Link to article on pilgrimage AND gallery of photos
Trail of Blood and Tears: A Spiritual Journey to Central America
By Robert Dueweke, OSA
The shocks shook me out of a deep sleep. The blasts sounded like bombs or explosives, but I wasn’t sure. Again the sounds cracked the cold night air like thunder claps. Bam-bam-bam. Then I heard the rumbling of heavy trucks down the cobblestone road outside the walls of my adobe bedroom. The frightening sounds played tricks on my waking mind. I imagined trucks transporting soldiers with machine-guns. My blood turned ice cold, chilling my whole body with fear. Are we under attack? Is the army going to kill more civilians? I made an act of contrition and, for a second, wondered why I had so little faith.
In the morning, I asked about the bomb-sounding blasts. A group leader said the sounds were harmless, only the customary fireworks for a birthday celebration. Thus began my ten-day spiritual journey in January 2019 to Central America.
A spiritual journey to Central America
The Maryknoll Society of Priests and Brothers organize an annual pilgrimage retreat for clergy and religious brothers that trace the footsteps of modern-day martyrs in El Salvador and in Guatemala. Our pilgrimage group consisted of seventeen participants from different parts of the U.S. and Canada and five Maryknoll missioners who personally knew and worked with the martyrs.
Who thinks of martyrs these days, those men and women from the past who courageously lived and died in service to the people and to their faith? Like the statues and stained glass windows of a church, I discovered that martyrs are found in the memory of the community.
Through the eyes and experiences of the suffering poor and the martyrs, this retreat offers an opportunity to reflect on our faith, mission, and relationship with God. The shedding of blood is the context; listening and observing are attitudes the participants need on this retreat.
Trail of Blood and Tears: The Hidden Story
On the first morning, we departed the colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, and traveled six hours to the San Salvador Cathedral of the Holy Savior in El Salvador. Our first stop was the gravesite of Archbishop Oscar Romero, now saint. A bronze sculpture of the bishop in the state of rest was placed over the tomb. A red marble glass, the size of a golf ball, was inserted over his heart. It indicates his death by an assassin’s bullet in 1980. We then drove to an isolated area in the countryside where the four American female missionaries were tortured, raped and executed that same year. The retreat team then led us to the University of Central America. In 1989, in the middle of the night, at their residence on campus, a death squad killed six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter. By the end of the day, our group was emotionally exhausted. I felt numb and did not know how to think. Each stop was a place visited by evil but also a “holy ground” to be venerated.
After several days of reflection on these terrible events, we returned to Guatemala. Our van crossed over a mountain pass that opened to the view of a large, deep blue, lake surrounded by volcanoes. On the shore of the lake lies the town of Santiago Atitlán. Oklahoma City priest, Fr. Stanley Rother, now blessed and the first American martyr, gave his life here in 1981 for his Tz’utujil Maya parishioners.
In Santiago Atitlán, we also heard testimonies from survivors of massacres that happened around the country. We heard from the bereaved who lost family members to kidnappers or death squads. Their loved ones were never seen again — their remains thought to be in an unmarked mass grave.
In Guatemala, the army launched a murderous campaign of fear and a reign of terror against defenseless natives of the Mayan communities. Throughout the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996), an estimated 700 massacres were carried out ending the lives of 250,000 innocent people, mostly Mayas.
Always working in the middle of the night and in an inhuman frenzy, the soldiers barged into the thatched roof huts, broke down doors, and killed everything that moved – the elderly, pregnant women, and infants. The slaughter was done in the name of anti-communism, an unfounded accusation by wealthy landowners, military, and business leaders. Church leadership, since colonial times, often sided with the wealthy elite to protect its own interests.
Catholic leaders and ministers who helped the poor with their basic needs and preached social justice were targeted. We learned about a bishop, 17 priests, and 2000 catechists were slaughtered because their work with the poor was considered to be subversive activity. To ask questions about the economic and political structures that kept people in poverty was an aggression against the state and labeled as communist activity. Sadly, such accusations of aggression also occurred in El Salvador, in other countries in Central, and in Latin America.
