Day four in El Salvador left me wanting to cry “Demasiado!” — there was just way too much to write about. Just the highlights from a long rainy day in the life of Calvary Baptist Church‘s team that is learning and sharing in El Salvador this week:
8:00 a.m. Visit the national maternity hospital, which serves women with no resources to pay. We delivered 832 two-gallon baggies, nearly a thousand dollar’s worth of baby vitamins, and two dozen bedsheets. Hospital staff uses the baggies to keep babies warm while being transferred from the delivery room to the unit where they are placed in an incubator. About 15 percent of babies delivered there are premature. We visited a critical care unit that had 21 incubators packed into a single room, with half a dozen more parked along the wall of an intermediate care unit, which housed at least 25-30 more incubators, most holding two or three infants who were underweight but otherwise healthy. Mario Callejas, a neonatologist who is pastor Edgar’s son-in-law, arranged the tour.
11:00 a.m. Travel to El Salvador’s Foreign Affairs ministry for a meeting with Secretary of State Hugo Martinez. Amid very formal trappings, we heard Martinez talk about issues related to immigration and his hopes for El Salvador. Martinez was a young member of the FMLN during the long civil war of 1980-92. After the peace process ended, FMLN transitioned from a guerilla movement to a political party. In 2009-10, the FMLN won the presidential elections, and now former revolutionaries are working to put their ideals into action.
12:15 p.m. A luncheon meeting with Ruth Eunicia Orontes, pastor of Shekinah Baptist Church in Santa Ana, El Salvador’s second largest city. The church was started 20 years ago with assistance from the American Baptist Churches, USA. Orontes, who has been pastor there for 11 years, continues to receive some support from the Alliance of Baptists. She talked to us about the church’s growth, not just numerically, but in building a sense of community and mutual support in its neighborhood. Like many other pastors in Latin America, Orontes emphasizes tenets of liberation theology that call for special attention to the poor.
2:15 p.m. A meeting with Lutheran Bishop Merdado Gomez, a longtime colleague of Edgar Palacios. While Palacios now works as an associate pastor at Calvary, during the 1970s, 80s, and part of the 90s, he was a leader among pastors in El Salvador who were working for social change. One of the little-known aspects of the conflict in El Salvador is that some evangelical Protestant pastors, motivated by liberation theology’s practical understanding of the gospel, were actively working along side Catholics to bring about greater justice for the poor. More on Gomez below.
4:00 p.m. Travel to the Casa Presidencia for a meeting with El Salvador’s vice-president, Salvador Sanchez Ceren. Ceren met Pastor Edgar during the peace talks that finally brought an end to the civil war. Ceren was one of five main leaders of the FMLN during its revolutionary days, but these days he is up to his ears in the facts and figures of administration, trying to apply the ideals of social justice to the reality of serious financial limitations in a very poor country. He began our meeting with a weather report — heavy rains from a tropical system have brought the threat of flooding and landslides, further taxing the country’s resources.
The team was plenty tired by the end of the day, mostly very engaged but sometimes struggling to keep awake. The thing I remember most, however, and one I suspect will stick with the team, was Bishop Gomez’ story of La Cruz Subversiva — the subversive cross. He showed us a smaller model of the cross as he told us the story.
In mid-November of 1989, as FMLN units prepared to attack San Salvador, government forces were sent out with a list of social leaders to assassinate. Both Bishop Gomez and Pastor Edgar were on the list: they were warned of the danger and sought refuge in the German embassy, where a German missionary working with the Lutherans had made arrangements for their safety.
A few nights later, soldiers murdered six Jesuit priests at the Romero Center, and government forces searched for the pastors. At Resurrection Lutheran Church they were unable to find Gomez, so they arrested 15 peace activists who had come to offer themselves as human shields in an effort to protect endangered leaders, hoping soldiers would not fire if foreigners were present. Along with the protestors, they “arrested” a white cross standing beside the altar. As an exercise in worship one day, people had been invited to write the sins of the country on the cross: these included things like “hunger,” “social injustice,” “persecution of the church,” and a variety of other concerns.
The cross had been left by the altar, Gomez said, as a reminder of things the church needed to work on. The government, however, saw the cross as a subversive means of socialist indoctrination.
A few days later, due to the presence of many journalists, Gomez was able to safely leave the embassy to attend funeral services for the Jesuits, and was even given an opportunity to preach. While there, he saw the president of El Salvador and interceded for the 15 foreign peace workers, who were set free shortly thereafter.
Gomez and Palacios moved from the German embassy to a safe house provided by the United Nations, and in time were escorted safely from the country in a U.N. motorcade. Both spent some time in Guatemala but eventually made their way to the United States. Some time later, an ecumenical council was formed with the goal of returning Gomez safely to El Salvador. A number of high-profile individuals accompanied him on the return flight, believing that the government would not risk the negative publicity of attacking them. The delegation was so high powered, in fact, that the U.S. ambassador was waiting to greet them at the door of the plane.
Gomez took the opportunity to ask the ambassador to see if he could gain the release of the cross from prison. The ambassador spoke El Salvador’s president, who had the cross transported to his house, then later invited Gomez for a visit so he could personally present the cross to him. Today the cross is back in the Resurrection Lutheran Church, and known as La Cruz Subversiva. If it were the property of the Catholic Church, Gomez said, it would be the object of pilgrimages, but for him it is a very interesting symbol of the love of God that has the power to bring hope and change to the world.
“I have learned in my life that where there is more pain, there is more hope,” Gomez said.
Where there is more pain, there is more hope.
That’s something to think about.