For twenty-two years I have been part of a local group engaged in a sister relationship with five impoverished settlements in the mountains of eastern El Salvador. The five settlements are called Calavera. Our local group is called Friends of Calavera. During the twelve-year civil war (1980-1992), this mountain area was in a war zone.
Beginning in 1992, our group has sent delegations each year to visit these settlements. We are welcomed by the people, they share their homes and tortillas with us, and we listen to their stories. Stories of incredible suffering and courage in a centuries-old struggle for justice. Stories that remind me of the long struggle for civil rights in the United States, where the people refused to give in to official lies and brutality. Stories that announce, “Si se puede” (“Yes we can”). Stories of hope in the face of unjust power. A Jesuit who taught at the University of Central America told me once, “El Salvador exports more hope than coffee.”
The Christian Base Communities
On October 16th a visitor from El Salvador gave a presentation at the Friends Meeting House in Urbana that told about today’s Salvadoran reality. And about a small organization’s work in the face of that reality.
The visitor was José Gomez, a coordinator of many community projects for CEBES, the Christian Base Communities in El Salvador. He has been our guide to our sister communities for the past dozen years. On a five-week tour that began in late September, José has been visiting the several dozen sister communities across the United States that are associated with CEBES. Accompanying him to coordinate the trip and translate for him was Laurel Marshall, who has been a North American volunteer at CEBES for the past three years.
For centuries there has been a restless agitation for justice in poor communities throughout Latin American. Midway through the past century they began to organize and act to dismantle official systems of oppression. Many of these efforts were rooted in a faith that God sides with the poor and the powerless. That vision of a God who accompanies them in their struggle for a better life is called liberation theology. Some Churches joined in their struggle with a policy called the fundamental option for the poor.
The Christian Base Communities developed from these restless roots. Despite only wanting a democratic voice, access to land, education, health care, and other basic services, those engaged in the struggle were labeled “communists.” Nonetheless, the communities continued to organize and demand access to their basic human rights.
José gave a summary of the people’s long struggle for justice in El Salvador, beginning with the mid-1970’s. By the early 1980’s hundreds of thousands of members of popular organizations filled the city streets, calling for official reforms, particularly land reform. The government’s response was brutal.
In the twelve years of the government’s war against the people (1980-1992), over 75,000 civilians were killed by death squads and military action. Refugees scattered throughout Central America and to the United States. During this period, the U.S. gave over five billion dollars in military aid to the Salvadoran government’s war against their people.
A U.N.-brokered peace accord was initiated in 1992. In the wake of peace, the Christian Base Community in El Salvador formed a central office, called CEBES, to act as a network of all the Christian communities throughout the country. In spite of its name, these communities are not officially Christian, inviting people of all faiths committed to serve the excluded.
CEBES is not only focused on pastoral accompaniment and opposing the root causes of poverty and injustice. It also recognizes and responds when the basic needs of the poor are not being met. José gave a current example of this when he told about a serious drought that occurred in the whole region of Calavera early this summer. As a result, the campesinos have completely lost their crop of corn and beans. This situation can mean starvation because they depend on those crops to feed their families. CEBES has given them the seeds to plant for their next crop which should be ready by the end of next month, and is now providing them with the food they need till the harvest.
In solidarity with the poor, CEBES searches for self-reliant solutions for their basic needs. Project ideas come from the desires of the communities themselves through their elected leaders. I have observed that Salvadorans have a knack for organization. Their ability to organize collective efforts probably came out of the war years when their survival demanded that they work together.
Fighting Against Poverty and for Social Justice
Though the war ended in 1992, most of the Salvadoran people have not risen from poverty. For the poor there are few job opportunities besides the maquiladoras (sweatshops), which at 12 to 14 hour days seven days a week, do not pay enough to provide for their families.
The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) has had devastating effects on the poor because some basic public services are left to unpredictable shifts in market prices, and can become financially unfeasible. One Central American leader has called CAFTA, “a weapon of mass destruction.” CEBES does not oppose trade, but can only agree to fair-trade practices that will lift the poor out of poverty.
CEBES has a number of projects in the five settlements that the Friends of Calavera have been able to participate in. We have financially supported a nutrition program supervised by a physician that has provided nutritional meals, anti-parasitical drugs and vitamins to children and the elderly suffering from malnutrition in our sister communities. CEBES has used our donations to repair the roofs of some homes, part of a Habitat-type of program. We have provided funding for CEBES’ efforts to revive their schools that had been wiped out during the war. We have been offering financial support for their scholarship program, which helps students to go to high school in a nearby town. CEBES has been a key partner in programs that has helped the people rebuild their settlements destroyed by the war.
CEBES has been providing innovative programs like solar panels and rainwater collection tanks. We’ve seen these at the schools. CEBES’ programs are helping improve methods for raising chickens, goats and rabbits. The organization has been providing micro credit loans to poor farmers and artisan crafters. CEBES has been advocating alongside communities through protests, marches, and meetings for basic services and rights.
José encouraged his listeners to consider participating in their sister relationship program with Salvadoran communities. I know that this has helped our mountain settlements, and that it has also provided rich blessings to our delegations. I enthusiastically endorse the work of CEBES.
There is a very old bench that the Urbana Friends Meeting House acquired from another Friends House in western New York State. It was used in the Quaker House when Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist, worshipped there about one hundred and fifty years ago. He was a great liberation theologian whose life and work was dedicated to freeing slaves. In his dedication to the struggle for justice, José deserves a place on that bench alongside Frederick. There’s room for us to join them.
Tom Royer is a resident of Urbana who was the Pastor of St. Mary Church (1973-2011). He is a member of local group, “Friends of Calavera,” that has had a sister relationship with five settlements in the mountains of El Salvador for twenty-five years.