Physical Solidarity: Acts of Accompaniment
Physical Solidarity

Dr. Kathleen Kenney describes the graced opportunity to
"walk with" Salvadorans in acts of accompaniment.

     It was a bright, crisp February day in Kansas City as
the five of us gathered for our monthly faith reflection. We
were a Lutheran Pastor, a United Methodist Seminary
Professor, a Catholic justice and peace advocate and two
Catholic nuns. The desire to nurture and strengthen our
commitment to work for social justice and peace, especially
in Central America, drew us together.
     At the end of our reflection that day, we read a letter
from the Ecclesial Christian Base Communities in El Salvador
in which they asked the international religious community to
accompany them on March 24, the anniversary of Archbishop
Oscar Romero's assassination. The invitation was to come
walk with them, to be a small measure of protection for
them, to pray and reflect with them on how to bring about a
peace with justice in El Salvador. It was amazing how each
of the five of us heard the invitation as if it were a
personal call from the Spirit through the Base Communities
to go, to be with, to accompany our sisters and brothers in
their celebration of Romero's life, death and continued
presence in the Christian community still struggling for
freedom and justice.
     Two of us did go on the Kansas City delegation and the
other three went in subsequent years. Over 100 others heard
the call that winter. They were Christians, Jews, seculars.
They came from all walks of life -- activists, teachers,
pastors, parents, nurses, social workers, etc. On March 24,
1987, they walked the streets of San Salvador in reverent
procession accompanying thousands of Salvadorans who risked
their lives to participate in the pilgrimage to the tomb of
Archbishop Romero at the Cathedral.
     It was a walking with, an accompaniment that continued
when the internationals returned. They raised funds, fasted,
prayed, held vigil, told stories, educated, raised awareness
and organized lobbying.
THE BEGINNINGS
     Accompaniment began in 1986 when internally displaced
Salvadorans decided to return to their places of origin in
the countryside. These Salvadoran peasants had been up-
rooted during the Salvadoran military operations designed to
depopulate the countryside in the mid-'80s. Empty the water
and the fish will die, was the Salvadoran military's
rationale: Remove the peasants and any base of support which
sustains the guerrillas, and they will die. Peasants were
killed or forced to flee. Their lands, homes, crops, and
livestock were destroyed. Twenty-five percent of the
Salvadoran population was displaced. Some fled to other
countries and refugee camps. Many fled to San Salvador to
eke out a subsistence in slum settlements or refugee camps.
     At the National Forum of the Displaced held in May
1986, displaced Salvadorans gathered to elect the National
Coordinating Committee for Repopulation (CNR). CNR organized
the return of displaced peasants to their lands; their
determination was very simple: "These lands are our lands,
our homes, our farms, our villages. We are entitled to dwell
in them.  We intend to do so."
     The first effort was the repopulation of 26 families in
the town of San Jose Las Flores in Chalatenango, in June
1986. CNR sent an invitation to the international religious
community to accompany the peasants home for their
protection. CNR asked the international religious community
to lend moral, spiritual and material support, to be their
public voice; to raise funds to purchase the seeds and
provide other basic items for rebuilding their lives; to be
physically present with them; and to commit to work to stop
all aid to the war.
     The U.S. Office on Human Rights in El Salvador
coordinated a delegation of 15 North American religious
persons to accompany the repopulation of San Jose Las
Flores. In addition, hundreds of people and dozens of
religious congregations across the U.S. backed them with
financial donations, prayer and lobbying. On June 20, 1986,
the caravan of repopulators left San Salvador; it was
detained several times, but finally reached its destination
safely. During the following weeks and months the military
intercepted food and harassed the community. Members of
religious delegations maintained a continuous presence to
assure a minimum of protection while the people
reconstructed their homes and harvested their crops.
     On July 16, 132 families accompanied by 19
representatives from the U.S. religious community returned
to El Barillo. In the following years, until the end of the
offensive, the repopulation of displaced and the
repatriation of refugees continued with the accompaniment of
internationals. Accompaniment took many forms, but it always
originated at the invitation of Salvadorans. They initiated
it and determined the shape it took. Delegations went to El
Salvador for one or two weeks. Some individuals stayed long-
term, from six months to a few years. A U.S. Catholic priest
and a religious brother from Richmond, Virginia provided a
presence at San Roque Church, a key site for repopulation
organizers and supporters and for Ecclesial Christian Base
Communities' meetings. One woman, Barbara Schaible,
volunteered a year to accompany Lutheran Bishop Medardo
Gomez who was under constant death threat.
