This is the second of two descriptions by Octavio Duran, OFM, about his trip to El Salvador in June with members of The Resurrection Parish of Ellicott City, Md.
In Part II of my mission trip to El Salvador, I write about the practical aspects of the mission, the frustrations and the needs of the people we visited. Although we were there to provide medical assistance to the people of the Queen of Peace Church in San Bartolo, El Salvador, we were spiritually healed and transformed by the suffering of others.
As our mission in El Salvador continued, it was time to show the new members some of the historical places so they could have a better understanding of the current political situation of the country.
On June 11, I was in charge of taking the group to Divine Providence Hospital, the place where Archbishop Romero lived the last three years of his life (1977-1980). As we walked through the small apartment of the archbishop, which now is a museum, one can see his books and the typewriter where he spent hours drafting homilies. The small apartment also displays the many photographs that I took while traveling with him during his pastoral visits. It is interesting how well preserved the clerical shirt is, which he wore the day he was killed 27 years ago. That was the first lesson of Salvadoran history for many of the younger members who were not even born when the archbishop was killed. This was a real awakening for anyone who had never seen the reality of a third world country.
A few steps from the museum is the hospital’s chapel where I sat many times waiting to see the archbishop while a student at the diocesan seminary in El Salvador.
Visiting the University
From there, we went to visit the Catholic University where Andrew Kirschman, SJ, a Jesuit priest from St. Louis, and a professor of sociology at the university, gave us complete analysis of why people leave El Salvador to better their lives. The university is the place where the army killed the six Jesuits, their cook and her daughter. Now, a beautiful rose garden is on the grounds where they were shot Nov. 16, 1989. The rose garden appears in the picture at right, directly behind the students on the lawn.
Our final stop was the cathedral. It served as a sanctuary for many people who ran away from the violence in the rural areas during the 12 years of civil war in El Salvador. We also spent time at the tomb of the archbishop, located in the cathedral’s lower church. As I walked through these places, I was haunted by the memories of the past. Some of them were good, some of them were sad, but they shaped my life and made me who I am today.
After our tour, we went back to the clinic and joined the activities in progress, until it was time to get back to our guesthouse.
My evening reflection on that day was short because some members were uncomfortable sharing in public the experience of that day. This changed as the days went by. As experiences intensified, more people interacted.
Hearing the Doctors’ Frustrations
On Tuesday, we returned to the clinic. We divided into small groups and set out to other communities that did not have easy access to the clinic. One group visited the parochial school where toothpaste and toothbrushes were given to all the students. Our dentist, Dr. Baronas, was eager to talk to the kids about the importance of good dental hygiene.
That night, during our spiritual reflection, some of the doctors spoke about their frustrations in seeing only patients with minor health problems. After all, they are not there to follow up cases, which require a specialist.
The frustrations did not mean they were not glad to be there, but that they wanted to do more.
Some members hesitated to see the spiritual dimensions of these reflections. It was up to me to find a way for them to see how God was being manifested in the work they were doing. I reminded the group that, in many circumstances, just being present was important for the people. The ministry of presence should not be underestimated.
Every day of this mission had something inspiring. I remember the day when some of us spent time with mentally-challenged young adults, who proudly showed us products they made and they shared their stories with us. Some participated in Special Olympics.
There were so many experiences that touched my life and the lives of the other participants. One in particular was that of Sonia who came to see a nurse. I was her translator that day. As the examination went on, the nurse told me that most of her symptoms were not physical and she asked me to see if I could spend time talking more about her life.
As it turned out, she was a single mother of three, unable to pay her $60 house mortgage. She had been unable to pay for the house for at least six or seven months and she had been given one week to either pay or move out. She had no place to go, and couldn’t read or write. I put myself in her shoes and knew that her options were very limited. Then I realized that God wanted me to be there for a reason. With the help of the nurse and another delegation member, and the money for the reimbursement of my airplane ticket, we are making payments on her mortgage. We hope that eventually she can get up to date with the payments.
Meanwhile, she will continue selling her cosmetics on the streets of the city of Ilopango and caring for her three girls. “On a good day, I can sell up to seven or eight dollars, but on a bad day I go home with only two or three dollars.” Sonia said. She is one of the thousands of single mothers whose only hope is that by educating their children they will have a better future.
At the end of the mission, we spent a day reflecting on how we might serve the people better next year.
I returned home blessed by all these experiences. From time to time, before I have dinner, I wonder if Sonia was able to feed her family for that day. I would like to encourage other friars to participate in a similar experience to enrich their lives.
Please keep Sonia and all single mothers and children in your prayers.
— Br. Octavio works in the Province’s Office of Communications.