Thursday, January 24, 2013

From El Salvador #3: Contested Space in El Salvador

Reflection by President Michael Cooper-White
from Travel Seminar in El Salvador

The Continuing Struggle For Peace -- (see Romero)

Two decades after a peace accord officially ended El Salvador's 12-year civil war, in many ways peace still eludes this nation named in honor of the Prince of Peace.  Already mentioned in previous posts are the ongoing violent confrontations between warring gangs.  While there is widespread hope that a fragile  temporary truce between them may become permanent, police and military forces remain on high alert.  Our group of pilgrims experienced this first hand yesterday on the return from Cara Sucia when our van was stopped by national guard officers who demanded to review our driver's license and credentials.  While the street scene in San Salvador's downtown and more upscale neighborhoods seems as safe on the surface as in any major U.S. city, many areas remain off limits for Salvadorans and visitors concerned about personal safety.  We awaken each morning to the shrill whistles of a private security guard who periodically signals to his clients--neighborhood homeowners who band together to employ him--that he is on duty providing protection. 

Today's morning visit to San Salvador's imposing cathedral provided a stark reminder that streets and gangland turf are not the only arenas of contested space.  As I write this reflection twelve hours later, I still find it difficult to absorb the change since I last visited the final resting place of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero.  A quarter century ago, Romero's grave held prominent place in the cathedral's main transept.  In the fashion of medieval cathedrals, the common people would stop by for a brief visit en route to work, at lunchtime or whenever the spirit would move them to pray and draw strength in remembering their beloved slain spiritual giant.  Today one has to descend to the cathedral basement to visit Romero's tomb and view his portrait.  Upstairs in the main sanctuary is displayed a portrait of a prominent leader of Opus Dei, the Roman Catholic group regarded by El Salvador's poor as the extreme reactionary fringe.  A few years ago, the current Archbishop of San Salvador ordered removed from the cathedral's external walls the compelling folk art panels painted during the war years by artists of the world-famous La Palma community.  Clearly, the central see of El Salvador's predominant ecclesial community remains highly contested space.

Following our visit to the downtown cathedral, our group of pilgrims boarded our minibus for the ride to the cancer patient hospice where Romero lived for the duration of his ministry as Archbishop.  We were welcomed warmly by the sisters who steward the humble house where he took up residence after refusing to abide in the more luxurious official bishop's palace.  Then, following a brief reflection on a reading from the book of Hebrews, we sat for a prolonged period of silence in the hospital's chapel where Romero was gunned down while celebrating mass with some family friends. 

As I ponder all that I have experienced during three sojourns in this land of "The Savior," which now span the period of nearly 30 years, the overarching feelings are of humble gratitude and fervent hope.  For if, as we profess, the greatest glory comes only from the most contested space the world has known--the cross of the Savior for whom El Salvador is named--then we have been privileged to spend these few days on this turf surrounded  by those both living and departed who constitute what Hebrews calls the "great cloud of witnesses."  And as the polarization that underlies Salvador's continuing violence continues to cause so much suffering for so many, we must continue our fervent prayers that contested space here and everywhere may be ever-shrinking.

No comments: