Seeing the Face of Christ: Part 1

When Richard Nixon bombed North Vietnam in January 1973, a number of Christians urged evangelist Billy Graham to intervene. But Graham refused. He said, “God has called me to be a New Testament evangelist, not an Old Testament prophet.” It was the pressure of the situation, no doubt, that led him to make such an extreme statement–in the 1950s and 1960s Graham himself took a lot of heat for his public support of the civil rights movement, and his critics rooted their objections in a similar distinction between the gospel and social justice.1

Contrast Graham’s remark with the popular evangelical saying that “If Jesus is not Lord of all, he’s not Lord at all.” I don’t like bumper sticker theology, but this is a little closer to the truth. God is concerned with all aspects of our existence; there is no corner of our life that is not subject to the love and the lordship of Christ. God wants us to be whole people. This truth is rooted in two of the most important tenets of the Christian faith, creation and the incarnation.

Jesus himself began his ministry by proclaiming a good news that included social transformation:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor [Luke 4:18].

To the poor and oppressed of the world the Gospel should still be good news, or we must ask if what is being preached is truly the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Twice in the mid-1990s I went to Central America to see for myself the needs of the poor of this region, and the work of a ministry which works to address those needs in a spirit of Christian love. During Holy Week 1994 I visited Guatemala. In the summer of 1996 I visited El Salvador. I went with some “book knowledge” of the area. In college and graduate school I took a number of courses which covered various aspects of the history of Latin America, and the ways in which Christians had responded to civil war, social injustice, and cultural genocide. Those comfortable classroom years of my life coincided with the worst period of the civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador. President Reagan committed the U.S. to an expensive and controversial intervention, for he was convinced that the turmoil in the region was caused by agents of the Soviet Union (“the Evil Empire”) attempting to “export communism.”

This government policy provoked a tremendous response among North American Christians. “Witness for Peace” delegations travelled to Central America to see the conditions firsthand. Peace marches, with signs reading “El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam,” recalled the protests of an earlier generation. And churches, individuals, cities and universities declared themselves to be “sanctuaries” for Guatemalans and Salvadorans fleeing U.S. backed forces.

This response from the churches took the government by surprise, and led to an attack on churches by the Reagan administration. Government spies infiltrated churches suspected of sheltering refugees, and CIA, FBI and IRS agents harassed Americans who were critical of national policy.2 This government paranoia and intimidation brushed up against me during my seminary internship in Riverside, CA. One day an agent from the National Security Agency stopped by the church as part of a background check on a member who worked for a defense contractor. I knew the member, so the agent asked to interview me. At the end of the interview he asked me if our parish was participating in sanctuary. I was so surprised by the question I just responded (honestly), “No.” He asked if I would tell him if we were. I responded, offhandedly, that I didn’t see the point in secret civil disobedience.

I was sympathetic with all that the protesters were doing, but I took no active part. A major reason for this was that I was an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve, commissioned in 1986. For years I struggled with the contradiction of serving a God of peace, whose love knows no boundaries, while wearing the uniform of a soldier, sworn to protecting the national interests of the United States.

I mention all of this to set the context for the rest of this chapter, which consists of excerpts from the journal I kept on my trip to Guatemala, and the following section, which is about my trip to El Salvador. The stories told here are stories of people living through things we could never imagine in our worst nightmares; they are stories of people of faith, who have managed to maintain optimism through suffering because they believe in a God who delivered slaves, a God who preaches good news to the poor, a God who became one of them, and died so that they might be raised from their misery to share in his glory.

GUATEMALA 1994

Tuesday in Holy Week, March 29

In Guatemala, safe and sound after a hell of a day! I’m reclining on a very firm cot in our dorm at Carmelo de Nazareth, a convent of the Carmelitas de la Sagrada Familia in San Andres Itzapa. I flew on American Airlines from Miami to Guatemala City, arriving just before sunset. Looking out the window of the plane I had a beautiful view of Lake Atitlán and the surrounding volcanoes; but this beauty gave way to the slums and dumps of the city as we descended. Getting through the airport was confusing, and I couldn’t find the person who was supposed to meet me.

I asked several people if they were with the sponsoring organization, one of whom turned out to be a young Van Heusen executive from Alabama, with his wife and children. Their fair skin, blond hair and neatly pressed clothes contrasted starkly with the grimy, smelly, noisy street around us. As we chatted, children scurried about begging, women sold flowers, and taxi drivers tried to convince us they offered the best ride.

Then I noticed a rumpled-looking man sitting on a bench, blending in with the scenery. He was wearing a baseball cap and had a woven Guatemalan bag over a shoulder; his jacket had an embroidered logo on it. This was my host. The rest of the group was waiting in the departure area of the airport; we were finally all together, and we bundled tightly into the van for an hour long ride up the winding Pan American Highway to our home for the week.

Wednesday in Holy Week, March 30

Today began with a bus ride to Antigua, to visit Los Obras Sociales del Hermano Pedro, a Franciscan hospital caring for malnourished babies, children with various physical and mental difficulties, and the elderly. Most of the 400 patients were home for the holidays; the ones still here were too poor to go home, or have no family. The children were real hams, and loved to have their pictures taken. One of the volunteers with us suggested we not take pictures on one ward, because of the disfigurement of some burn victims, but the children insisted, “Foto, por favor!

On the way out, I noticed the crucifix hanging over the entrance door. It was very old, and had been broken, but instead of taking it down, they reworked the breaks to make it appear that Jesus had an arm and a leg amputated, revealing the blood, muscle and bone within.

We went on to San Antonio de Aguas Calientes, arriving just as one of the village’s Holy Week processions was beginning. The streets were filled with boys and men in purple robes and conical purple hoods; wizened old men swung giant censers, filling the air with an acrid odor. A float, or andas, rocked past–a solid wooden platform borne on the shoulders of forty men. On it, Jesus carried the cross; he was dressed in a beautiful red velvet robe, decorated with butterfly pins. A band, composed of old men and teenagers in their best suits, belted out fractious funeral tones with evident devotion, their director waving his baton with great solemnity. On the sidelines, a man sold orange juice, nonchalantly swatting flies as he ladeled it from ceramic pots on his cart into plastic bags with a straw. Kids in purple, having taken their turn in the procession, sipped the juice or soda to keep cool in the blazing sun. The procession winded its way around the stalls in the square, pausing at the entrance to the church, and then backing into it. All the people in the square (except the tourists) genuflected on both knees before the procession continued on its way.

We went back to Antigua for a couple of hours of shopping. During Holy Week, it is a major tourist destination; before leaving I had seen photos of its splendidly choreographed processions in National Geographic. I was prepared for the crowds and the commercialism, the pickpockets and the wide-eyed tourists on whom they preyed–but I was jolted by the sight of a young soldier pointing his automatic weapon into the streets from the window of an earthquake-shattered church. Behind him were a couple more soldiers with radios–it appeared to be a command post–and around the corner, yet more soldiers and police. I began to feel uncomfortable.

We went into the cathedral, an ancient structure built in the early 16th century. The lines for confession were long. In the rear of the church, Jesus was lying in state, in a glass coffin like Snow White’s. The waxen body looked realistic, with gauze stuffed into the wounds in the hands and feet. People filed up behind it, placing offerings in a box or a basket, touched the wounds, and continued back around into the church.

Talking about this later that day with Fr. Art, a Capuchin Franciscan, I was reminded of that crucifix at the entrance to Hermano Pedro. The people of this country have suffered longer and in greater degree than any other American nation–no wonder they identify with the crucified Christ! I couldn’t help but contrast this with the idea currently popular in the North that we need to get away from an emphasis on the passion of Christ, that we should not preach about the cross, but about the glory of the resurrection, and the power of positive thinking.

