The doorbell rang on Friday afternoon. A harassed looking taxi driver stood outside the Vicarage, asking for the Asylum Seekers Day Centre that meets in the church here. They only meet on Thursdays, I explained.
So what was he to do with the family of four in the back of his cab? He had just brought them from Heathrow, he said. And they didn’t speak any English. Weary faces looked out of the back window, including those of a young boy and an even younger girl. These people had nowhere else to go. I said I would try and sort something out. As they got out of the taxi, I noticed that the mother was holding onto a small pendant containing the unmistakable, bespectacled image of Oscar Romeo. They were from El Salvador.
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Oscar Romero was assassinated in March 1980, shot by a single bullet through the heart as he celebrated mass in the hospital chapel. To be murdered thus, in the course of celebrating the Eucharist, feels to this priest like the ultimate sacrifice – a reminder that the offering of the wine is also the offering of blood outpoured.
It was only last year, after much official consternation, that he was canonised. When Pope Frances conducted the ceremony he wore the very same cincture (a sort of liturgical girdle) that Romero was wearing on the day he died. It was still stained with Romero’s blood. For the people of El Salvador, it is the blood of a martyr.
Romero became the Archbishop of El Salvador in 1977, a few years before the military dictatorship took power. The coup sparked 12 years of civil war between the military Junta and various groups of Left-wing, some Marxist, insurgents.
Paranoid about the threat of Communism on their southern doorstep, the United States under Presidents Carter and Regan ploughed millions of dollars into El Salvador, supporting the military Junta, and its brutal suppression of leftist opposition. It was under the ‘very religious’ President Carter that the US funded the Junta that, in turn, funded the death-squads that carried out the assassination of Archbishop Romero.
Romero was a conservative, with strong links to Opus Dei. The Vatican hoped he would respect the difference between religion and politics. But, as the violence escalated, and as the Salvadorian security forces began disappearing those who questioned their authority, Romero started to challenge the brutality of the oppression.
On the day before he was killed, he used his regular slot on the radio to call for the army to disobey their orders: “In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”
The week following his assassination, 250,000 mourners gathered at Romero’s funeral. The army placed sharp shooters on the rooftops overlooking the funeral procession. There were 42 people were shot that day, and over 200 were wounded. Things got worse. According to a UN Truth Commission, more than 75,000 people were tortured, unlawfully killed and forcibly disappeared during the internal armed conflict in El Salvador between 1980 and 1992.
No one was ever charged with Romero’s murder. Even the Vatican distanced itself from an archbishop they suspected of being too influenced by ‘liberation theology’ – a doctrine that blended Marx and Moses, and one that was an anathema to the viscerally anti-Communist Pope John Paul II.
From Washington to the Vatican, Romero the martyr was something of an embarrassment, and so he was carefully re-branded as something akin to a terrorist sympathiser. Even the Salvadorian church, brutalised by the Junta, with priests and nuns raped and murdered, fell into line. Throughout the civil war, journalists who asked too many questions were often intimidated into silence. And in 1993, after the war had come to an end, the Slavadorian authorities passed an Amnesty law, preventing any investigation of the atrocities that went on during the conflict.
Outside of the more conservative quarters of the Roman church, however, Romero was being held up as a hero of the faith. In 1979, the Queen unveiled 10 new limestone statues of Modern Martyrs over the main front door of Westminster Abbey; among them were Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Fr Oscar Romero.
In El Salvador itself, it was ordinary church people that kept the memory of Romero alive. He was a saint to them long before the present Pope – who had himself ministered under a military dictatorship in South America – resurrected his reputation.
The children of the family that got out of the taxi on my doorstep were too young to remember any of this. But they live in its shadow nonetheless. During the Seventies and Eighties thousands of Salvadorian refugees made their way to the United States, seeking safety.
Many of them gathered in the poorer parts of Los Angeles, the city of angels. Here a number of them came into contact with gang culture and adopted its ways. Here the notorious MS 13 and 18th Street gangs were born, famous for their face tattoos and extreme violence, many of whom were deported back to El Salvador.
Returning to a country in which civil society had broken down which was awash with guns left over from the war, the gangs flourished. Oblivious to the fact that the US helped create the conditions that had so brutalised El Salvador, Donald Trump has described these people as “animals”. They feature prominently in his justification for the building of a wall on the Mexican border.
But the history of a nation isn’t just one story. It is the accumulation of many little family tragedies. And my new friends, standing alone with a few bags in a strange car park in south London, were one such story.
The Home Office helpline for refugees was closed for the weekend. First we went up to the Columbian restaurant at the Elephant and Castle for food. I found them some bedding and contacted a priest at the nearby Anglican church that has a Spanish speaking mass so he could come and interpret.
Slowly, the local church community rallied round. A collection was taken. The twitter community donated money. I bought them warm clothes. A family took them in for food. They joined us for Sunday mass. On Monday morning – credit where it is due – the Home Office agreed to give them temporary shelter while their asylum application was being processed.
This story had a successful outcome; if not, as yet, a finally happy ending. But many don’t. The Asylum Seekers Day Centre receives many whose experiences – from Iraq and Syria, from Somalia and Eretria – tell of large scale political upheaval and of individual personal tragedy. And while our political leaders do not always distinguish themselves in response to the helplessness and pain of asylum seekers, it is worth noting that many ordinary people do – both church people and non-church people. Little victories count.
Back in El Salvador it is the evangelical churches that have developed a particular ministry among gang members. MS 13 employ a hand signal of ‘devil horns’ to signal their membership. For some, the only way to leave gang culture is through religion – gangs allowing members to quit only if they have a demonstrable commitment to faith. “The only way out is through Jesus” as one gang member put it.
There are all sorts of problems with this, of course. Is such a commitment real, we may ask, from the comfort of our own living room – as if salvation were merely an intellectual debating point. But for many, escaping the grip of gangs is precisely what salvation looks like.
Salvador means saviour. And that comes in many forms. For saints like Romero it meant following Christ to the place of execution. This week, for Christians in safer lands, it will mean the liturgies of Holy Week – which will also entail facing the cross and all its horror and abandonment. This too is a battle of good and evil. And, for Christians, one in which our salvation is also very much at stake.
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