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.