The Religious Roots of Solidarity
The Religious Roots Of Solidarity

Margie Swedish discusses the breadth and depth of faith-
based solidarity work.

     The seeds of faith-based solidarity with the people of
El Salvador were planted long before the assassination of
Archbishop Oscar Romero in March 1980. The roots of
solidarity extend back three decades as U.S. missioners went
off to Latin America in response to pleas from their church
leaders. There they discovered a reality that changed their
lives and their understanding and experience of faith -- a
transformation that many called "conversion."
     Many of these missioners became part of the process
begun in the 1960s and '70s to transform the Latin church
from a colonial one close to those in power to a church
immersed in the world of the poor, taking their side in the
struggle for justice. These were people who responded when
Archbishop Romero called for international solidarity with
his church and his people.
     In early 1980 a group of Roman Catholic religious
leaders in Washington, many of them with precisely this
background, gathered to discuss how they might best respond
to the human rights crisis in El Salvador, and especially
the persecution of Romero's church. Some of those present
knew Romero personally; others had encountered him at the
Latin American Bishops meeting in Puebla, Mexico the
previous fall, at which the bishops declared the church's
"preferential option for the poor." Some had also known his
predecessor, Msgr. Luis Chavez y Gonzalez, who had developed
a new pastoral model for the Archdiocese of San Salvador
that brought the church close to the poor and their struggle
for dignity. This model had drawn repression and the hatred
of the oligarchy before Romero was selected to replace him.
     On March 7, 1980, this group founded the Religious Task
Force on El Salvador, a "six month emergency project" to
support Salvadorans through what then seemed like a process
of imminent revolutionary change, as in neighboring
     Just two weeks later, Tom Quigley, Latin American
adviser for the United States Catholic Conference and a Task
Force founder, travelled to El Salvador with an ecumenical
delegation. They were present, offering solidarity, at the
Sacred Heart Basilica when Romero delivered his now-famous
final homily demanding an end to the repression. Romero
welcomed the delegation at the beginning of his homily,
introducing them to an applauding congregation which
understood the significance of this gesture from churches in
the U.S.
     The following day, Romero was assassinated.
     Also present then was the Rev. William Wipfler,
director of the Human Rights Office of the National Council
of Churches of Christ (NCC). He was among the group that
founded the Inter-Religious Task Force on El Salvador in New
York following Romero's death.
     As these two task forces took up national work within
the religious community that year, local and regional task
forces began springing up across the U.S. These groups
sought to develop a coordinated challenge to U.S. policy,
which under then-President Jimmy Carter was clearly leaning
towards deeper commitment to the military dictatorship in El
     On December 2 of that year, four U.S. church women were
murdered by members of the Salvadoran National Guard. It was
a direct and brutal attack on the international mission
community that had taken up the cause of the poor. The
deaths of Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Jean Donovan and Dorothy
Kazel sealed a bond between the faith communities of the
U.S. and El Salvador, especially among Catholic religious
women in the U.S. That bond has endured and even deepened
over these many years.
     Catholic religious women and the institutions that
represent them were, and remain, among the strongest and
most consistent leaders of faith-based solidarity work. They
staffed many of the local task forces or added support from
their own justice and peace offices. They carried out high-
quality advocacy work that won admiration and respect in
Congress, even among their opponents. They provided
financial and human resources to organizations working for
justice and peace in El Salvador and the Central American
     Later they would make a critical contribution to the
development of the sanctuary movement, working at the border
to bring refugees safely into the U.S., helping with
transportation on the "overground railroad," sometimes
providing sanctuary at their religious houses. Along with
tens of thousands of others, they took the "Pledge of
Resistance" against U.S. support for the Nicaraguan contras.
Many took part in acts of civil disobedience. And they were
among those who responded first and enthusiastically to the
call to accompany Salvadoran refugees in Honduran refugee
camps when they made their historic decision to go home.
     However, from the very beginning, faith-based
solidarity work had a distinctly ecumenical character.
national church institutions worked together in a cross-
denominational collaboration of nearly unprecedented depth
and intensity. Powerful joint statements were issued
denouncing U.S. policy, expressing moral outrage and
offering solidarity to the Salvadoran people.
     Many of these efforts were coordinated under the
umbrella of the Central America Working Group (CAWG was a
project of the Coalition for a New Foreign and Military
Policy until the Coalition closed down; it has operated
independently since then). This coalition included religious
denominations, Catholic religious orders, human rights and
policy organizations, and solidarity groups; it grew into an
unprecedented collaborative effort among varying
constituencies, both national and grassroots. It is the only
remaining ongoing national coalition on Central America, a
sign that this collaboration was more than tactical, but was
(and is) based on shared common principles and strategic
     The efforts of the national religious institutions lent
critical moral and political support, as well as
credibility, to the work at local levels where groups felt
the greatest pressure from their right-wing opponents,
hostile members of Congress, and often the local media.
     The depth of faith-based solidarity was rooted in the
long experience of the U.S. churches in Latin America and in
the relationships that grew out of this presence. In the
early 1960s Pope John XXIII called upon the church of the
U.S. to send missionaries to Latin America to help meet the
overwhelming needs of the Latin church. Several dioceses and
many religious orders responded, including the Diocese of
Cleveland, whose Latin American Mission Team was the
sponsoring agent for Jean Donovan and Dorothy Kazel. Other
mission-sending groups, such as the Maryknoll Sisters, the
community of Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, had roots that
extended as far back as the 1940s.
