Sisters leave El Salvador with hope, fear for future

Sisters of Humility Caridad Inda, left and Cathleen Real, right, pose with Tanya, a Salvadoran, during the Sisters’ visit to El Salvador last month. Tanya, a 17-year-old high school student, is part of a leadership program for girls learning their rights as women and expressing themselves through drumming and dance. She and other girls in the program performed for the Sisters and other visitors to El Salvador. Tanya lives in a rural village with her mother and five siblings and cousins. The only income the mother has is from selling fruit on weekends. She is often in debt because she has to borrow money to buy the fruit she sells. Tanya helps her mother sell the fruit.

(Editor’s note: Two members of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary in Davenport traveled to El Salvador recently to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the murders of four American churchwomen. Humility Sisters Caridad Inda and Cathleen Real share their reflections from their Nov. 29-Dec. 6 trip.)

Sr. Caridad IndaHow to encompass the reality of poverty, martyrdom, self-confidence, hope, danger, love? All of these were present in our recent delegation to El Salvador to honor a country’s attempt to survive in a hostile environment. By what design should one of the prophets of our time be born in El Salvador and raised to the pinnacle of the hierarchical Catholic Church in that country’s time of greatest need? Why did martyrs seed this little country with their blood in our day? What is the message, the sign of the times, being offered to us?

From a Church perspective, it is clear that the laity has had a prominent role in the development of the Salvadoran reality. The fearless and tireless work of women like Madre Guadalupe and the numberless women who continue to struggle to make it possible for their families to survive provides a framework for us to see and admire. It is also clear that the gifts of conversion, prophecy and martyrdom were lavished on the head of the Salvadoran Church, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and for three years illumined its path.

The mind and heart of the participants were touched and moved by the variety of experiences and the deafening reality of the needs of a people in danger of extinction should a court decision favor the demands of a foreign mining company. One looks with awe at the ultramodern shopping center in San Salvador and at the surrounding shacks. The area is so small that the contrast is utterly stark, no space for nuances.


Another world is indeed possible and we can see the seeds of it, beginnings, the ideals expressed: the Church of the Poor and the other Church; the heavy, complicated legislative structures and the humanizing rules and demands of the women’s cooperatives; the “nine-to-five” jobs and the drum corps of young dancers who are learning that they have rights; the attempts to hide the reality of a cruel war and the indomitable spirit to honor the memory of the dead; two worlds indeed! And the question to the visitor contains the hints of an answer: how are the Salvadorans being the future they desire?

Sr. Cathleen RealSister Caridad and I went on an incredible trip to El Salvador this fall. The country suffered a terror-filled civil war from 1989 to 1992 when a peace accord was signed between the military and the revolutionary soldiers. It was difficult to hear the stories of death squads, murders, torture and disappearances. Although the war ended 18 years ago, each family in the country still has wounds from having relatives and friends who were killed or disappeared. A Wall of Memory and Truth lists the names of more than 30,000 civilians who were killed or disappeared during the civil war.

The timing of our trip was to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the rape and murder of the four churchwomen, Ita, Maureen, Dorothy and Jean. The Dec. 2 anniversary Mass on the site where the bodies were found was very moving. Other martyrs during the civil war we remembered were Archbishop Oscar Romero and the six Jesuits and their housekeeper and her daughter. We stood on the site of the altar where Archbishop Romero was shot while saying Mass and saw the museum with items from the Jesuits and the two women on the University of Central America campus. It was a sobering experience.

For me the theme of the pilgrimage was hope. In a way, it’s amazing that life goes on after all the terror the people of El Salvador experienced. The focus was on Salvadoran women because of the repression they endure. And yet we heard from women recently elected to their village council, women legislators working on laws protecting women, women who’ve started a cattle cooperative, and high school students learning how to protect themselves from unwanted sexual advances and to give one another support. While my theme was hope, it is a hope for the future, not something already achieved. There is so much poverty and street crime that the future is still uncertain.

The hymn we sang recently at Mass, “O Christ, Be Our Light,” spoke to me about the country and its people. I left the country needing to hope, yet fearful for the future. The SHARE Foundation which organized the trip works to improve the lives of the people, to empower them so that they can take control of their own lives, their own country. The martyrs we commemorated lived with the people, shared their suffering. Their lives and sacrifices will be a beacon for the people as they struggle for food and shelter and for the peace that has eluded them these many years.

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