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In El Salvador, Answering St. Francis’ Call to ‘Rebuild My House’

Workers from the Raleigh and Durham Habitat group pray at the tomb of St. Oscar Romero. (Photo courtesy of John Budway)

A group of 10 people from two Franciscan parishes in North Carolina recently traveled to Central America to spend a week at its smallest and most densely populated country, participating in a Habitat for Humanity build project. Upon his return, Steven Patti, OFM,  who served as the spiritual leader, reflected on the experience, describing it as”profound” and “the best of what travel does.”

Late in the evening of Sunday, June 2, I arrived back in Raleigh after a week-long Habitat for Humanity trip to El Salvador – an experience that I will never forget. It was my first Habitat trip, and it felt Franciscan in the sense of the call that St. Francis of Assisi heard to “rebuild my house which as you see is falling into ruin.” There’s nothing like being around dusty cinderblocks and mortar, and wielding pickaxes and shovels for a week to remind one of the physical nature of construction. Habitat’s vision is that “affordable housing plays a critical role in strong and stable communities.”

Our group of pilgrims from the Province’s parishes in Raleigh and Durham stayed in a hotel in the capital, San Salvador. Each morning, we left at 7 a.m. for a more than one-hour van ride into the Salvadoran countryside to our build site in a rural area called Guazapa. We worked most days until around 3:45 p.m. and then packed up our stuff and went back.

Workers constructing a new home near San Salvador. (Photo courtesy of John Budway)

When we arrived at the work site, we were assigned different tasks, which could include digging around the cinder block houses for an eventual sidewalk; climbing up onto the very low-tech scaffolding — made up of found tree branches and wooden planks — and adding mortar to the spaces between the blocks; or scraping the cinder blocks with a small block to remove as much dust as we could. Sometimes we were also assigned to mix the mortar.

It was hard work. We had to be aware of safety all the time, because of planks with exposed nails, and with some people working up high on scaffolding and others below. Thankfully, there were no injuries other than a few scratches. From the high scaffolding, above the highest cinder block, you could see above the trees to some mountains off in the distance. The heat was intense and we had to stop often for water and shade.

Difficult Work, Memorable Days
We had a nearby tent that provided some shade from the 80-degree temperatures and high humidity. We had lunch brought in around noon. We worked with the father of the family who will be moving into these two houses, built close to each other). He seemed patient with this motley group of volunteers. As we slowly learned what we were doing, he looked on, smiled, spoke a few words in Spanish, and generally got things done far faster than we did.

The place where we worked was along a dirt road, with fields of corn and beans, and occasionally an ox-driven cart would go by, or someone leading a horse, or some cows, and occasionally someone with an ice cream cart, with the familiar jingle. The families that will eventually move into these houses lived down another dirt road, with chickens and roosters and dogs They are currently all sharing a house that is not much bigger than a large shed. It had an outhouse out back, laundry stretched out on lines, and big sacks of cement mix piled high in a tight corner of the house.

Steve Patti working on the house. (Photo courtesy of John Budway)

Our last day was Saturday morning and we ended early with a shared lunch with the family. Earlier they invited us into their home down the dirt road for pupusas, which is a Salvadoran specialty. It was the day of the inauguration of the new president there, and I asked what they hoped for from him. Someone told me that he promised “new ideas” but did not specify what those ideas were. El Salvador remains a country with a huge divide between the “have’s” and the “have-not’s.”

Though every aspect of the experience was interesting and unusual, two days were especially memorable. On early Thursday morning, at 3:03 local time, we experienced an earthquake — 6.8 on the Richter scale. It woke everyone up — in the dark, all of a sudden, a loud shaking. Everything in the room shook and rattled, getting louder, and it lasted about 20 to 30 seconds. A few things were knocked off shelves, but no one was hurt. Habitat canceled the build that day out of caution.

