ON SEEING: A One Year Anniversary Reflection on my Journey to El Salvador


My classmates visiting a Christian Base Community in El Salvador.  Pictured from left to right: Liz Estes, Whit Hutchison, Katie Reimer, Shep Glennon, Heidi Thorsen Oxford, woman from Christian Base Community, Rashad McPherson, Rachael Hayes, Timothy Wotring.

I have tried to speak and write many times over the past year, recording my reflections from a journey I took to El Salvador with classmates from Union Theological Seminary, studying the life and legacy of the Catholic archbishop, Oscar Romero.  I have found it very difficult to articulate what I saw, heard and felt.  We were only there for ten days, but it felt like months, so intense were our experiences.

This month marks the one year anniversary of our journey.  I finally have found the motivation to write, following the Trump administration’s recent threat to revoke the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) of 200,000 Salvadoran immigrants in the United States.  These immigrants came here two decades ago following devastating earthquakes that hit the country.  I learned from people in El Salvador last year that those earthquakes ripped open much deeper traumas that had laid dormant from the Salvadoran Civil War of 1979-92.  

I attempt to write this reflection as a prayer, that it may soften the hearts of my fellow United States citizens, and help them to see what I saw.  I also write with the prayer that some of those who read it will consider donating to La Casa Verde (The Green House), a truly remarkable organization bringing healing to the country of El Salvador.  My classmates from Union are excited that a donor has offered to match donations received in January, 2018, up to $5,000.  https://www.generosity.com/education-fundraising/la-casa-verde-the-green-house


“Migration is a human issue.  We tend to politicize it.  It is not the pull of the American dream, but the nightmare of the Central American reality that drives migration.”
-Francisco Mena Ugarte, Executive Director, CRISPAZ

When we first arrived in El Salvador, we learned about the migration issue faced by Salvadorans today.  350-400 migrants leave El Salvador every day for the United States, fleeing poverty, hunger and gang violence.  Their decision is excruciating, because many migrants will disappear or face violence along their journey.  Many have the mindset of “if they’re going to kill me in El Salvador, they may as well kill me trying to get to the United States,” or “any truth is better than the anguish we have here.”  Tens of thousands have died violent deaths along the path to the United States, and tens of thousands have disappeared.  Many migrants come back in coffins.  One man we spoke with whose brother has been missing since 2001 said “migration won’t stop when people are facing hunger and poverty…if the US builds a 4 meter wall, the migrant will build a 5 meter ladder.

Later on the trip, we happened to be in Arcatao when a 37 year old migrant in New Jersey was returned in a coffin, and we were invited to the funeral, along with the rest of the town.  As we sat watching a slideshow of this migrant’s life, a little boy was sitting next to me on the ground.  He alternated between staring wide eyed at the pictures on the slideshow until tears filled his eyes and he buried his head in his lap, his whole body shaking as he sobbed.  Then he looked at me, our eyes locked for a long while, before he looked at the slideshow again, and the cycle continued.  This continued for 20-30 minutes.  No words were exchanged between us, but somehow I felt each time as he stared deeply into my soul that he was asking me “What are you going to do about this?”


There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” -Oscar Romero

We visited the Wall of Memory and Truth, erected in 2002-3, where 35,000 names of civilians who were killed or disappeared during the Salvadoran Civil War were etched into stone.  For many, this is the only grave they have for their loved ones, so the area is packed on the Day of the Dead.  There was a section dedicated exclusively to those killed in massacres.  This wall began to help us understand the extent of the trauma.  

We met with the Arcatao Historic Memory Committee, who are committed to telling the truth of what happened in the war.  They shared that it was difficult getting their stories out to mainstream news, who tell “the story that’s convenient.”  This committee makes space for all sides to share their memories of the war, not focusing on who is to blame, but rather on the larger social reality they are living in.  Every person who spoke with us survived at least one massacre at the hands of the government.  They showed us a map they had created, documenting where the massacres had occurred.  They said 85% of human rights violations were done by the army, 5% by FMLN, and 10% were undetermined, but the media only tells the stories of the 5% who were the victims of the guerillas.  No-one has been tried for war crimes in Salvadoran courts.  They said it was the blessing of international solidarity movements that has helped them rebuild their lives.


We are prophets of a future not our own.” -Oscar Romero

Among the 70,000 total lives lost during the Salvadoran Civil War were religious leaders who were killed by the army for standing with the people.  Jesuit Rutilio Grande was the first priest to be killed right before the war broke out, on Mar. 12, 1977.  His assassination troubled Archbishop Oscar Romero deeply, who had been a close friend of Grande.  Grande’s death caused Romero to start moving away from supporting the government to being critical of it.  Romero would be killed a few years later, while saying mass on Mar. 24, 1980, following an homily in which he told soldiers to refuse to carry out orders to massacre people.  Grande is currently up for canonization, and they say his miracle was in changing the heart of Oscar Romero, who has since been made a saint by the Catholic Church.

Then on Dec. 2, 1980, Salvadoran soldiers raped and killed 4 Maryknoll sisters from the United States, who had been providing international humanitarian aid to women and children.  On Nov. 16, 1989, the Salvadoran army killed 6 more Jesuit priests at their residence on the university campus of UCA.  