Holy Thursday, March 31

I awoke this morning sore from walking yesterday and also from last night’s activities. My head was especially sore. Last night we had a Seder here at the convent. We began with a candlelight procession in silence around the cloister. We sat down to eat in our customary place, but with a few visitors, with special decorations, and proceeded to follow a Christianized passover ritual. It was in Spanish, but our host translated. It was a somewhat unusual mixture of Jewish and Guatemalan flavors and stories. We nibbled some local bitter herbs. The wine was robust, and sweet. The Haroseth was made of peanuts and oranges and bananas. The Matzah was French bread–I thought tortillas would have done nicely. They killed a lamb for the dinner, and cooked it in a stew. The wine kept flowing; each time the ritual called for a glass, we drank a full cup in a single gulp. We were still holding our candles, which began to burn down to our finger tips at about this point. Then came some tortillas, rice, and mixed vegetables. More wine–and still more!

I turned to Bro. Greg and remarked, “No wonder the disciples left singing!” And he replied, “And no wonder the Israelites couldn’t get where they were going for 40 years!”

So the morning found us sore and hung over, crowding into our school bus for the bumpy trek down the road to the town of Parramos. We entered the Church of the Holy Innocents, and our guide began to speak of the time in the 1980s when the church was taken over by the army and used as a barracks. Tanks were parked out front, while within, it was a center for torture. There are hidden graves all over the church grounds. This was the center of the Army’s “scorched earth” policy in the region. If it was discovered that a catechist or priest in a village was speaking of the need for justice, this was seen as a sign of communist infiltration. To “protect” the area, the village and all that was in it would be destroyed. All crops and houses would be burned. All men, women, children, dogs and chickens would be killed.

Bro. Greg told me it was not unusual for churches to be used as torture centers and as brothels. He told me of one church which has a bloody wall where prisoners were hung on hooks and tortured; the wall has been preserved in its blood-stained condition as a memorial to their sufferings. And in the school where he teaches photographs of murdered students hang in every classroom.

We left Parramos and went to the nearby village of Pampay. “Village” is perhaps not the best word for this collection of tiny huts scattered around the hills, with a church as the only common area. It looked as if these people did not want to get too close to their neighbors. We found out the reason why. “This was one of the harder hit areas during the violence during the 1980s,” a guide told us. “It hasn’t been easy to get the people to come together, and to think in terms of community, especially in this area. It is difficult to get them to work together on any common project, but now they are getting results, one of which was the construction of this church.” In other areas, small chapels like this could be built in a couple of months, with everyone working together. Here it took four years.

“The real dynamo in this parish is Juan,” the guide said; Juan [not his real name] was hired by the parish to be a community organizer. “My job,” Juan said, “is to get the people to work together. With this we hope to get rid of the violence. It’s been tough, but the people are starting to work together. This hasn’t been without risk. Both myself and the priest have received death threats. But now the mayor of Parramos is with us, and we feel safer.”

He took us inside the small chapel, a simple structure with a bare tile floor and no pews. I noticed a scripture passage painted on one wall: “By works a man is justified and not by faith alone.”

Juan then took us up to the neighboring town of San Bernabé, where he lives. This community has been here about six years. Eleven families came here from another part of the country. Juan grew emotional as he told us their story. “We were sharecroppers–not even that!–slaves on coffee plantations before coming here. And therefore, we had to find someone who could at least find us a decent place to live. We began looking through government institutions for the help we needed, but we didn’t find it. We kept looking, and finally we found a Guatemalan institution financed by U.S. AID money which lent us the money to purchase these seventy acres. The only problem with that has been that the interest rates on that loan were eating up our lives. Not only did we owe them interest and principal, but they obligated us to enter into other loans for agricultural products. We had experience on coffee plantations, but no experience with vegetables. Therefore, their technical advisers had complete control over us.”

