The countries in that region in the 1980s were a radically different world from the one I had come from and even more so from the one I live in today. The United States was involved in a number of their wars and revolutions supporting the rebels in this one and the government in that one. Ironically, at the same time I was involved in my own internal wars over whether I would return to the church or stay away and become an economist in third world development. Looking back, I think the timing was gracious, and living in Central America was good for me.
One time, in the spring of 1988 I was in northern El Salvador, visiting villages in the war-torn, province of Chalatenango. I was traveling with a tall, red-haired, Australian lapsed Catholic, named Winston Burrows, who was a journalist. We were interviewing people in “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, but who were now trying to return home. Burrows was doing a photo essay and I was doing my research, but I think today that I was actually there searching for something deeper, something perhaps more spiritual, though I’m sure I didn’t know that at the time.
We came into Las Vueltas somewhat by accident. We had been working in another town some miles away when we learned that the army had mined the roads around it and we couldn’t go home the way we came in. If we wanted to leave, we’d have to hike over a mountain to get out. It wasn’t 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 if he went the whole way.
The mountain trail was cold and wet and windy, and we were not dressed nor in good shape for this type of journey. For two excruciating days we walked, first with our guide and then by ourselves, through nasty weather and difficult terrain, until we finally dropped down into what we thought would be the safety of the next town, which was Las Vueltas.
When we arrived, the people welcomed us like visiting dignitaries. The mayor and half his council came out to greet us. They told us that the government of El Salvador had just sold this “free” village and the land around it to an international agribusiness corporation to plant and export corn. The government never approved of the people coming back home from Honduras, and 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 threat for some time but they couldn’t really believe their government would actually do such a thing, so they voted to stay in their homes and stand their ground. And Burrows and I arrived in this place, weary and wet, the very day the final government deadline passed.
For lodging (and perhaps safety) we were escorted to the local Catholic Church where we were warmly received by a tall, 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 her words did make us feel 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. “It’s a special night.” 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 (Winston mumbled something unrecognizable and looked at his feet). “In a time like this,” she said, “it doesn’t matter. This is a time when the power of life rises over the power of death, and everyone needs that, no matter what their religion.” I wasn’t so sure about that, and I told her so. “But resurrection is a sign of God’s power to create peace,” she said, “and tomorrow we must pray for peace.” Winston, the atheist, and me the doubter—we both asked her why do that? Would it change what was going on in the country on the outside? She smiled a large crinkly smile. “No,” she said. “But it might change what is going on with you on the inside.”
Burrows 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 and off to the side 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 came another blinding explosion and the front doors of the church broke from their hinges and flew 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 its 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 dark, 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 in my previous life, a peace that might not change the world, but that might change me in the midst of the world.
Eventually I found myself resting, almost calmly, even in the center 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 coming from it 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 surprisingly 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 woke up. 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 Winston 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.”He was right. In fact I probably felt more alive that morning than I had ever felt in my life. I felt refreshed, renewed, and perhaps even slightly redeemed.