During our journey last year, we visited the actual places where all of these religious leaders had been murdered by the army.  The horror cut into me deeply, knowing that soldiers who had been trained in my own country at the School of the Americas, and funded by the US government, would murder not only tens of thousands of civilians, but also religious leaders.  


We had the honor of spending an evening with a woman who chooses to remain anonymous, who works closely with the LGBTQI population in El Salvador.  She works for a religious organization that does not affirm LGBTQI folks, but nonetheless allows her to provide care for them.  One of the most powerful things she said was “The most vulnerable population in El Salvador is trans women – they suffer a lot.  6 trans women I’ve worked with have been killed since 2015.  We have to ask ourselves, ‘what face of God are we going to show?’  Theology here is stuck.  It took a lot of strength with the martyrs, but there are new manifestations of God in our midst.”  She feels called to ministry, but faces difficulty getting into seminary because she is a woman.

We had the joy of visiting several Christian Base communities during our time in El Salvador.  One member shared her thoughts with us: “A church shouldn’t do community service/social work.  We can only be the incarnate God.  Did Jesus do social work?  When you accompany those who suffer, that’s the gospel – it’s not social work, which objectifies other people.  When I see Jesus walked in mountains and valleys, visiting those who suffered – his spirit was committed to others.  Jesus was so divine because he was too human.  That means each of us can become divine, too.

In another Christian Base Community, we met with around 100 kids and youth, and every single child was given a chance to speak briefly about what they had been learning.  Many of the younger children talked about learning about both Jesus and Oscar Romero, who both helped the poor.  The older youth talked about how they had explored who they were – where they fit into society, into the political world, what their emotions are, how the church developed throughout history, and what their dreams are for the future.  One youth said “now each of us has a responsibility.  Every young person should feel responsible for building community.  Jesus protected people who didn’t have protection – he came to give them salvation, which we understand means that they believe in themselves.  We have to teach others, so that they will also believe in themselves.

The deep wisdom among the children, youth and adults alike in these Christian Base Communities was truly astonishing.  I kept thinking that they were having conversations in these local Christian communities that had much to teach us in the United States, even those of us studying theology at Union Theological Seminary.


Some young activists have a saying that the worst part of the civil war is actually the afterward.  In other words, our present time.  I hope that makes sense.” – Marvin Guillén

Towards the end of our time in El Salvador, we met with several individuals and organizations using art and music to heal people in El Salvador and give them the tools to dream and envision a beautiful future for their country.  After struggling to face the realities of all the massacres and people killed in the war, we had an evening where a guitarist named Marvin Guillén came to play some of his original music for us.  Marvin was born in 1987, and helped us understand how the legacy of the war has made life difficult for young people.  From the very first note he played, I started to cry, as it felt I was hearing music for the first time.  I could feel how healing music was for Marvin, and for so many other people in El Salvador.  

The next day, we visited La Casa Verde, or The Green House, and met Norma Vaquero, who organizes activities every Saturday for kids in her neighborhood.  She said “the magic children have – they transmit it to you.”  She is an ecologist, and teaches kids the art of planting, recycling, and living sustainably with the earth.  The arts are also central to the activities they organize – I remember seeing an old tire which they had recycled and turned into a flower pot.  They cut designs into the tire and painted it, making you see how beautiful an old tire could be.  Most of the kids are living in a high risk area in terms of gang violence, and La Casa Verde is creating an alternative world for them.  Norma told us that many kids from this area migrate to the United States, some as young as ages 6 or 7, and they leave because of the violent situations in their neighborhood.  She said that through La Casa Verde, “we are trying to make this a good place to live.”  

As I mentioned at the beginning of this reflection, my classmates from Union have set up a fundraiser to help La Casa Verde raise the money they need to buy the house where these activities take place.  For the past 6 years, the owner of the house had donated the space, but now needs to sell the house.  We have already raised the amount needed for them to put a down deposit on the house, but now we are trying to raise more to help put a bigger dent in the $20,000 it would cost to buy the entire house.

The Executive Director of CRISPAZ, Francisco Mena Ugarte, shared with us on the first day There’s the saying ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ But it’s no longer that simple. Now you go to the river, and you see barbed wire around it.”  I keep thinking that people like Norma and La Casa Verde are changing that Central American reality that drives migration. Perhaps a new saying could be “Support a woman with her own dreams and visions about how to transform her neighborhood, and change the world.

A very generous donor has agreed to match any donations received in January, 2018, up to $5,000, and we hope this will give you incentive to give.  Here’s the link to give – https://www.generosity.com/education-fundraising/la-casa-verde-the-green-house

I close with this reflection on Advent by Oscar Romero, which helps remind me that the people I met in El Salvador are not just civilians from a distant country, but that our lives are intertwined and bound up with one another.  The trauma of the war still lives in the bodies both of those who stayed, and those who have immigrated to the United States.  As I have learned to see these people, and hear their sacred stories, I know that we need each other.  

“Advent should admonish us to discover in each brother or sister that we greet,
in each friend whose hand we shake, in each beggar who asks for bread, in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union, in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves, the face of Christ.

Then it would not be possible to rob them, To cheat them, To deny them their rights. 

They are Christ, And whatever is done to them, Christ will take as done to himself.

This is what Advent is: Christ living among us.”