A Bishop for All People

April 17, 2012

“Ningún cristiano puede llamarse cristiano si no siente el dolor de su hermano.”

(No Christian can call himself Christian if he does not feel the pain of his brother)

Monsignor Óscar Romero

Bishop Martin Barahona, Bishop of the Diocese of El Salvador

The above quote from Monsignor Óscar Romero struck me as a particularly appropriate description of the ministry of Bishop Martín Barahona, the Bishop of the Anglican Episcopal Diocese of El Salvador. He is, in the tradition of Monsignor Romero, a pastor of the people. Just spend even a little bit of time with him and you’ll see this is the case. Thanks to Bishop Barahona, we had a unique opportunity to meet with some of the leaders of the Histórico Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Historic Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) during our brief visit to El Salvador.The Historic FMLN is an organization of former guerilla fighters who fought against the Salvadoran government in El Salvador’s civil war which began in 1980. In 1992, Peace Accords signed between the government and the Historic FMLN ended the long and bloody war. During the 12 years of fighting, at least 70,000 people were killed and an unknown number of people disappeared.

(To read a brief overview of the Salvadoran civil war, click here.)

For the last 3 months, members of the Historic FMLN have been occupying the Catedral Metropolitana in central San Salvador to force the government to hear their demands for social change. Their demands are simple and straight forward, and though they seek support for veterans of the civil war and their parents and/or children, they reflect a larger struggle that transcends the current situation. Their demands are:

  • To include the 3,400 parents of guerilla fighters killed in the civil war in the country’s pension program;
  • To reincorporate veterans of the Historic FMLN into the police force (many were expelled in 2000);
  • To augment the monthly pension of wounded war veterans (currently $94/month)
  • To provide scholarships for university education for children of war veterans; and
  • To reduce the persecution of the union movement.

Bishop Martin Barahona with members of the Historic FMLN leadership

According to one of the men we met, occupying the cathedral is a “shout of desperation…the circumstances that caused the civil war still exist…we are concerned that we could have a civil war again.” He continued, “We lament the fact that the government has taken an inhumane view of those who fought to bring about a new country…we went to war for social justice and the people who led us are now in power. They are just as unjust as the wartime government. Just because the government is different doesn’t mean that the situation is different. For those who fought the war, it’s the same. ”

Another veteran commented that he is “worried about the continued setbacks in the peace process and the remilitarization of the government apparatus.” He feels that occupying the cathedral provides an opportunity to put their concerns before the world. When asked why the Historic FMLN chose to occupy the cathedral and not another location like a government office building, he replied, “Because we don’t want violence. This is a house of God. God is just, divine, omnipotent, and wise. God’s wisdom is used for justice.”

As we sat and listened to the leadership of the Historic FMLN tell their story, I was particularly struck by how adamant they were that a return to violence and war is not something in which any of them are interested. They repeated that over and over again. One of the most striking comments made was the following:

“We don’t want war because we made an historic and moral commitment to the people of El Salvador when we signed the Peace Accords…those who were in the field of battle under indiscriminate bombings and machine gun fire know the enormous personal and social cost of war…to talk of war is to talk of death.”

When I asked Bishop Barahona why he met with the Historic FMLN in the first place, he told me that the Episcopal Anglican Church of El Salvador has traditionally supported the poor and marginalized people of El Salvador and that, “these men are both of those things.” When the leadership of the Historic FMLN called Bishop Barahona to find out if he would talk with them, he didn’t hesitate. In his own words, “This is the mandate of the church…it’s my work…I’m on call for everyone, not just Episcopalians. We are an inclusive church and everyone is accepted.”

The Anglican Episcopal Church in El Salvador is numerically quite small, with just over 2,000 active members and 5,000 members on the books, but reaches many more through its social ministries. The visit to the Historic FMLN veterans is just one example of how the church reaches beyond its official membership and across a wide spectrum of Salvadoran society to embrace the whole Body of Christ. Bishop Barahona said, “I defend human rights. Everyone has human rights.” His position, actions, and support are clearly appreciated by the men occupying the cathedral. One of them commented, “The spirit of Monsignor Romero and Bishop Martín strengthens us…with Bishop Martín, wolves (former guerilla fighters) become sheep.”

Our visit to El Salvador gave us a great deal to think about and reflect on. We’ll be posting more stories from our time with Erika Almquist, our Young Adult Service Corps volunteer who serves in El Salvador; Fundación Cristosal; and the Diocese of El Salvador, so please stay tuned.

Also, if you haven’t seen the film Romero starring Raul Julia, we’d highly recommend it!