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Remembering Oscar Romero, the gift of accompaniment and Grand Rapids

March 22, 2018

On Saturday, it will be 38 years since Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down while saying mass in a small chapel in San Salvador. A Salvadoran soldier who was the graduate of the US Army School of the Americas, it was revealed later, killed Romero.

There has been much written about Romero since his assassination and the factors that led to his eventual death. However, it is important to note that Romero wasn’t always a radical priest or a proponent of Liberation Theology.

Before Romero was chosen as the new Archbishop of El Salvador, he was a quiet and conservative bishop. Romero was even a member of the Opus Dei, a movement within the Catholic Church that began in Spain in the early part of the 20th century and supported the dictatorship of Franco.

However, Romero was a close friend of Fr. Rutillio Grande, a priest in one of El Salvador’s rural communities. Grande was a proponent of Liberation Theology and when he was assassinated for serving the poor and challenging the wealthy oligarchy in El Salvador, Romero began to see the light. This moment of transformation is what Jesuit scholar Jon Sobrino called “Rutillio’s Miracle,” because it was the catalyst that transformed Romero into the Voice of the Voiceless.

Quickly Romero began to not only speak out on behalf of the poor, he began acting in such a way that soon thousands of Salvadorans would come to call him simply “Monsignor.” Romero turned the facilities at the cathedral into a space for people to come for relief, food and medical assistance. Romero also began hearing the stories of countless Salvadorans who told him how their family members were disappeared, tortured and killed.

Romero then began to challenge the power structure in El Salvador, mostly through his Sunday sermons and his weekly radio broadcast. Romero understood all to well that the poverty and violence that people endured was because of the unjust economic power that the country’s wealthy possessed.

Romero also understood that the political violence that was terrorizing the country’s poor and working class people was a direct result of US military aid to El Salvador. Five weeks before Romero was assassinated he wrote a letter to then US President Jimmy Carter. He asked Carter that if the US really wanted to support justice in El Salvador that the US should stop sending weapons to his country and that the US should not directly intervene in any way into the political, economic, military or diplomatic affairs of El Salvador.

Noam Chomsky writes in the book Manufacturing Consent, that after Romero sent the letter to Carter, the Carter administration put pressure on the Vatican to try and curb the activities of the archbishop.

Romero also understood that many of the foot soldiers in the Salvadoran military were poor people who had been forced into the army. The day before Romero was assassinated he made a special appeal to the soldiers in El Salvador to not kill their fellow Salvadorans. Romero ended his sermon with these words:

We want the government to seriously consider that reforms mean nothing when they come bathed in so much blood. Therefore, in the name of God, and in the name of this long-suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven every day more tumultuous, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you in the name of God: Cease the repression!

Here is a video with audio of Romero during his last sermon.

Accompanying those in the struggle for justice

According to Staughton Lynd’s book, Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change, Salvadoran Archbishop was the first person to use the term accompaniment. Romero practiced accompaniment in two important ways.

First, the Salvadoran Archbishop practiced accompaniment by speaking out against injustice. Romero did spoke out against the injustice in El Salvador, because that is what the people told him to do.

Shortly after Fr. Rutillio Grande was assassinate in 1977, Romero defied church authorities by hosting a singular mass for Fr. Grande and the two others murdered with him.

In his Third Pastoral Letter as Archbishop, Romero stated, “The most acute form in which violence appears in Latin America, is structural, or institutionalized violence, in which the socioeconomic and political structures operate to the benefit of a minority with the result that the majority of people are deprived of the necessities of life.” This is why in the same pastoral letter, Romero denounces Capitalism.

However, the second and most important form of accompaniment that Romero practiced, was walking with the people. Romero made it a point to visit communities all over El Salvador, to listen to them and to learn from them in their struggle.

Eventually, people began coming to the Archdiocese office in wave after wave to talk with Monsenor Romero. In late 1977, Romero turned the church office and courtyard into a place where people could come share their stories, get food and medical attention Romero also used this opportunity to document the disappearances, torture and murder of those who sought out his company. In addition, Romero arraigned for housing for those who had been displaced by the military repression and violence. In many ways, what the Salvadoran Archbishop had done was to offer Sanctuary for the people of El Salvador.

Dr. Paul Farmer, a physician and organizer engaged in accompaniment work in Haiti once wrote a description of what accompaniment work looked like:

There’s an element of mystery, of openness, in accompaniment. I’ll go with you and support you on your journey wherever it leads. I’ll keep you company and share your fate for a while. And by a while, I don’t mean a little while. Accompaniment is much more about sticking with a task until its deemed completed by the person or people being accompanied, not those doing the accompaniment.

Monsenor Romero understood this notion of staying with those he was accompanying, sharing their fate, even if that meant death.

Accompaniment in Grand Rapids

As we wrote on Tuesday, the UCC Church in Wyoming, Michigan, Joy Like a River, is now a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. 

This is a clear form of accompaniment. In fact, Rev. Justo Gonzalez, used that terminology during his address to those present during the Press Conference on Tuesday. Doing sanctuary work is not about helping people, it is about being in solidarity with people who are being targeted by state repression.

There are other forms of accompaniment being offer in Grand Rapids, such as the work of the GR Rapid Response to ICE project, where people who have been trained attempt to prevent ICE from arresting and detaining immigrants, as well as providing financial, legal, material and emotional support for immigrants impacted by ICE. For those wanting to get involved, like their Facebook page and find out when the next training is. 

In fact, the GR Rapid Response to ICE group is hosting a screening of a documentary about Monsenor Romero, tonight at Taqueria Rincon. You can get details at this link

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