The long struggle for justice and peace that is carried forward by the people of El Salvador continues to attract the solidarity of people in far-off lands.
On Saturday I travelled about 200 km east of Toronto (through a minor snowstorm) to the city of Belleville to meet with a group of 32 people who are getting ready to spend their March break in El Salvador.
Organized through the Bay of Quinte Conference of The United Church of Canada, the group (half of whom are youth or young adults) will be welcomed by Emmanuel Baptist Church (which is often referred to by its Spanish acronym as IBE and pronounced like e-bay).
The group is led by six people. Among them is Rev. Dr. Bill Smith, the new executive secretary of the Bay of Quinte Conference and a veteran of congregational connections with IBE and other partners. Like many other churches, the United Church encourages its members to learn from the experiences of global partners.
My task in their orientation was to say something about the United Church’s work with global partners and to provide a short overview of El Salvador’s political and religious history—enough, I hope, to provide a base for deeper questions when the group is in El Salvador.
In times past, missionaries brought the stories of global partners back to the churches in Canada. By the 1960s, things were changing. The stories the missionaries brought home were of demands for radical change: independence for remaining colonies in Africa and the Caribbean, and an end to political and economic repression in Latin America and other parts of the global South.
In Latin America, impoverished people saw the triumph of the Cuban Revolution on Jan. 1, 1959, as a sign of hope. Across the region, protests against poverty and oppression grew in the 1960s, and armed revolts began in many countries. In most places, however, military force (with training and funding from the United States) crushed the revolts.
By the mid-1970s, revolutionary movements were strong in Central America. In El Salvador, several different groups came together as the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN). And on July 19, 1979, came the triumph of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) in Nicaragua.
Liberation theology and base communities
Latin American churches, meanwhile, were changing too. The old strategy of training elites in hope that they might show mercy to the poor was an obvious failure. Borrowing the methods of popular education, churches encouraged lay people to come together in “base Christian communities” (comunidades eclesiales de base—CEBs).
Theologians came to describe the reflection carried out by oppressed people on their processes of social and political change as liberation theology. When you talk with people in El Salvador about their inspiration for involvement in struggles for social change, many say it was through participation in the CEBs—or their parents’ participation.
Oscar Romero, San Salvador’s archbishop, exemplified the best qualities of church leadership in solidarity with the poor. Romero and other church leaders pressed for peace talks in the hope that negotiations might bring about a peace agreement that would end the oppression and improve the lot of landless farmers and the urban poor. His assassination on March 24, 1980, captured the world’s attention—and mine too.
Salvadorans achieved their peace agreement in January 1992, but goal of peace with justice has been elusive. Church leaders like Rev. Miguel Tomás Castro, the pastor of IBE, continued to press for democratic space. Finally, the FMLN won the presidency in the 2009 election and the struggle for change goes on.
Finally, I told the Bay of Quinte group about opposition in El Salvador and many other countries to metals mining promoted by Canadian companies.
After their return to Canada, participants will share the stories they hear from Salvadorans. IBE is a church that supports community development and promotes peace and social and ecological justice. The Canadians will have met urban and rural youth and the veterans of El Salvador’s long struggle for justice and peace. Exposure to political, religious and economic issues will influence career and investment choices, and some participants will find their own reasons to work for change.
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