Friday, July 29, 2016

Collecting Stories: The Subversive Cross

The "mother church," the "bishop's church," the church called "Resurrection" is home to a treasure of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church.  That treasure is called "The Subversive Cross."  The cross, made of wood, painted white, and inscribed words inscribed by suffering people during a time of war, tells a story - a powerful story of the transformational work of the Holy Spirit, of faithful people being encouraged and hardened hearts being softened.

Lutheran pilgrims to El Salvador often take time during their journeys to hear the story of the cross and to stand in its presence.  The story of the Subversive Cross has been told and retold, by Bishop Gómez, by his wife, by people who were present when the cross was created, by people who wrote words on the cross, by people who saw the cross in captivity, by people who remember its return to the people, and by people who heard the story as it has passed between family members and friends.

I have heard this cross story many times.  I have re-told the story many times.  A movement in our synod resulted in more than 120 congregations placing models of the Subversive Cross in their midst and I helped put together the accompanying devotional materials and transcribed version of the Subversive Cross Story.  Yet a few weeks ago, I heard something a little different, and realized there is more which can be said about this cross.

Pastor Santiago stood beside the Subversive Cross with a group of Lutheran pilgrims from his own congregation and from his US sister church.  I was translating.  The pastor asked how many in the group knew the story of the Subversive Cross.  Half of the US people indicated that they knew the cross's story, but not one of the Salvadorans could raise a hand "yes."   I thought, "For 16 years I have brought different groups to the cross.  How could it be that none of these Salvadoran friends could tell the story?

Pastor Santiago began:  "Each person has his or her own version of the Story of the Subversive Cross, but no one person has the complete story.  I believe it is necessary to gather the pieces of the story of the Subversive Cross from Salvadorans who now live far away, from Salvadorans who are now elderly, from foreigners who participated in and witnessed parts of the story.  I imagine that there are people out there who know something about the cross that no one else knows, and I think the time may be short in which to gather the versions together:  not to make an 'official' version of the story but rather to understand the story and the power of the Subversive Cross from many perspectives.

I was involved in the Resurrection activities which led up to the making of the cross.  People would come to church from all the communities surrounding the capital city.  They would arrive early in the wee hours of the morning, well before the worship began, and when they were together, of course they shared stories.  The people and the church at this time were never just about words but also about action. So the people took to the streets, marching around the periphery of the church, through the barrio, with signs calling for peace, justice and 'no' to violence.  These words of the people are what ultimately emerged on the cross."

We peered closely at the words.  Pastor Santiago continued, explaining how the cross was made:  "The people planned a vigil and during that vigil the people wrote the words.  The spelling errors and expressions of the countryside are written on the cross because the common people wrote them there.  This was a confession for what was happening in our country.  All of these words came out from the people because this was what they were experiencing and this was what they were talking about in the streets.  After the vigil, we kept the cross and it was placed along the wall in the church.

During November of 1989 the FMLN [guerrilla forces] made their final offensive [on the capital city, San Salvador.]  The area around Resurrection Church was surrounded by soldiers.  Bishop Gómez and other leaders were black-listed death squads looked for them.  They came looking.  We planned an escape by contacting the US Embassy.  When Bishop Gómez arrived at the embassy he found other church leaders - bishops and other high level people he knew - all hiding there.  When the Atlacatl Battalion came looking, they banged on Bishop Gómez's office door and on the doors of a nearby refugee center.  They arrested this cross as evidence of subversion, and they arrested some Salvadoran nationals and some foreigners.  They took them to the jail of the treasury police in Ciudad Delgado.  I was not at the church that day, but was in Ciudad Delgado. We could not get in our out of our neighborhood because we were surrounded by the military.  My work, with my friends, was to provide first aid to those who needed it.  While we were in Ciudad Delgado, we got word that the cross was there.  It was confirmed and friends saw it.

Bishop Gómez had escaped, and he spent time in Guatemala and in the US.  He traveled back and forth to continue his work with the people, maybe every couple of weeks and always under the radar, and this was very risky.  After some time, Bishop Gómez was on a plane returning to El Salvador.  He saw the Ambassador from the United States on the plane and he said, 'Hello, how are you?' and he 'chatted him up' and finally asked the ambassador if he could help the Lutheran Church to get its cross back.

The stories of the cross and its time in jail are well known.  The guards at the prison were affected by the cross.  President Cristiani was affected by the cross.  The guards said the cross did not belong with them.  When it was at the presidential house, President Cristiani felt that the cross did not belong there.  Well, you have seen the photo of the president returning the cross to Bishop Gómez, and that was negotiated with help from the United States and other foreign entities.