“Basically,” said Juan, “they were heading us for production of vegetables for foreign export. They obligated us to keep taking out those loans, and the interest rate on the loans for production was higher than that for the land. At one time we had to invest $9000 in one planting, and we lost the whole thing. Since we couldn’t pay it, they added it to the principal. Since we couldn’t pay that, we lost our credit.”

The situation changed when a new pastor came to the parish. He motivated the people. “We built the church where we’re sitting as a community project in a month and a half. The most important thing for us as indigenous people is to have God in our hearts. That’s why the chapel was the first project. Next was the school. It seems like the school is too big for our community, but we did it through the advice of the priest, thinking of the future of the community. All these years we’ve been wanting to get electricity. We figured it would be another 20 to 25 years, because of the government requirements. Father sent some people to make an offer on what it might cost. We were able to do that because in that company are some people who have a conscience. We all got together and did all the electrical installation in 20 days. There is no electricity in every house.”

“We know God is among us. To him we give first place. Because of this we’ve accomplished miracles here and in the other villages. Thanks to the parish, we have paid off a great deal of the debt. Each month we pay off the debt for one family. By the end of 1994, the debt will be cancelled for the entire community.”

This story is repeated in a dozen other villages, with churches, schools, and communities being developed through the parish with money that comes from Christian charities. The translator added to Juan’s account, telling how the AID funds come through government bureaucracies with high overhead, which means that the people end up paying extremely high interest rates. In desperation, the families marched on the U.S. embassy in Guatemala City. A settlement was negotiated, the past interest was forgiven, and the people were given a year to pay off the balance. A charity provided the money to the parish, and the village is repaying the parish through sales of produce.

Juan told us more of his own story. They had all been born in a village where, since their grandparents’ generation, they had been in obligation to the patron. “What makes me so willing to help people now is what I’m going to tell you. On that plantation was an overhang with a tin roof where they were going to give lessons in reading and writing. I went to my dad, and asked him for a notebook. But the teacher told me, ‘You don’t have the right to study yet.’ I was completely illiterate, married at 18. Even today I don’t have a diploma. The official record I carry says I’m illiterate. This sadness is what compels us to work for positive changes. I strive so that others will have the opportunity to go to school and improve their lives. Sometimes I don’t get back to my family until 10 or 11 at night. Sometimes I feel very tired, physically and emotionally, but I’m strengthened by the example of my companions, and by the fact that we have accomplished what we set out to do. I’m very happy, because I no longer have to live under the command of the patron.”

It was time for lunch, and we left the chapel and walked over to the school, a one-story cinder block building. On the walls we saw the usual posters you’d find in any classroom, showing the proper way to make letters and numbers–including the Mayan system. But the poster that really grabbed my attention was one reading, “500 Years of Resistance: 1492-1992.”

We sat down to a simple meal. Juan explained, “On Holy Thursday we normally eat a meal of fish and white beans. We have no fish today because there are so many, but the beans were prepared with love.” There was plenty to eat, however, with tortillas of white, blue, and yellow corn, dishes of salsa, and little bottles of a fiery green chile sauce (“Salsa Brava“).

After lunch, Juan showed us around their gardens. His method is to “train the trainer.” He brings someone from another village to San Bernabé to learn their methods–organic fertilizer and pesticides, as well as diversified crops (beans, corn, herbs, fruit, medicinal plants)–then that person can go back and teach the others in his village.

Good Friday, April 1

Today’s highlight was the Way of the Cross in San Andres Itzapa. The traditional Catholic devotion of the Stations of the Cross is enacted on an enormous scale. People dress up as the characters in the Passion narrative, posing in fourteen tableaus representing such passion scenes as the Jesus’ condemnation, taking up the cross, comforting the women of Jerusalem, being nailed to the cross, etc. The entire population of the town follows a procession that winds along the major streets, stopping at each of the fourteen stations to pray.

We went up to the village early in the morning to watch the townspeople finishing up the preparations. The streets along the course of the procession are decorated with beautiful stenciled designs of colored sawdust, flowers, and leaves, forming “carpets” nearly two inches thick and perhaps six feet wide.