Many courageous people committed to social justice risk their lives – still, to this day — collecting evidence and stories from rural Mayas through the Church’s Office for Human Rights.
Why did the army massacre its people? What forces lie behind the hidden story of so much racism and hatred? The Guatemalan government’s systematic violence began in 1954 as a reaction against the “Ten Years of Spring” – a period that included agrarian land reform supported by the previous, democratically elected, administrations. New laws gave poor farmers access to uncultivated land to grow their crops of corn and beans. It was the first legislative attempt to bring Guatemala into the modern era. Signs of progress took root. And yet, the wealthy, powerful few, objected to the direction the country was taking. So, too, did that country in the north.
The U.S. government wanted to have nothing to do with such progress; land reform was trumpeted as communist. This was a lie for the sake of economic and political dominance. The truth was that land and agricultural reform were bad for American investments, especially for the interests of the United Fruit Company. Bananas continue to be cultivated with the imposed servitude and blood of indigenous workers.
Determined to halt such reforms by democratically elected governments, U.S. political and military involvement in Guatemala had a direct impact on creating conditions for the deaths of thousands of poor people. The present-day poverty, assassinations, and corruption are a result of American foreign policy meddling in the political and economic affairs of just Guatemala, but throughout Central America. This is the hidden story of what the U.S. government continues to do in the name of its citizens. These appalling political and economic strategies have been widely documented.
Their Story, Our History
“This is an unusual form of retreat/pilgrimage: you will be implicated in their martyrdom, the massacres with those who died, with those who survived and live with the everyday martyrdom of the poor. You dared to walk with them; you are implicated. Now you can tell their story; now you can tell your story.” Maryknoll brother Mary Shea.
The martyrs “spoke truth to power” and shed their blood as witnesses to the Gospel in their solidarity with the people they served. The ancient Latin theologian Tertullian wrote that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.
I witnessed a church alive with a Vatican II spirit of communion and participation at a Sunday Eucharist in the parish in Santiago Atitlán. Blessed Stanley Rother had left the country because his life was in danger, yet he returned to be with his parishioners: “This is one of the reasons I have for staying in the face of physical harm. The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.” He was ultimately murdered by a C.I.A. -trained death squad. His heart and blood are buried in a parish shrine; they are also sources of life and presence in traditional Mayan beliefs. These symbols speak of the triumph of goodness over evil. The same is true for the blood of martyrs in El Salvador. Philosopher and theologian Ignacio Ellacuría, slain with the six Jesuits at the university, wrote of his friend and archbishop: “With Monseñor Romero God passed through El Salvador.”
What have I learned from this pilgrimage experience? As a representative for the Augustinian Order at the United Nations, my understanding of dictators and autocratic regimes has become more personalized. I see more clearly the link between the bloody history of Central America and the migration of people to the U.S./Mexico border. I learned what you, dear reader, find objectionable: the scandalous involvement of U.S. administrations, in the name of its American citizens, and in the so-called fight against communism, in sacrificing human lives on the altars of business corporations throughout Central America.
We, as Americans, must know this hidden story, the history of U.S. foreign policy. The frenzy over building the wall on the southern border is an attempt to block out and erase forever that history. As the American philosopher George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
When I reflect back on those imagined bombings that first morning in Antigua, I realized it was a moment of grace. For a brief moment, I experienced what the martyrs might have experienced: the shock and fear, as well as the struggle to pray for the strength to stare into the darkness and to commit oneself into the hands of God.
Through the eyes and experiences of the suffering poor and the martyrs, this retreat offers an opportunity to reflect on our faith, mission, and relationship with God. Personally, I learned more about my emptiness and poverty. I also recognize that mission embraces a radical dependence on the power of love. This is how I am “implicated” and this is what I must preach: expose the evil of the lie and welcome the poor, the stranger, and the refugee as the Crucified Christ seeking compassion and hospitality at our nation’s borders. The real border wall is the one erected in our mind and heart that shuts out questioning and forgets our history.
Thomas Melville, Through a Glass Darkly. The U.S. Holocaust in Central America, 2005.
Optional resource: –https://uscatholic.org/articles/201901/why-so-many-risk-it-all-cross-border-31620