We did not put the name 'Subversive' on this cross.  That was the name given to the cross by the military which seized it as evidence of subversion.  The mystery of the cross as it denounced sin to the soldiers and the president caused it to keep its identity as The Subversive Cross."

See also:  Subversive Cross Litany, Subversive Cross Poem

If you are connected to the history of the Subversive Cross, please share your story and your perspective with me via the comment section or private message.  Your words will be gathered with the words of others into a collection of reflections which will be treasured by the Salvadoran Lutheran Church and faithful friends around the world.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Natural Medicine for Tour Guides?

We decided to eat lunch before hiking up the big hill to the lookout over the lake.  We sat in the shade on benches made from long bamboo "logs."  We munched on sandwiches, bags of chips and sweet fruit drinks.  A week ago Ruben had been feeling very weak, but his diet of mora (wild spinach) soup had clearly renewed his energy.  Sonia knows a great deal about plants, and as we talked about the different types of trees and shrubs on the steep hills which stretch up from the lakeshore, Ruben joined the conversation.  Ruben, like Sonia, knows every plant by multiple names and is wise in the gathering and making of natural medicines.

Lilian is shy, but recognizing the gifts of Ruben as a healer, she mentioned a problem she has been having with her ears.  Ruben asked her some questions, determining she had both pain and decreased hearing, and then he gave her three treatment options:

1)  Crush fresh wild basil in a little cotton cloth so that the juice is on the cloth.  Put the tiny package of basil cloth into your ear (not in the canal, but just near the opening).  Leave it in their for a while and the pain will go away.

2)  Do the same as above but with wild oregano.

3)  Dig in the dirt to find this tiny little bug with pincers and stick in your ear.  In a little while you grab it and pull it out, and it pulls the ear clog with it.  Then the bug returns to nature, and you can hear.

Ruben was not joking, and clearly Sonia had heard of this bug treatment before.  Lilian did not seem convinced, and a few of the Salvadoran girls and US delegation members who overheard this were also unconvinced and even squeamish.  We tidied up the lunch and walked up the trail through the woods, climbing to the lookout.  I noticed Lilian gathered some basil along the way.  Yeah, better choice than the bug option.

The next day, the delegation traveled out to visit Joya de Cerén.  This is an internationally recognized historical site featuring excavated remains of a farming village from about 500 AD.  The village was buried by volcanic ash, and preserved until 1976 beneath initial deposits and subsequent layers of ash and soil.  As we wandered around the site reading and taking photos, Sonia pointed out a patch of dry soil covered by pattern of small holes and rings.  "These holes are made by the bugs that Ruben was talking about yesterday," she said.


The ear bugs??

"They are really tiny but very mighty.  They have to have strong pincers to make these big holes.  They only live in dry soil, which is why they are here beneath this canopy [which protects the excavations]."

Seriously, the ear bugs.

Rest assured that if you are ever a member a delegation with me in El Salvador and find yourself suffering with hearing loss due to gunk in your ear, I now know where the ear-pincer-bugs live, and note that they are conveniently located at a great tourist site.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The War After the War

No one comes to visit.   The road is controlled by the muchachos.  It's not really a road - more of a dirt path, but it is controlled.  We come in through another way.

The home is built in the traditional style of the countryside - small, with a big porch area between the sleeping rooms and the kitchen.  The kitchen is tucked inside a couple of sheets of corrugated metal.  There are plants all around.  We sit in plastic chairs on the cement veranda, appreciative of the breeze on the hot, moist afternoon.  It is little slice of paradise.  The muchachos hang out behind the row of plants.  It is a paradise and a prison.

The father tells the story of this place - a farming cooperative which was formed after the civil war, one parcel shared by 80 families.  As in many post-war settlement communities, the people here have never obtained title to their land.  The cooperative has been take to court twice, by people claiming "ownership," and both times that ownership was deemed false.

The presence of the muchachos has made the last two years difficult.  One third of the families have left.  There are few, maybe no teens or young adults living on the cooperative.  A daughter has received death threats.  The family cannot farm the land because they cannot cross an invisible boundary which separates their home from their fields.  The mother cannot sell tortillas because no one can come to buy them, nor can she leave to sell them.  The family lives off of the food they can grow next to the house.

The girls go to school far away where it is safer.  One travels 2-3 hours by bus each way.  They say they are lonely, but they can keep going because "no matter what, God is with them."

The father reflects, "We are living the war after the war."

They give us paper flowers, fresh coconut water and little cakes.  The skies open up and the music of heavy rain pounding on the metal roof accompanies our little party on the veranda.  The chickens squawk loud enough to be heard over the rain.  They are angry to be put out and drenched because strangers have taken over their porch.

We laugh, we cry a little, we hug, we take photos.  No one but us will see the photos.  It is safer that way.