We waited outside the church for the procession to begin. A group of men were getting the andasready; it is a heavy wooden float with a representation of Jesus carrying the cross that is borne on the shoulders of 40 men. One of the officials asked if I would like to help. For two Quetzales I received a ticket identifying me as a member of “Hermandad de Jesus Nazareno, San Andres Itzapa.” The official lined us up in formation; I watched the others to determine what I was supposed to do. The andas was first lifted by a group of men, and hoisted to shoulder level. Then the first team took its place. Each man carries a heavy staff which he props under the andas when it is time for the relief team to come in. Our team walked along in single file along the route until it was our turn.

I wondered at the ponderous, rhythmic lurching of the andas, and the groaning of the men carrying it. Then I got my turn, and it was all made clear to me. I was entirely too tall for this, and the burden and the pain were intensified because of it. We were so close to one another that we had to walk in step so as not to step on each other’s heels. This accounted for the lurching from left to right. And the andas was so heavy that I had probably between 100 and 150 pounds on my shoulder. Onward we plodded, swaying to the beat of a funeral dirge played by a band which followed behind us.

The narrow, cobblestoned streets seemed to me like the streets of the “Old City” in Jerusalem; they winded up and down hills over a mile above sea level. When we got to the crest of the hill, I could look out on a gorgeous panorama of plantations and volcanoes. But I couldn’t enjoy the view. I struggled under the weight, and stumbled over the stones. The thin air and the heat left me gasping. The weight on my shoulders was like the weight of the cross on the shoulder of Simon of Cyrene. Back and forth we rocked, left to right; we would back up, turn the corner, shift the weight, and march onward. Change teams–prop the andas up with the staff, scoot out of the way so the new person can slip under. Two turns was enough for me.

At each station we stopped to pray in front of a living tableau–the soldiers with Christ, the women of Jerusalem, the crucifixion (three boys tied on crosses, Jesus with a wig and a painted beard). The strangest, though, was one that was not taken from the Biblical account. A ramada, a canopy made of sticks and leafy boughs, covered the road at one point. From it stuffed birds were suspended by strings, along with a small, mounted deer head. Then I saw a duck and two rabbits–and they were strung up alive! I wondered if it was some sort of syncretism with Mayan religion. Someone asked around and was told it was simply to signify the renewal of all creation in the resurrection.

Later that night, rested, back at the convent, Madre Marina talked to us about the origins of Las Carmelitas de la Sagrada Familia. She became a Carmelite in 1958. About 1974 an Indian girl came to her in Solola asking to be received into the community. She had tried another order, but was rejected because she didn’t meet the educational requirements. But she didn’t meet the Carmelite requirements, either. Marina, though, realized that as an Indian she wasn’t able to receive a formal education, and she thought that the Indians should be permitted to pursue a vocation on their own terms. “Love is more important than education,” she said. So she got started with nine sisters, but had an immediate tragic setback, as six of them were killed in the 1976 earthquake. The order, though, was not persuaded by the experiment, and told her that the educational requirements would not be changed. So in 1981, with the bishop’s permission, she started her own community.

Monday, April 4

I rested on Saturday, still feeling exhausted after Friday’s ordeal. I didn’t go with the others to the Easter Vigil. Sunday morning we went to Parramos. The church was packed, as all the people come down from the villages for Easter. Like hundreds of others, I sat on the floor in a side aisle. One of many mangy dogs that are seen everywhere came wandering through the crowd, chased by a group of about three or four kids, one of whom pulled its tail–causing it to nearly take a nip out of me! The kids, fair skinned and blond-haired, stood out in this Indian crowd. Their clothes were filthy and ragged, their teeth rotted. The oldest boy, who was very friendly, had a terrible skin disease on his hand and arm.

