Friday, July 14, 2017

My faith is from Central America

A few nights ago I watched the movie "Salvador" from Oliver Stone.  It's well-shot and entertaining, and I forgive it its broad use of artistic license to juke around the events as they really happened.  More specifically, I will inform my readers that the Salvadoran Civil War did not in fact center on a single US reporter who was heavy into drug use and prostitutes and spoke very rickety Spanish.

Beyond the cinematic merit of the movie, it reminded me how central the war in El Salvador has been to my personal formation.  Ever since learning about it in a Bible study class that my friend's mother organized for us when we were teenagers, the Salvadoran conflict, and more specifically the role of Archbishop Romero and the Catholic Church, shaped what I wanted to do in my professional life, how I saw the world, and how I live my faith to this day.

I don't know if I had long-term professional plans at aage 15.  I'm sure that whatever I was thinking might well have involved travel, the Third World, helping others.  But learning about El Salvador, about a conflict so clearly rooted in inequality and unfairness, left me dreaming of working on the side of the people and taking a dramatic stand against the greedy and the oppressors.

This framing of the world between oppressors and victims--I guess I'd thought about it before with regards to the gentrification that was going on in my neighborhood and many others in Chicago, but in that case my reading of the situation didn't find much outside support or reaffirmation among the 1990s intellectual climate of neoliberalism that defined my generation.  Learning about Romero gave me a real, vindicated example of a place where underdevelopment was clearly intentional and malicious, not just a temporary state for the unfortunate nations that hadn't yet partaken of the post-Cold War, End-of-History banquet of prosperity that would surely bless us all with its bounty in just a matter of time.  I've since seen many more nuanced, subtle manifestations of this, of very clear human intent perpetuating suffering and underdevelopment.  And I have also seen plenty of cases where there isn't a single clear bad guy, but where instead underdevelopment is the unfortunate result of lots of impersonal factors, or ill-guided but not ill-intended decisions.

But the Salvadoran conflict was a good first primer for me, for it presented a clear, black-and-white case study that was easy for my adolescent mind to understand.  When we are learning about the myriad realities and diversities and facts of the world, and especially as teens, when we are trying to categorize and make sense of things that are usually not easily categorizable, an all-or-nothing case like the Salvadoran war is a first introduction such that we may gradually begin to understand other cases that do or don't bear elements of what happened in El Salvador.  Later in my life Colombia taught me many more lessons along these lines, but it is a much larger, sprawling, more complex situation.  El Salvador was small and neat and clear-cut enough for a first primer.

Studying the Salvadoran Civil War as a teen didn't only influence my future professional plans, but also, and especially, my faith.  Seeing the movie of Romero when I was 15 or 16 showed me a true Catholicism that sided with the poor and the marginalized, the Catholicism I'd assumed as a young child that everyone believed in, since Christ is pretty clear on that point, and my parents seemed to stress the option for the poor (without callling it that) and the solidarity of Christianity.  In fact, as a kid I was always a bit puzzled when I'd hear in Sunday school (and even in my public Kindergarten)  that we were supposed to share and not be attached to material things, and then at the same time I heard a chorus of voices from my Cold War surroundings decrying the Communists for...making everyone share stuff and not be rich or greedy.

Anyway, by adolescence I'd seen that most Catholics weren't too moved by the idea of radical solidarity, of siding with the poor in their struggles, and I felt alone in clinging to a progressive vision of the Faith.  Alone, that is, with my enlightened family and a few close Catholic Leftist friends, that is.  Only much later I'd realize that Chicago white ethnic inner-city Catholicism in general, even beyond my close friends and family, is in fact tinged much more by these progressive tendencies than the religiosity of many other parts of the country.  At the time though, seeing Romero showed me that others in the Church had thought that way, so it validated my vision, strengthened my conviction, and codified it.  I don't think I picked up the term "liberation theology" at that point, but I had become a believer in its fundamental tenets of recognizing Christ in each person, and working for worldly justice as a way to bring closer the Kingdom of God.  Later on, in college, I had liberation theology named for me, and I was inspired by the writings of Aristide on similar struggles in Haiti.  But it was El  Salvador that had initially lit the spark for me.

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In the past two or three years I've been exposed to a number of resources about the Church and labor history in Honduras, which is funny, since Honduras has notoriously been a US pawn for most of its history and, unique among its neighbors, never had an armed uprising (or a gory civil war).  I would highly recommend any of the things I'm about to cite. 

One is a book called "A Camera in the Garden of Eden", which is a detailed photographic history of the 1954 banana workers' strike in northern Honduras.  It is a remarkable book for a number of reasons--its use of and critical examination of photographs as historic primary sources, not just adornments or companions to textual sources; its analysis of the complexities of culture, race, and identity among Salvadorans, Arabs, Chinese, Americans, and Hondurans in a mid-century Honduran town; and its account of a turning point for the American Jesuits in Honduras in which they stopped being a tool of US neo-imperialism and started to be a radical voice for the Honduran poor and workers.  And it ties the turbulent events of 1954 to the realities of present-day Honduras.

