Salvadoran Easter, 1987

 once had a job in Central America. For many years before that I had been a relatively normal church pastor in the US, preaching sermons, visiting the sick, raising money...but I left it all one day following an emotionally punishing, painful divorce, feeling bruised, burnt out, and exhausted. 

Miraculously, perhaps, soon after that I found work with a young upstart foundation in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, that wanted me to travel from country to country researching relief and development agencies, interviewing their staff and writing about the work that they do. The foundation wanted to give money to those kinds of organizations but they wanted someone to first do an evaluation to see which were smart, which were not, and which were doing more harm than good. They caught me at a good time. I was so ready to leave the church leave the country, and go do this kind of work for them. 

This was way back in the 1980s and Central America was a very different world from the one I live in today, or even from the world I was coming from at the time. The United States in the 1980s was involved in numerous wars all through the region in those days. In some countries it was supporting the rebels against the governments, and in some countries it was supporting the governments against the rebels. It was a staggeringly confusing and troubled time. Ironically, at the same time, I had become involved in my own personal internal wars, though in my case the wars were over how I should live out the rest of my life. Whether I would return to the church and faith and Christianity, or leave it altogether and become a full time secular economist working in Third World development.
On one occasion I was in El Salvador trying to visit a village in the northern, war-torn, province of Chalatenango. I was traveling with a tall, red-haired, Australian, lapsed Catholic, named Warick Frye, who was a journalist. We were doing research on “Repopulation Villages.” Those were towns being resettled by refugees who had been driven out of the country by the Salvadoran military during the early years of their civil war. Frye was doing a photo essay, and I was doing my interviews for my foundation, but I think now that I was actually there searching for something a little different from that, something perhaps deeper, perhaps more spiritual, though I don’t think I knew it at the time.
The people of the towns we visited had been hiding in camps across the border in Honduras for nearly a decade, but had finally decided that they could only live truly in peace by returning to their roots, by coming home. Hiding forever kept them alive, but it did not give them life. they had to go home. One of the repopulation communities renamed their village, appropriately, Las Vueltas, “The (people of) Returning.”
We came into Las Vueltas somewhat by accident. We had been working in another town some miles away and had heard that the army had mined the roads around the town, and that if we left, we’d have to hike over a mountain to get out. It was not a pleasant thought. We found a guide who volunteered to take the two of us and a supply of food through the woods and over the mountain, but he said he wouldn’t go the whole way. He said he was too frightened of what might happen to go the whole way.
The mountain trail was cold and wet and windy, and we were not dressed nor in very good shape. But for two excruciating days we walked, first with our guide and then by ourselves, until we finally dropped down into what we thought would be the safety of the next town, which was Las Vueltas.
When we arrived, we were surprised to find them welcoming us like visiting dignitaries. The mayor and half his council came out to greet us. What they told us was that this “free” village and the land around it had just been sold out from under the populace by the government to an international agribusiness corporation for the planting and export of corn. The government never approved of the people moving back home so it did all this behind their backs. It gave them a deadline and ordered them to abandon the town or face dire consequences. The village had actually known of the sale for some time but didn’t believe their government could do such a thing, so they voted to stay and hold their ground. Frye and I arrived, weary and wet, the very day the final govetnment deadline passed.
The people who had greeted us with such enthusiasm were hoping that if they sent word back to the capital that there were now internacionistas, “internationals” staying with them, the government might back off on its threats to depopulate the town. That’s why they were so happy to see us, but we found out later that their happiness was ill-founded.
For lodging (and perhaps safety) we were escorted to the local Catholic Church where we were warmly received by a wonderful nun named Sister Loretta. She said she didn’t want to alarm us, but the strongest, sturdiest building in the compound was the sanctuary, and she had set us up with some cots to stay there. She meant well, but she did make us alarmed.