At the Gospel reading I went outside. It was just too much–too crowded, too hot, too everything. And I was feeling worse every moment. We sat against a large tree in the square across the street from the church. The congregation spilled out all the doors, some looking through the windows, some on the steps standing on tip-toe to see what was happening inside. Next to us an old woman boiled tamales. A group of children, oblivious to the crowd around the church, played “foosball” at tables. At the point in the liturgy when the priest recalls the words of Jesus, “Take, eat, this is my body,” a man began beating a drum, another played a flute, while others lit off fireworks out of mortar tubes. Toward the end of the liturgy a guy in a pick-up truck pulled up right in front of us and began hawking ice cream–with a loudspeaker, no less!

The liturgy ended, and the people came pouring out. My companions found me, but I was in no mood to be sociable. I went to find a place to sit in the shade. Brother Greg noticed how bad I looked. He found me a bed in the parish office where I sacked out until it was time to return to the convent. The others ate lunch and had a birthday party for one of the sisters. I tried to sleep, but the marimbas from the celebration kept me awake.

I endured the bumpy bus ride back to San Andres Itzapa, and crashed on my cot. I had a headache, and aches and pains all over. It felt like a bad case of the flu. Everyone suggested their favorite remedy. “Room service” (some friends) brought me chicken soup for supper. At 1:30 a.m., everything let loose. I could never imagine the runs could be as bad as this. Back and forth to the bathroom I went–to a toilet that had no seat . . . and no running water. To flush it, I had to go out to the cistern to fill up a five-gallon bucket with water and haul it back. Weak, and tired, and quickly getting dehydrated, I stayed at the convent on Monday, nursed by Madre Marina. I ended up losing fifteen pounds.

It could have been worse, though. Another person on the trip got amoebic dysentary. And then we began to hear reports of what was happening in other parts of the country. Rumors were spreading that Americans were kidnapping children to sell their internal organs. In one village a woman was beaten badly and nearly killed; the police department which tried to protect her was overrun and burned. I crawled from bed to call Joy and Mom, just in case they’d heard any of the news reports on CNN. Fortunately, no one was paying any attention.

Tomorrow I go home.

Wednesday, April 6

I waited for my plane for 3 1/2 hours yesterday! They had to fly in a part from Miami. The security was tighter than I’d ever seen in an airport. I had to go through three checkpoints, and was even patted down. Finally I got out. I felt like I was being released. I found myself needing to be gone. When the ticket agent suggested we might have to stay in Guatemala City that night, I nearly panicked! Get me at least to the U.S., I thought, even if you have to do it by way of Shanghai, Bombay, Istanbul and Paris!!

On my sick bed the other day I was listening to the Voice of America on the radio. They had a report on the elections in El Salvador. Archbishop Rivera y Damas of San Salvador told the Salvadoran people not to vote for the ARENA party, founded by Roberto D’Aubuisson, who in 1980 had ordered the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero. “It’s time,” he said, “that they were punished for their years of terror. We can’t let them just forget the past.” He suggested that El Salvador build a memorial to their war similar to the Vietnam War memorial in Washington. It was a moving speech.

I then received an interesting lesson in propagandas. The rest of the story was taken up with what might be euphemistically termed “balance”–the Army’s side. “The church is wrongheaded,” the generals said, “and dominated by leftists.” This, in turn, was followed by a story about dissent in the Catholic church, featuring American theologians I had never heard of criticizing the church in the U.S. for its positions on abortion, women, and birth control. They argued for the necessity of following one’s conscience, and rejecting the teaching of the bishops when it contradicted one’s own view. The propagandas intent was clearly to cause the people of El Salvador to ignore the Archbishop’s criticism of ARENA.

The plane finally left San Salvador, but I missed my connection in Miami. The airline put me up in a hotel, and the next day I flew to Boston, then got onto a Saab turboprop to Burlington, VT.

I thought of all I had to do when I got home, starting with my taxes. But first, rest–and a visit to the doctor.