Learning about History
On Wednesday, we worked a half day, and the rest of the day, we visited some sites associated with the newly canonized St. Oscar Romero. He was archbishop of San Salvador from 1977 to 1980, in the days when there was growing violence between the government and the people in the countryside. He was considered quite mild when he was appointed the bishop of San Salvador in 1977, but as more and more people were murdered, or “disappeared,” he began to speak out against the violence and repression. Eventually, he became a target himself and was assassinated at the altar on March 24, 1980.

Steve Patti blesses the new house. (Photo courtesy of John Budway)

We went to the Romero Center which is where five Jesuits were murdered in 1989, during the civil war, and we also visited the church where Romero was shot. We also visited the cathedral in San Salvador where we saw his tomb.

El Salvador is a scarred country. Its civil war, a brutal campaign against the people, lasted from around 1981 to 1992, killing 75,000 people. In the fields, in the countryside where we were, reading the Gospel was considered to be subversive and people could be sought out and murdered just for that. The term “disappeared” was used to describe someone who was taken away and never seen again.

Absorbing Culture
It was within this context that Oscar Romero gradually began to speak out again the violence and repression. The government and the military thought they had a benign bishop, but St. Oscar, as he began to see what was happening to the people, could not help but speak out, and he refused to separate the words of the Gospel from the politics of the time. He famously said, “if you kill me, I will live on in the Salvadoran people,” and it is clear that his memory is held, even today, with his image in the urban and rural landscape throughout the country.

We went to Mass our first Sunday at El Rosario Church near the cathedral, and around the doorway, you can see bullet holes from where the church was shot at during the war.

As I become re-acclimated to things at home in North Carolina, I realize that this was a trip that will stay with me for some time — the work of building a house together, the picture of how people live in simple cinder and tin homes, the billboards in San Salvador advertising a new 2019 Honda Civic, the images of violence and terror from the war, and the strong voice of the modern prophet/martyr Romero who spoke with courage for the people in the language of the Gospel all leave an impact. I also remember the hospitality of the people, the local “Boston Ice Cream” shop down the street from the hotel, buying a chocolate milkshake there, saying to them “Soy de Boston!” (“I’m from Boston!”) and their smiling in response, walking out the door by the young guard/soldier who carried some kind of automatic weapon as protection against gangs (we saw none). Getting updates on the Bruins-Blues Stanley Cup playoffs series from those with their phones was memorable, too.

It was the best of what travel does — opening up the world, providing an encounter with others, and entering into that world if only for a little while, seeing how the human experience is a mixture of darkness and light, and how the light can shine through even when everything seems dark. Six-year-old Abigail, the granddaughter of the mason who was on site with us, shyly smiling as she had to wonder who these 10 Americans were, and as we asked her how she liked school. Flor and Carla — two young Salvadoran women who worked for Habitat and accompanied us to our work site and patiently answered our questions.

One of the new homes being built by Habitat for Humanity volunteers from Raleigh and Durham, N.C. (Photo courtesy of John Budway)

This was actually a small experience — just a few days on a work site, no great issues solved — but the world becomes smaller and better after experiences like this. We had Mass in our hotel on Saturday night, the Gospel of Jesus crying out to his Father that “they be one,” and, after our week, our own sense that there cannot be “those people” who live in Central America, but for us, it’s “these people” that we met – especially Porfirio who worked on site with us, his family down the dirt road, the shy smile of young Abigail as she worked on her letters, with her mother helping her turn the pages.

I also think about the image of Oscar Romero, the shadow of death hovering over him during the last few months of his life, calmly and courageously walking among his people and assuring them that nothing will separate them from the love of Christ, and even though his life was taken from him, he is there still, a Christ-figure for our time: death leads to resurrection, life is more powerful than death, the witness to the gospel overcomes, in the end, everything. It was a profound trip.

 —  Fr. Steve has served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Raleigh since 2014.  The Massachusetts native professed his first vows as a friar in 1996. Before joining the Order, he served as part of the Province’ s Franciscan Volunteer Ministry.  The El Salvador trip was organized by John Budway, a member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, who is a Habitat Global Village team leader.  Habitat for Humanity works inlocal communities across 50 states and in approximately 70 countries.  

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