frustrazione, n.f. Frustration, defeat.
My eyes fell on this entry, just above the line of gun fire dividing the Italian-English dictionary in half. It was on display at the Museum of the Martyrs at the Universidad Centroamericana in San Salvador, one of the books salvaged from the library of the six Jesuit priests murdered there in 1989.
In many ways the violent, pre-dawn invasion of dozens of U.S.-trained salvadoran soldiers was a defeat. The lives and efforts of the priests were cut short, frustrated. The purpose of those who ordered the operation was accomplished. The museum bears witness to lives extinguished, to brutality and violent repression. But it also bears witness to life renewed even in the midst of suffering and death. In a powerful way, the purpose of the death-dealers was–and is, still today–thwarted by the persistence of hope, and the rebellious act of remembrance.
The museum paints a vivid picture of who the priests were, right down to the clothes they were killed in 25 years ago last Monday. It also names and remembers many of the tens of thousands of other victims of El Salvador’s civil war (among them the four North American churchwomen who were killed in 1980. The New York Times ran a Retro Report piece earlier this month focused on the churchwomen and also mentioning the priests).
There’s something powerful in the act of naming. We name not only our heroes, the famous and the erudite, but also the schoolchildren and the farm women. We speak their names and announce, “¡Presente!” For they are still present, and the ways they lived and died cry out for justice. We must keep on remembering lest we forget. We must keep remembering until we are stirred to action. For, sadly, there are many places in the world today where justice and healing are sorely needed. Ayotzinapa. Ferguson. Gaza. Catatumbo. Just to name a few.
The hard thing isn’t only the paying attention. The hard thing is knowing what to do with what we see. And, honestly, I don’t have a ready-made answer. But I believe that Christ is present with us in the act of opening our eyes to one another’s pain. So maybe that act makes us ready to follow the One who guides our feet along the paths of peace.
Before arriving at the Museum of the Martyrs, our group of friends and colleagues from Presbyterian World Mission (in El Salvador for a week of training and inspiration for service in Latin America and the Caribbean) visited Archbishop Oscar Romero’s last earthly home and the chapel where he was killed while saying mass. In the chapel a devout religious woman welcomed us. She invited us to remove our shoes and gather around the altar, placing our hands upon it. She prayed for each of us and our families, and then encouraged us to take turns standing behind the table, where Monseñor Romero stood when he was killed.
Romero saw his assailants drive up outside the open doors to the chapel, take aim, and fire, but he did not cry out or run from his place. He stood his ground, in his role as Christ’s servant, and refused to be intimidated by hatred or dissuaded by fear. As my friend David later reflected, the invitation to put ourselves in Romero’s place is, in the literal sense, easy to accept. I can put my feet where he stood. But can I stand firm and confident in my sometimes daunting calling, and respond with such grace and conviction in the face of the death-dealers and the shadowy powers of this world?
In all honesty, the answer is often no, but sometimes I manage a yes. And I take courage in knowing that I do not stand alone, and that I have not chosen my ground on a whim. I feel a kinship with the work of Romero and the priests and the martyrs, part of the same tapestry of God’s mission of transformative love. And I am profoundly grateful to work day by day with many faithful, intelligent, and insightful people in the church universal.
That week in El Salvador was a time for me to lean on some of my colleagues in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, to laugh and cry and question and grow and pray and sing together. It was a time to witness and learn from the stories of contemporary martyrs. I left refreshed, with hope and energy to continue standing where I’ve been sent and doing the Kingdom work God sets before me.
I imagine there will continue to be times when it seems that wickedness prospers, when the innocent suffer, and efforts toward peace are frustrated. Still, as we approach the Sunday in the Christian calendar set apart to celebrate Christ’s Reign, I choose to trust that we are never outside the reach of Christ’s healing love, and that somehow “in all things God works for the good” (Romans 8:28). I choose to trust. And I join the multitudes in offering my all for God’s purpose in this world.
While to that rock I’m clinging;
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?