Some Christians will hide behind Romans 13:1 as an excuse to grant approval for atrocities committed both past and present and forget that as a representative form of government, we are the leaders.

We bear both the guilt and responsibility for the harm and death brought about by our policies. The blood is on our hands.

We must act accordingly and enter the next election cycle as if our decisions are a matter of life and death for Salvadorans as well as for other refugees fleeing the violence throughout the world today.

Joseph Furio is an architect by trade, currently working toward a master of divinity degree at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, Virginia. He remains active in the church, enjoys substitute teaching while completing his studies and looks forward to a vocation in ministry and pastoral care. You can follow him on Twitter @swpmrva.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of reflections on the BTSR Mission Immersion Experience to El Salvador in January 2018. The first article in the series is:

U.S. Decision Leaves Salvadorans ‘Running for Their Lives’ by Sue Smith

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