I don’t tend to preface sermons with content warnings, but I will with this one. I’m gonna be talking briefly about the events preceding the El Salvadoran Civil War, which will include some mentions about state-sanctioned violence. If you’re not in a good place for that, please care for yourself as you need. There’s still coffee and tea back in the narthex if you want to tune out for a bit.
In 2014, I went on a trip to El Salvador with the Student Christian Movement, a radical ecumenical network of Christian youth who engage with social justice through the lens of faith. We stayed with Jose Innocencio “Chencho” Alas, a former priest and personal friend of St. Oscar Romero. He taught us about liberation theology as well as inviting us to help with local reforesting efforts by planting fruit trees and gardens in impoverished mountain villages. I learned a lot from him and his cheeky sense of humour, from appreciative inquiry to radical leftism to how to use a machete.
We visited many places that had been important to St. Oscar Romero, including the chapel at Hospital de la Divina Providencia, where he was assassinated, shot by members of a death squad while he was celebrating Mass on March 24th 1980. That day, he’d given a sermon calling on Salvadoran soldiers to obey God’s higher order and stop perpetrating violence and oppression on behalf of the government. Today, his office is a small museum, and many of his personal effects are behind glass as relics, including the church vestments he was wearing when he was killed, which are covered in dried blood.
When I saw them, I was barely a year away from my diaconal ordination, though I didn’t know it yet, and it hit me: the true meaning of taking up one’s Cross and following. Friends, I got on my knees.
We have a strange juxtaposition between today’s Hebrew Bible reading and today’s Gospel. While Isaiah speaks rhapsodically about the new heavens and the new earth, Luke details a situation that would have been very familiar Archbishop Romero.
Where Isaiah has,
“Be glad and rejoice for ever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress,”
“You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
The Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador was and is an extremely powerful institution. Oscar Romero didn’t have a reputation as being particularly progressive before becoming archbishop. If he had towed the line, as his colleagues in ministry urged him to do, he might still be alive today. Maybe. Appeasement does not guarantee freedom or safety. Christians do well to remember that much.
But he didn’t tow the line.
How could he, as he looked upon the slain body of his friend, the Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande, assassinated by Salvadorean security forces? Rutilio had been working in the liberation theology model, creating self-sustaining “base communities” among the poor, which was of course threatening to a right-wing government on the lookout for leftist groups.
Archbishop Romero later said, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’”
I’m not trying to be alarmist – although one should be aware that no one who wakes up in a functioning democracy expects it to be dissolved, just like no one who wakes up in a city like Vancouver expects a pandemic to shut down the whole country.
These things happen every day, to ordinary people.
Ask my husband’s parents, who lived for several months in Iran back in the ‘70s, where women in miniskirts were still a common sight on the streets.
Ask our friends from Portland, Oregon, who found a fascist warzone had sprung up in their backyards overnight back in the summer of 2020.
Ask Chencho Alas, who woke up on November 16th 1989 to find six of his Jesuit compatriots at the Central American University in San Salvador – plus the caretaker’s wife and her fourteen-year-old daughter – had been murdered overnight, and photographs of their slain bodies decorated the walls of the hallway outside the chapel.
By our endurance we will gain our souls.
We here in Vancouver in 2022 are not in the position that Romero was in, or that Luke’s community was in. But there are many moments where we are called to endure hardship for the sake of life, love, freedom, peace, and the integration of our souls. There are moments where we are called to come out, to shut down a bully, to speak a truth that needs to be spoken, or stand beside someone in support as they speak theirs.
And if you’re anything like me, it’s scary as hell.
But if we don’t, that’s one beautiful seedling that goes un-watered, one perfect spark that winks out in a cold place, denying warmth to the cold or a warm meal to the hungry.
By our endurance we will gain our souls.
What does that mean to you?