When I began ministry at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames, the people there opened my eyes to Central America by their efforts to respond to the thousands of persecuted people fleeing El Salvador and Guatemala. Though the parish was not permitted to become a sanctuary for Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees, we did shelter several on their way to Canada.
In 1985 Bethesda Lutheran Church sponsored a study tour to Mexico, El Salvador, and Nicaragua and got some Lutheran scholarship funding for a Catholic lay minister. I fell in love with El Salvador.
In 1987 I worked out two months to accompany the parish of San Roque in San Salvador, with the help of the Share Foundation.
There I worked with Padre Pedro Cortes, a humble Salvadoran campesino priest committee to the people. At first they were a fit flabbergasted, as Padre Pedro told me recently, because this guy could hardly speak Spanish. But, with the help of the many young people who hung around the church and participated in youth group activities or in the training programs in medical and dental care, I could communicate halfway decently.
That was a blessing, especially to see the care that Padre Pedro put into his ministry and his efforts to empower the people.
I was able to visit him Thursday and share a lit of the joy of the official beatification of Monseñor Oscar Romero, San Romero of the Americas in the eyes of many.
In 1992, I had a seven month sabbatical from my ministry at St. Thomas and spent most of it accompanying the work of the parish of Suchitoto. There I worked with a Salvadoran priest and five US women religious who had spend various numbers of years ministering to the people in a war zone.
I ended up in the furthest section of the parish, living with a family there, and finding ways to help the life of faith grow. The faith of the people, their perseverance in difficult situations, and their hospitality to the gringo continue to sustain me.
While here for the beatification, I am staying in the Centro de Arte para la Paz – the Center of Art for Peace – in Suchitoto which two of the sisters helped found and which is run by Sister Peggy O’Neill who has been in El Salvador for almost 30 years.
The commitment of these women has been a sign of God’s great love for the poor.
And so, today, I’m in El Salvador, celebrating the beatification of Romero, but most of all celebrating a people who have tried in many ways to live the Reign of God – and are still struggling.