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 Nicaragua. ROMERO'S ASSASSINATION 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 Salvador. 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 region. 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 goals. 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. DEEP COMMITMENT 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 movement. 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. SOLIDARITY CONTINUES 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 capable. 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 democracy. 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.