Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Soul Journal: In San Salvador

Whenever we travel to El Salvador, we spend at least half a day in the capitol city, San Salvador. Here are a few of the images that come to my mind when I think of San Salvador: There are lots of buses that leave diesel fumes behind; any bank, store, or gas station with large amounts of cash have armed guards dallying in front of the building; stop lights are places of small entrepreneurship- people insisting on washing your windows, selling any number of items, looking slightly desperate; and somehow the familiar places- like McDonald's- seem offensively out of place (but maybe that's just me wanting a true 'other world' experience.)

However, there are some powerful and beautiful sides to San Salvador as well. I have stayed at three different guest houses- 'Los Pinos' being the latest- and they all offer wonderful hospitality. It's not like a Ramada Inn. There may be 3 or 4 single beds in a room and the lone television is in the lobby. But, the best thing these places offer- to me- are the outdoor sitting areas. They are enclosed by high walls covered with either barbed wire or broken glass- like every house in San Salvador- but these small yards are filled with beautiful vegetation, hammocks and rocking chairs, and cooing birds. Especially when we go to El Salvador in February and one morning we slog through old snow to get to the Des Moines airport; it is nothing short of heaven to sit on a rocking chair the next morning sipping coffee and being able to sit outside without freezing one's tush off!

Okay, that's the indulgence part of San Salvador. Here is a more meaningful part. We visit the University of Central America (hereafter UCA), a Jesuit university where six Jesuit professors, along with a housekeeper and her daughter, were brutally murdered by the Salvadoran military during the war. Under the cover of darkness, soldiers shot each of the professors and, because they were intellectuals, left their brains exposed as a warning to others. The bodies were found the next morning in a place that the housekeeper's husband later turned into a rose garden. I often think of that labor of love, how ever push of the shovel must have been accompanied by the tears of a grieving husband and father.
Inside, there is a museum that has displays about each of the professors. Ignacio Ellacuria was rector of the University, an outspoken critic of the Army, and a very good theologian who articulated what is popularly called "Liberation Theology." Ignacio Martin-Baro studied the effects of war on the human psyche and was an amazing guitarist. Segundo Montes was a strong advocate for refugees and human rights. Amano Lopez was a gifted counselor and pastoral worker. Joaquin Lopez y Lopez was the director of an education program in poor communities. Juan Ramon Moreno was a gifted preacher and retreat leader. Elba Ramos was the Jesuits’ housekeeper, remembered as sensitive and intuitive. Celina Ramos was Elba’s 14-year-old daughter who had worked as a catechist.

The museum personalizes each of these martyrs by showing some of their belongings as well as the clothing that they were wearing at the time of the massacre. Father Martin-Baro, for example, was a musician, whose type-written lyrics to "Yesterday" by the Beatles strikes me as a longing for a simpler time that he would never see. The museum also has has information about other martyrs in El Salvador, from the famous cases of the four churchwomen who were raped and murdered to the obscure, nameless folks who were shot trying to swim across a river to safety.

Also at the UCA is the Romero Chapel, which I mentioned in a previous post as having graphic charcoal paintings on the wall of torture victims. There is also this powerful oil painting that has so much symbolism in it. The dog, the pointing rich man, the death-soldier, the wealthy pious woman, all are fairly familiar symbols in paintings about the war and its victims. Jesus is depicted as a torture victim, with a blindfold and wire around his thumbs. The six Jesuits are there, along with Elba and Celina Ramos, rising in solidarity with Christ out of the fire that emerges from the Salvadoran volcano. Think of this painting whenever you read Romans 6:5, "If we have been united with Christ in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his."
(I can't help but wonder if the pointing man in this picture is a satire of the famous crucifixion painting Matthias Grunewald, where John the Baptist is pointing to the crucified Christ while holding an open Bible. If there are any art-savvy people out there, I'd love to hear your reply to this possibility.)


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