Monday, April 2, 2012
Centro Arte Para La Paz with Sister Peggy
Last night we were introduced to one of the most remarkable people we met in El Salvador. Sister Peggy at the Centro Arte Para La Paz has lived in Suchitoto since the 1980s, when she and the other Sisters of Charity (although Sister Peggy prefers “Sisters of Justice”) struggled to raise enough funds to maintain control of the old convent and school which now house the Peace Center and guest house. They were some of the few people in Suchitoto willing and able to risk caring for wounded guerrillas during the war. In return, they received death threats in the form of mutilated bodies on their doorstep. Any commitment to social justice at that time marked you a subversive and made you an easy target for torture, assassination, or forced disappearance.
Sister Peggy explained that it was the sisters’ privileged status as Americans and church workers that protected them despite the risks they continued to take. They knew that any violence against them would be a ‘black mark’ on whoever had committed it, so their doors remained open and they persisted in the work they knew to be necessary and right. These days the Center offers yoga classes, guitar, saxophone, and harp lessons, and parenting workshops for people in the city of Suchitoto and the surrounding 82 communities—all free of charge.
Sister Peggy’s candid explanation of how her privilege protected her came at exactly the right moment. A lot of us, I think, have been dealing with the uncomfortable suspicion that we may not have any right to be in El Salvador, which is in many ways the victim of the American empire’s unethical economic and political policies. Who are we, as relatively affluent students at a prestigious university, to take an interest in the situation in this country? I am reminded of my host mom, whose sister was kidnapped at the age of nine months and adopted by American parents. This is just one case in which the good intentions of Americans exacerbated the atrocities being inflicted upon Salvadorans. I can think of many others. But perhaps there are ways to accompany people without trying to save them. To accompany without presuming to direct. To look at our privilege with eyes wide open and yet not become paralyzed by it.
Sister Peggy asked that we go home and try to feel gratitude instead of guilt. Gratitude is by far the more difficult posture, I think. How easy it is for us to cynically disengage from issues of global injustice because we realize that our country has helped to create them. And how humbling it is to refuse to look away, to refuse to stop the conversation there. I admit that I spent much of this week unable to be fully present in conversations with the people we met because I was so overcome by the feeling that my presence was doing more harm than good in a country where American bodies have been the vehicles of violent injustice, much of it masked by a condescending desire to ‘make a difference.’ Now I feel challenged to put aside the detachment I’ve been feeling and start fresh, discerning what my role will be in the healing of the world. Whether that role is in El Salvador, the U.S., or some other place I have yet to visit, feeling guilty and detached will not help.
Last night Sister Peggy asked our group what we aspire to after this journey. We sat on the floor of the old church and each of us wrote an answer. I cannot speak for the others in our delegation, but maybe our shared experience will have led to some shared conclusions. Here are some of the aspirations I wrote down during that reflection:
-to be faithful to those who need me, actually engaging in the essential and un-glamorous work of community building;
-to let myself be inspired by other people’s stories;
-to not allow myself to become paralyzed by adversity or by privilege;
-to do no harm;
-to act out of love and not out of fear;
and most of all: when in doubt, create beauty everywhere.
It has been an incredible eight days.
The next part of the journey will be just as wonderful.
Posted by Geoff at 1:23 PM