A couple of days ago we met with David Blanchard and heard him give a presentation to a group of students about his work in El Salvador. Father David, as he’s called here, has lived in El Salvador for the last 20 years. He’s the director of Pastoral, and an important part of the church and its social work here. This social work was the object of his talk, directed at a group of students from a Jesuit University from Ohio in El Salvador on a mission trip. He opened with an overview of the situation in El Salvador, describing the huge problems caused by poverty and machismo, such as domestic violence and illness of all kinds. Then he spoke about las pandillas, the gangs. He described in great and specific detail the kind of violence they cause across the population, and the situations that lead to thousands of kids only 12 or 13 years old joining the gangs every year. He told personal stories about rape and murder, and a massacre of a bus full of innocent people.
A few days before that we sat at a table with a group of five women who devote a large portion of their lives to improving the health of those less fortunate. An hour later, we met 20 female volunteers who run parroquial clinics to make sure rural towns have access to better health. A day after that, at COAR, we met a group of people who volunteer their time and efforts to protect and nurture a group of children who are victims of the very situations Father David described. Gang violence is something all of these women spend their weeks fighting against, and a lot of their work shows some level of success.
Here in Cojutepeque, our host is a man named Rigo. He’s not a part of El Pastoral, simply a member of the church here who helps out with a variety of church social work, including some of Pastoral’s projects. He is absolutely beloved by the community. He and the other man who lives here, Daniel, have welcomed us into their home and their lives without a second thought. They rearranged the house for us, they cook for us, and Rigo spends hours showing us around Cojutepeque. We asked Rigo on our first night if it was safe to live here – we’ve heard the stories about las bandillas like everybody else. He told us about a pact the church made a year or so earlier with the gangs, that they would stop killing people if the church advocated to improve jail conditions. We’re not sure if this has actually had an effect, but his final reply was simple – there are gangs here, and we have to be careful. But here things are calm, and there are good people.
The truth of the matter is that, as in all other places, things are complicated here. There are conspiracy theories and politics and all sorts of institutions at play here, just like every other country, and even the people who work within the institutions don’t really know what’s going on. As a young employee of Pastoral told us, “I’m Catholic, so I’d like to believe that what we’re doing is good, and has a purpose. But I just don’t know.”
At the training retreat for the GROW interns, Alyssa told us that above all we were to look for connections instead of differences. To look at El Salvador and see only the picture that Father David painted for us is only to focus on the differences. There is incredible violence here, but there is incredible violence everywhere. Here, at least, the higher rate of violence seems to be accompanied by a higher rate of people who are working hard to turn things around in their country. The truly sad part for me was that the group of students in Father David’s presentation will go home talking about the violence and poverty that reigns in El Salvador, and the gangs that cause it all. This is the true injustice, because there is truly so much more.