by Scott Wright and Jean Stokan
Today marks the 35th anniversary of the martyrdom of four U.S. church women who were assassinated in El Salvador on December 2, 1980. Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan: two Maryknoll sisters, one Ursuline nun, and a young lay person.
Today, 35 years later, we live in a very different world, where the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor are joined together. Nearly 200 nations are gathered in Paris to address the urgent concerns of global warming and climate justice. What they decide there will determine in no small measure the future of the planet. Global warming is creating extreme weather events, severe droughts and flooding, rising sea levels and melting glaciers, and disrupting access to food and water for millions of people, and creating extreme violence in Sudan and Syria.
Today, 35 years later, 12 million Syrians – half the population of their country – are displaced from their homes, and four million are fleeing to distant lands and as far as Europe, seeking refuge. They risk their lives on sea and on land, and have been greeted with both generosity and with hatred. The same fears and threats hurled at European Jewish refugees seeking to escape Nazi extermination 75 years ago is being hurled at Syrian Muslim refugees today, in both Europe and the United States.
The challenges we face today are different from the challenges we faced 35 years ago when the four church women died. They call for new perspectives and new structures, new vision and new social movements to adequately respond to the need for justice for present and future generations.
Still, the witness of the four church women continues to speak to us today. For you who remember them, and remember that day, it has been a long journey, walking with the poor of Central America and Mexico on new paths yet to be forged. The passage from John’s Gospel comes to mind: “Unless a seed fall to earth and die, it will bear no fruit; but if it die, how great the fruit!”
Throughout these years, you have kept the memory of the martyrs alive, and have asked: What do they require of us today? We think especially of Archbishop Oscar Romero, martyred on March 24, 1980, and the Jesuit martyrs of the UCA, along with Celina and Elba, martyred on November 16, 1989. We think of Rufina Amaya, the sole survivor of the El Mozote massacre that killed a thousand people, and of Maria Julia Hernandez, who refused to let the world forget what happened there. We remember so many who generously gave of their lives during twelve years of war in El Salvador, and in the years after.
Each year, for the past 25 years, you have been at the gates of the School of the Americas on the weekend of November 16 at Ft. Benning, Georgia, remembering the names of the martyrs and dignifying the victims by your prophetic witness and presence, speaking truth to power. Each year, for the past 35 years, you have remembered the words of Archbishop Romero calling on the military, his and ours, to obey their consciences and the law of God not to kill rather than to continue the daily slaughter against their own people and people in distant lands.
But today, December 2, we remember in a special way the four church women, and ask, “What would they be doing today, if they were living in our times?” And what ought we to be doing?
What insights do their courage give us into how we ought to respond today to a myriad of challenges: The war in Syria; the torture of prisoners in Guantanamo; the migrants dying on the migrant trail and in the Arizona desert; the growing divide between rich and poor; global warming and climate catastrophes; the violence and racism in our inner-cities and prisons.
It has been 35 years since the four church women were killed. Then they served the poorest of the poor, families and children displaced by death squad and military violence, refugees fleeing the countryside to refugee camps set up by Archbishop Romero in the churches and seminaries of his archdiocese.
We don’t have to look far to know how they might respond today. Because they chose to live in the midst of war and cry out for an end to violence; they saw the victims of torture and cried out for an end to torture; they offered food, shelter and medicines to the families displaced by the war and offered refuge, risking their own lives; they took sides with the poor and cried out for justice.
In a word, in life and in death, they shared the same fate as the poor. They were prophets of a future not their own. They were seeds that fell to earth and died.
To What Do They Call Us Today?
Today, if they were living, we are certain that they would be found advocating on behalf of the Syrian refugees and opening our borders to these victims of wars we have waged more than a decade now in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
They would be there with the young people of El Salvador and Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, fleeing the gang violence in their neighborhoods – a violence that is fast approaching the levels of violence not seen since the years of the war in El Salvador, almost a thousand people a month. They would be at the U.S-Mexico border offering hospitality to those unaccompanied minors and mothers risking their lives only to be detained and deported, or often to die in the Arizona desert. They would be protesting in front of immigration detention centers and calling for a more just and humane immigration policy, welcoming the stranger in our midst. And they would be in the streets questioning the violence of pouring more dollars and more weapons to build up our military and wage more wars, just as we did in El Salvador 35 years ago.
They would be at the U.S. Army School of the Americas, calling for an end to the practice of training armies in Latin America who torture, and disappear and kill their own people – the very same School that trained the Salvadoran military responsible for their own deaths. They would be in the streets calling for an end to war – wars based on lies and deception, like the war in Iraq – and to the abominable practice of torture by our own government in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and in prisons closer to home where tens of thousands languish months and sometimes years in solitary confinement.
Why do we say this? Can we be sure? How do we know they would be there, doing these things?
We can be certain they would be there, simply, because you are there. Your names and your witness inspire those who know you, those with whom you work so faithfully each day. Many may not know about your lives, as you go about your daily work in quiet but faithful ways, just as the four Church Women did. But we know, and remember, and are thankful to you, dear friends. You keep the embers burning, and the spirit that works through you blows on them to keep the fire alive, warm and bright.
And you are the ones, by your lives and your witness for justice and for peace, who keep alive the memory of the martyrs. You continue to work in El Salvador, as you did 35 years ago, building up base communities and holding political parties and economic interests accountable for the violence of poverty and exclusion. You remember the martyrs, and you remember the crucified peoples, and never let us forget our responsibility to challenge a world that institutionalizes violence and greed.
Some of you have gone from places like El Salvador and Central America to distant lands like South Sudan and Colombia, the Middle East and Honduras, to borderlands like Ciudad Juarez and Nogales, and to no-man’s lands like the south side of Chicago and West Baltimore, where black lives do not matter, but black lives should matter.
We offer you a word of thanks, for your faithfulness, for your witness, and for your friendship.
Today our hearts go out to the peoples of El Salvador and Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, as they struggle with basic issues of survival and rebuilding of their lives after so many disasters: hurricanes and earthquakes, but also violence and poverty. We pray for an outpouring of compassion and solidarity, that we may continue to address in systemic ways the underlying human failings – structural poverty, racism, violation of human rights, destruction of the environment – that these and other natural and human disasters unmask with such brutal clarity.
We remember these years with a mixture of emotions – sadness as well as gratitude – but mostly gratitude. We think of Archbishop Romero’s words about the resilience of the poor, when he spoke about the capacity of the Salvadoran people to overcome suffering – and bear witness to hope. Let us continue to encourage a spirit of solidarity with the victims of natural and human disasters – wherever they occur – and help create conditions of dignity and hope for the future.
May the witness of the four church women and the love they have sown over 35 years be like a scattering of seeds, bearing fruit along the way as we continue the journey together. We ask as well for your prayers, for our 17-year-old daughter to whom we gave the name “Maura,” – to remember in a special way the witness of Maura and the other church women and the Salvadoran people they served – and for all of our families and children.
In that spirit, we want to thank you again for your faithfulness over the years. We honor and celebrate the solidarity of these 35 years by ending on a note of hope. Like that seed that falls to earth and dies, may we also become a scattering of seeds. May each of our humble attempts to bring a greater measure of justice and peace into this world, to speak truth to power and raise up the oppressed, be like the seed that falls to earth and dies – in order to bear fruit!
Scott Wright is the Director of the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach. Jean Stokan is the Director of the Institute Justice Team of the Sisters of Mercy.