     Accompaniment presented a unique challenge to the
internationals who went to El Salvador. They had to let go
of their need or desire to strategize on behalf of the
Salvadorans. They had to accept that they were not in a
position to propose solutions to the Salvadorans' problems.
     It was a graced opportunity simply to be alongside the
victim in an act of physical solidarity that came from a
spiritual solidarity. Theologian Robert McAfee Brown
succinctly described the theological significance of
accompaniment:
     "The theme of accompaniment is deeply rooted in Judaic
and Christian history. Adam and Eve had the rather
terrifying accompaniment of an angel with a flaming sword as
they left the garden, and even Cain, the first murderer, was
not totally abandoned by God. More positively, the children
of Israel had signs of God's accompanying presence on their
trek through the wilderness -- a pillar of fire by night and
a pillar of cloud by day as well as divinely-sent food
discovered on the ground every morning. The prophets --
lonely souls -- were upheld by the personal presence of God
to whose mighty deeds they testified. Jesus' struggle in the
wilderness ended with the ministering of angels, and the
times in prison of the early Christians were accompanied by
the realization that they were not alone.
     "In our times, we do not expect such tangible evidence
of being accompanied as fire, cloud, manna or angels. It is
clear that the evidence of accompaniment in our day is
provided by people. The face of God for us is found in other
human faces.
     "Where, after all, did Jesus tell us we would encounter
him? In visiting the sick, clothing the naked, feeding the
hungry, rather than in building Cathedrals or memorizing
creeds."
PROFOUND EXPERIENCE
     The impact on the international religious community of
physical, material or spiritual accompaniment was a very
profound religious experience. The victims, the poor, the
disenfranchised taught them what faith, hope and love were
all about. Contact with those who had nothing, but felt in
full possession of their lives and their future, gave
renewed meaning in life. One North American priest, after
spending a few days at San Roque Church, looked at Fr.
Pedro, the pastor, and with tears in his eyes said, "That is
what priesthood means!" Fr. Pedro's church had been a
refugee camp and now hosted displaced individuals and
delegations of internationals who had come to accompany the
repopulations. His life was under constant death threat, but
he remained at the service of those most in need.
     In the U.S. religious congregations were deeply
impacted by the experience of accompaniment. One large old-
monied, white, urban Catholic parish started their
accompaniment by collecting money for an orphanage for
children displaced by the war. Safe enough. Then a few
parishioners went to El Salvador and returned with moving
stories. Fr. Daniel, whose parish ran the orphanage, visited
the U.S. parish and spoke from the pulpit, shared
parishioners' table, told more stories. Flesh was put on the
stories when the parish was asked to provide shelter for a
young Catechist and his wife who were under serious threat
and had to flee El Salvador.
     When the terrible offensive took place in 1989, the
Salvadorans whom these parishioners had come to know and
love were killed or forced into hiding. The military
persecuted them. Their crime had been to care for the poor
and displaced. Then the act of accompaniment became a clear
political, social and economic statement. People who had
never so much as written to their federal legislators were
now organizing petition drives and congressional visits.
They lobbied for the right of innocent people to live free
from fear, with self-determination, with basic goods on
their own lands.
     The accompaniment movement was as significant for the
North American religious community as it was for the
Salvadorans. The North Americans learned that it was not
sufficient to pray for others who are suffering persecution
nor to send monetary assistance. They had to feel and
experience the pain, struggle, danger of the victim. Some
had to risk their lives alongside the persecuted. They had
to become as little children through the frustrating
experience of communicating in a new language. The North
American religious community learned that faith can be,
indeed must be, political and that it is radically biased in
favor of the poor and oppressed. Out of the ashes of war and
suffering, the Salvadorans gave the North American community
an ember which ignited a renewed, deepened hope for the time
when the promise of God's realm of love, justice and peace
would be made a reality.