The streets were closed surrounding the plaza in front of the Cathedral. Traffic was clogged at the crossroads of stoplights and barricades. We waited to the tunes of horns honking and buses revving up their engines. Our driver identified us - a small group of North Americans in solidarity with the Salvadoran Lutheran Church - and the police let us through. We parked right next to the cathedral. "What luck!" we thought.
As we emerged from the micro we could see the crowd quickly gathering. It was beautiful - a sea of white shirts under a bright blue sky, each person wearing a gentle outline of a dove with an olive branch and the words, "Pastoral Initiative for Life and Peace." We hardly had time to take in the scene when Pastora Gloria assigned us in pairs to her volunteers who firmly grabbed us by the arms and whisked us to our row of white plastic chairs under the shade of a canopy. "The front row...what luck!" we thought. We sat down and looked up. The white facade of the cathedral and bright blue sky before us echoed the scene which stood behind us in the plaza - white and blue, the colors of peace and hope, the colors of the nation. In our minds we could still see upon the church facade the faces of the people as had been represented in the ceramic art of Fernando Llort. Like the people gathered, the cathedral itself lives the struggle between violence and peace.
Dignitaries began to arrive. The government head of security stood in his white suit, surrounded by the press and by body guards with big guns. Bishops from the Lutheran Church, Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Church and other protestant denominations gathered at the head table. Pastors from the various churches were seated on a raised platform. We were excited to see so many familiar faces - clearly the Salvadoran Lutheran Church had a central role in organizing the Pastoral Initiative for Life and Peace.
The rally had been planned as a way in which to call together youth and adults, in the spirit of the truce which has existed for several months between the two largest rival gangs in El Salvador, to work together to build peace. Songs, prayers, scripture and a homily called for all who were gathered, pastors and gang members, Salvadorans and foreigners, to become instruments of peace, to work to build opportunity and community, to fight the war of violence by making a "war of peace." Symbols of peace were brought forth by young people: a candle calling for the God of Peace to light our way and illuminate our minds; a banner carrying words from scripture calling the church to work for peace; and chains of violence and oppression which were broken to show that peace brings liberation. The bishops signed the initiative and then called for pastors and cooperating organization leaders to sign the document. Finally a child was called forth, one of the Angels of Peace (a group of youth and children who work to build peace in their communities through non-violence education), to sign the document.
Throughout the event there was a strange juxtaposition of images - white shirts, automatic weapons, laughter under the trees, ropes and police barricades, an old wound with legal entanglements which prevented church leaders from being able to be seated together. In the midst of tight security, the humorous images of daily life stuck out - a dog meandering in front of the table of honor during a peace litany; women with heads supporting large bundles of goods for sale walking purposefully behind the guests of honor; and friends ducking under the security ropes to greet us and pose for pictures and share big hugs.
In retrospect, we realized that our "lucky" parking and "lucky" seats were not so much about luck as they were about keeping us safe. Thanks be to God the rally for peace was not marred by any evil acts, but with so many gang members and security officials gathered in one place, our sister church friends were worried for our safety even as they were worried for their own children. As we enter into the season of Advent, our prayer is that the Prince of Peace will reign over El Salvador and our own North American cities, bringing peace, hope and love so that our children can play and be children and those who love them can watch them grow in wisdom and grace.