     Protestant churches were also building stronger links
with their counterparts in Latin America, developing a
closer collaboration between the NCC in the U.S. and the
Latin American Council of Churches.
     When U.S. missioners were sent in the 1960s, their work
initially followed very traditional models -- parish work,
preparing people for the sacraments, administering schools
and hospitals. Part of the conscious rationale was to help
counter the rising Marxist movements which were spreading
throughout the region.
     However, not long after coming to Latin America, many
of these missioners discovered a far different reality than
they had anticipated. Not only did they begin to discover
the real structural causes of the misery in which most of
the people they served were living -- the result of nearly
500 years of colonial oppression -- but they encountered
sectors within the Latin church that were taking on a new
model of pastoral work from within that reality, a model
perhaps best expressed in the Basic Christian Communities
     In the Basic Communities, poor people, supported by
pastoral workers, began to read together the Exodus stories,
the writings of the prophets of the Old Testament, and the
Gospels, and to bring that reflection to their own
situation. This had not been done by the more traditional
and paternalistic model of church that believed these
stories too "dangerous" for the poor, who could not be
expected to understand them on their own. Now the people
were discovering that God did not desire their misery, but
rather their liberation, the creation of a society that
reflected the true dignity of all human beings. It is
impossible to overstate the impact this had on many of Latin
America's poor -- and join those who worked with them.
     Liberation theology, which was the theological
interpretation of this new experience, grew out of this
movement of the church to the world of the poor, where it
became immersed in their reality.
     Taking up the cause of the poor brought churches and
missioners close to another reality: military dictatorship,
repression and persecution against those sectors working for
radical social transformation. Among the many founders of El
Salvador solidarity work were U.S. church workers and
mission-sending congregations who had been in places like
the Dominican Republic in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson
sent in the U.S. armed forces to save "democracy," or in
Chile in 1973 when the military carried out its brutal coup
against the government of Salvador Allende.
     They were in Nicaragua in the 1970s for the final
rampage of repression as Somoza tried to hang on to his
dynasty. And they were in El Salvador, some of them part of
the pastoral work being carried out by Monsignors Chavez y
Gonzalez and Oscar Romero, as the repression deepened and
civil war became inevitable.
     And they were friends and colleagues of the four church
women. Soon they realized they had become not only part of a
church of the poor, but also a martyred church.
     It is impossible to understand the deep roots of U.S.
faith-based solidarity with El Salvador without
understanding this background. This is what has given faith-
based work such a profound and enduring sense of commitment.
It was not rooted in particular social movements or
historical crises; nor was it rooted in a response to the
great foreign policy debate of the day in the U.S. It was,
and is, rooted in these long and enduring relationships with
El Salvador's (and Latin America's) poor, walking alongside
refugees, workers, peasants as they sought, and continue to
seek, their way out of oppression.
     This was a radical stance, and the churches paid dearly
for it -- in ceaseless efforts to undermine the churches'
credibility in the U.S., often by employees and agencies of
the U.S. government, or even in direct attacks on their
moral authority. In the most extreme times, phones of many
faith-based offices were tapped, local meetings were
monitored, offices of groups supporting sanctuary for
refugees were broken into and records stolen. The right-wing
Institute on Religion and Democracy implemented a broad,
multi-layered strategy to defame the denominations in the
U.S. media while organizing their more conservative
membership in the pews to oppose their religious leadership.
     Throughout the 1980s, the leadership of the religious
community was a major irritant to U.S. policy-makers, an
attack on their credibility. Without this leadership, a more
direct form of U.S. intervention may well have taken shape.
The work of the churches helped make this impossible. They
spoke not only with a grassroots constituency and moral
authority, but an authority based upon decades of work in
Latin America, an expertise that could not be matched in the
White House or Congress.
     The solidarity work of the religious community ended up
doing far more than create a substantive and effective
challenge to U.S. policy. The concrete work of solidarity
has also created a solid and committed core of grassroots
faith-motivated activists who are in this work for the long
haul. Many of these people had never left U.S. soil until
their first trip to a country at war. They took risks of
which many of them would never have believed themselves
     These people of faith and the communities that have
developed because of this work continue their solidarity,
even as it takes on new forms. Many of them have worked hard
to defeat NAFTA, or are at the forefront of work to confront
the rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S..
They still lend support to refugees, still raise funds for
communities in El Salvador, still travel to be with the
people as they seek now to create an authentic popular
     Much of the prophetic leadership of church institutions
has diminished with time. But the bonds that have animated
communities at the grassroots level are nurtured now by the
newly shared history of solidarity, persecution, even
martyrdom, of these past three decades. The content of this
faith continues to pose a direct challenge to the way this
hemisphere is organized. What people of faith have seen and
heard and touched with their hands cannot be taken away from
them, nor easily forgotten. This community will continue to
be at the forefront of solidarity with the poor of our
hemisphere, walking what we know is the long journey to
social justice and peace.