As we settled in, she brought us food, and blankets, and warm hugs. And she wished us God’s peace. “Tonight is Holy Saturday,” she said. I had forgotten that. We had been on the road for weeks and weren’t following the calendar. “We won’t be holding the Vigil tonight because of the troubles, but tomorrow morning we will celebrate Easter Mass, and we want you to join us.” I thanked her but said no, we probably shouldn’t because we weren’t Catholic (Warick mumbled and looked at his feet). “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “This is a time when the power of life rises over the power of death, and you need that.” I wasn’t so sure and I told her so. “Resurrection is a sign of God’s power for peace,” she said, “and tomorrow we must pray for peace.” Warick, an atheist, and me a questioner—we both asked her why? Would it change what was going on outside? She smiled. “No,” she said. “But it might change what is going on with you on the inside.”
She left, and had barely returned to her own quarters when a huge explosion went off in the street, and for a moment the sanctuary was bathed in light. It was followed by a second explosion and then a third, all erupting with flashes of light. We ran to the front doors and saw a bank not thirty feet away from us in ruins. The darkening sky was dotted with the lights of helicopters swooping down onto the town. The official “democratic” government of El Salvador was attacking its own citizens to drive them out of their homes.
Frye and I pulled back into the church. Our cots were useless. The small church had little furniture and few places for refuge. “Under the altar,” he said. “You’re the religious one; maybe you can make it do some good.” My religious credentials didn’t feel particularly helpful at that point but I joined him under it anyway. It was solid thick marble—the only thing in the sanctuary of much value or strength. Hanging above it was a giant crucifix—a plaster Jesus on a cross—that looked to be at least ten feet tall. We both crouched together under the altar.
For hours we heard a frightening pounding in the streets, punctuated by sounds of people running and occasionally screaming, and endless dogs barking. I hid there, in overwhelming horror, in a tight ball, occasionally adding my own cries to those of the streets. Later we learned that nearly the entire village fled for the night and hid in creek beds and behind boulders, and that miraculously no one died. But at the time all I could be aware of was the sounds of screaming and running, and the explosions that were endless and relentless. Every moment was more frightening than the last. The longer the destruction went on, the less likely it seemed that we could possibly live through it.
Once there was a pause for several minutes and we cautiously crawled out of our sacred refuge and looked around. But then there was another blinding explosion and the front doors of the church blew off their hinges and straight into the sanctuary. Window glass shattered and flew across the room. We dove back under the altar just as the giant crucifix came loose from one of its wires and swung down crashing into the marble side. Another explosion, and the crucified body of Christ broke free of its wires, and fell down beside us, creating almost another wall of protection from the ravages of the outside, and he stayed there for the rest of the night.
On into the night, both in terror and in exhaustion, we heard bombs pounding and pounding, shaking the walls of the church when they grew near. Again and again, on and on, endlessly they exploded, as I hid trembling under a marble altar at the plaster feet of Jesus. Not knowing what to do, I shook, and crouched, and cried, and finally prayed. I prayed for a peace that I could never have prayed for before in a calm suburb of North America. I prayed for a peace that I would never have been able to understand until that night, a peace that might not change the world, but that might change me in the midst of it.
And eventually I found myself resting, almost calmly, even in the midst of the endless evil falling around us. In my weariness, I squirmed over to the crucifix and leaned against it. I rested my head in the curve of Jesus’ foot. I put my chin on a silver-gray plaster spike that was ringed by a trickle of plaster blood where it entered Jesus’ foot. And I slept.
I don’t know how long I slept, but it was a long, deep, and restful sleep. A sleep driven by a mixture of exhaustion and fear and now peace. I somehow felt, in a way that I still can’t explain, that whatever happened, it would all be okay. That life itself would prevail, even if my physical body did not.
Finally, sometime into the morning I was aroused. I looked up and saw sunlight shining in through the windows of the sanctuary. Sister Loretta and several others were busy cleaning up debris. The villagers across the town were returning to their homes and opening their shops, doing their best to show their government that they were still human beings and not animals and they were not afraid. They were saying that by returning to their homes they had found their peace. Perhaps so had I.
My friend Warick Frye was standing over me holding a broom and smiling grandly. “Hey, guy, wake up,” he said. “It’s morning. You’re alive. It’s Easter; the Mass is beginning soon. There’s work to do.”