Morrisville resident Nina Church had long felt that the way our country meets people at our southern border doesn’t reflect our values.
So when Vermont’s Episcopal bishop announced that he was putting together a February study trip to learn about Christian responses on the ground in El Salvador, she decided to join. Sixteen Americans — including the bishop, Church, and four others from Vermont — made the trip.
The host organization was Cristosal, which works in three Central American countries to build environments where victims of terror and crime are supported and where peace is possible. Efforts such as theirs can make it less likely that desperate people will undertake the treacherous journey north.
During the visit, Church became aware of the indomitable and positive spirit that has buoyed El Salvadorans throughout their ordeals.
Heartfelt art of all types — grafitti, religious paintings, primitive rural scenes, and so on — were ever-present.
For example, Church was stunned by the use of art at the museum and burial place memorializing the six Jesuit priests, and two others, who were murdered by the Salvadoran military in 1989. On one side of its chapel were colorful folk images by Salvadoran Fernando Llort; directly across from them were large, somber drawings of people under torture called “Stations of the Cross.”
The national traumas went far beyond the Jesuit murders, and that of the noted Archbishop (now Catholic saint) Oscar Romero; in fact, the Salvadoran Army committed a wide number of massacres, killing thousands. The purpose of these was to sow terror in rural areas where civilians were thought to support the opposition during the civil war of 1979-1992.
A time for healing
Cristosal has been helping the survivors heal — first by finding the courage to speak of their experiences, and then by seeking justice in the nation’s courts.
Church says she was deeply marked by witnessing Cristosal’s faith-based efforts. It achieves its goals “not by dumping in money, but rather by changing the culture.”
She explains that deep-rooted change is needed more than ever, as El Salvador is now beset by extreme gang violence. The causes of this are complex, but the resulting organized murder and extortion mean that average Salvadorans live their lives in well-founded fear. To seek safety, many of them undertake the long and dangerous journey to the United States.
Church learned how Cristosal attempts to stem the tide of this forced migration. It pushes the government to create policies that support those being driven from their homes. It works to create safe communities and, when necessary, it helps victims find new dwellings and livelihoods within El Salvador.
Cristosal also runs programs to achieve reconciliation among gang members themselves and provide them with opportunities to change their lives.
Church, who is a member of St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Hardwick, traveled into the countryside with the others, and visited a small Episcopal church and its attached preschool. While there, Cristostal staffers offered to advise some local women on how to set up a successful small business in the form of a thrift shop, this being one of the ways that they support local communities.
The group spent the last day visiting one of the El Salvador’s beauty spots, a colonial town known for crafts, and enjoying a boat tour on a nearby lake. Since her return, Church has visited three classes at Peoples Academy to share the insights she gathered on her trip.