Looking down on the clouds far below, my mind was in as much agony as my body. It began, perhaps, as I saw the Guatemalan army base next to the airport as we took off from San Salvador. I began to wonder whether I should resign my commission as an officer in the U.S. Army. Wandering the streets of San Andres Itzapa, I had imagined myself here in uniform, carrying a weapon. I thought of all the U.S. had done here, and in so many other places around the world, all in an attempt to eradicate “communism.” How was this compatible with my call to be Franciscan, an “instrument of God’s peace”?

I thought of all the children I met, who had seen suffering I couldn’t even imagine. I thought of Marcos, Luis, Ana Luisa, whose mother cooked for the sisters at the convent. They would come into our room every chance they had, laughing, teasing, begging for cookies and chocolate.

I thought especially of Giovanni, the dirty, unkempt, despised, diseased street urchin who smiled at me as he and his siblings and their dog wandered past me in the packed church of Parramos on Easter Sunday. After I had gone out, and was sitting under the tree, he came over to me again, and we tried to talk. I recalled that as he was speaking with me, several villagers came closer. An old man lay on the grass nearby, and smiled. A younger man leaned against the tree behind me. A third was on our right. Were they just taking advantage of the shade, as I was? Were they trying to be silently friendly? Or were they keeping an eye on us, aware of the rumors of Americans abducting children? I’ll never know.

Thinking of Giovanni, I recalled the story of St. Francis embracing the leper. Even though I was myself Franciscan, up to that point I had never really understood how Francis could reach out to someone so physically revolting.

Now I knew. In the eyes of Giovanni, filled with hope and pain and curiosity, I saw the face of Christ. And my life would never be the same

(Afterward, I wrote the following poem.)

Polonnaruwa

All problems are resolved and everything is clear.”–T. Merton

 

When April’s sweet showers
Have piercéd the root of
The drought of March,
A soldier-priest
Follows the pilgrim path
Pro Deo

(Pledged to go where king commands,
Pledged to offer prayer and sacrifice
For those who kill to free–
Pro Deo et Patria)

Ad Parramos,
The Church of the Holy Innocents,
In regnum Reaganiensis
A prisoner of war,
Classrooms catechizing torture and prostitution.

Steel cavalry stabled in streets
Pawed at the dusty roads,
Scenting blood;
Racing to the battle,
Diesel engines snorting black,
Saving settlers from savages.

The bugle blast commands carnage:
Cleanse the whole
(Not merely the apocalyptic third)–
Totally depraved;
Infected with an incurable disease:
The hunger of the poor for bread.

Old Mayan men, swollen misshapen feet caked with mud, straw and shit.
Hunch-backed women with pruned breasts patting tortillas.
Middle-aged nine-year-olds loaded with wood, water
Or a hungry, blanket-wrapped sister.

“There’s nothing like the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Neatly dressed young Van Heusen executives from Georgia
With pretty wives and smiling children
Oversee a new plantation.
Ladino playboys with Gucci loafers and Rolex watches
Hop to Miami for a night at the disco.
Smiling young soldiers in crisp starched fatigues,
Machine guns thrusting through Cathedral ruins,
Preserve freedom.

Parramos resurrexit.
Alleluias ring over the unknown tombs.
The harvest is ripe;
Pressed down, and shaken together, and running over.

Three children wind through the crowds–
Despiséd,
Rejected,
and doggéd.

Tentatively they approach the pilgrim
Resting against a tree,
Tired, and gas-encramped.

An old woman boiling tamales casts a wary eye,
While men with machetes stand guard.

Giovanni,
Garfield T-shirt tattered,
Smiles through rotting teeth,
And reaches out with scabbéd hand.

Notes

1William Martin, A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story (New York: William Morrow, 1991), p. 423; the incident is also mentioned in José Míguez Bonino, Faces of Latin American Protestantism(Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1997), p. 143.

2See Christian Smith, Resisting Reagan: The U.S. Central America Peace Movement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).