The next source is the autobiography of a Midwestern Catholic boy turned WWII soldier turned radical Jesuit priest in Honduras.  It's called To Be a Revolutionary, by Jim Carney, and captures very well the more radical Leftist strain of Cold-War-era Catholicism in Latin America.

Last is a radio station that I enjoy listening to when I'm in Honduras for work, called Radio Progreso.  It is the radio station of the Honduran Jesuits, and broadcasts an interesting mix of pop music (reggaeton most of the day, rancheros in the evening, etc.), revolutionary 70s-style folk music, student-run university talk shows, very incisive news, all punctuated by occasional messages like, "It is Christmas time, and we await the birth of Christ and His bringing of light to the world.  But with Juan Orlando Hernandez [president of Honduras] seeking to concentrate power in the Executive Branch and establish a neoliberal de facto dictatorship, we must fight to make a reality Christ's promise of light and liberation."  It's trippy

Perhaps most fascinating of all is that all of these things--the banana workers' strike, the Jesuits in Honduras, and their radio station--are all centered in a third-tier town called El Progreso, which I'd never heard of until my work started bringing me to Honduras.  It has played an outsized role in the nation's last century or so.  I was really excited in the run-up to the 2016 US election that Tim Kaine had in fact spent some time in El Progreso, and was profoundly shaped by what he saw with the Jesuits there.  I was psyched about the possibility of having a fellow Liberation Theology Catholic in the White House.

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Now my family and I are lucky enough to live in Central America, to experience firsthand the little joys and frustrations that so infuse a society that is at once so opulent and so poor.  The Mass that we regularly attend is the children's Mass at our middle-class neighborhood church.  The music is radical, bordering on revolutionary, and the preaching calls for human dignity, justice, and mercy for those who suffer.  One of my favorite songs perfectly captures my vision of a Church in solidarity with the working people:


The lyrics read as follows:

Este pan y este vino, que en tu mesa te ofrecemos, Señor,
Son las ganas de construir una sociedad de hermanos,
El sudor de nuestra lucha.  Son los gritos de tu pueblo, óyenos.

Este pan y este vino, que en tu mesa compartimos, Señor,
Es la pena del obrero, es el llanto de sus hijos.
La esperanza fuerte y grande, de que haya vida para todos, óyenos.

Acéptalos, Señor y conviértelos, en tu Cuerpo y en tu Sangre, y que sean para siempre tu vida y tu fuerza, que nos haga caminar, que nos haga hoy vencer.

Este pan y este vino, que en tu mesa se reparten, Señor,
A los hombres que trabajan, que adelantan hoy tu reino
En los barrios y en las calles, en la fábrica y las plazas, óyenos, Señor.

Our Mass is presided by a Colombian priest from the Caribbean coast who, judging from little stories he's let slip, has had his brushes with the Colombian conflict.  I imagine him stuck in an impossible place, reviled by the Leftist insurgents for not being radical enough, at the same time he's being targeted for death by Right-wing paramilitaries unhappy with his protection of the displaced and the other victims of the war.  This, of course, is precisely where the faithful should be, risking our lives to defend the weak against all sides.

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At this point in my life, my faith resides almost solely in the so-called Little Church, the Church of the people.  I'm still moved by the songs and the shared rite in the Mass, but these things don't move me much the other 6 days of the week.  Neither does much of the more mystical theology, anymore.  But when I think of the Church as the collective of flawed people struggling for dignity and justice, when I think that I am looking at Christ when I look at my fellow humans, when I see injustice and suffering and oppression as sins to be purged by our own faithful labor, then I feel exalted in spirt, and I can wax poetic all day.  I might have left the Church by now were it not for the example of liberation theology, which is to say that the testimony of Central America probably saved my faith.

The most moving image of the Eucharist for me is to think that we all are the body and blood of Christ already.  In that sense, maybe the transubstantiated Host isn't sanctifying us, but rather as we come together and recognize Christ among us and in all of us, it is we who sanctify and transubstantiate the bread and wine, as we ingest it and incoporate it into our individual and collective body of Christ.  Anyway, I was reminded by the Salvador movie that much of who I am, much of my conviction, is in fact inspired by my learning the history of this tiny country I'd never set foot in until I was in my 30s.  Of course later experience added to and fleshed out this initial vision from my adolescence, but that was the initial seed.  It's so much a part of me that I'd forgotten about it, taken it for granted, and even thought of the Americas as a known quantity, something blase.  I've been dreaming about working in Africa for a long time.  But now I'm reminded that my formation, my inspiration, and my dreams of the future were long ccentered on working in the Americas.  When I recall that, I feel grateful to be living and working in Central America.

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