Skip to content

The Transformative Power of Accompaniment: How Oscar Romero Changed My Life

October 18, 2018

In January of 1992, just days before the cease-fire in El Salvador, I was sitting in the Central Plaza watching the crowds of people with my traveling partners. We noticed a large crowd in the center listening to a man speaking in English who was accompanied by a translator. I decided to walk over to investigate what was going on when I realized that the man speaking was a preacher from the US. No sooner did I realize this that I turned around and rejoined my friends shaking my head in disgust.

When the crowd finally dispersed I noticed that the street preacher was headed in our direction. Right away he began to speak to us in English and inquired about our being in El Salvador. We told him we were tourists because one never knows when there are people listening in on your conversations. Before we could say any more this guy began asking us if we had “come to know the Lord.” We all said no, much to his disappointment, but we were curious enough to know what he was doing here. He said “to spread the Gospel and to win souls for Christ.” We asked him if he was doing anything for these people in the way of food, housing, jobs, ect. He told us no and that those things were not relevant as long as people saved their souls.

At that point I remember telling him that he was no different than the long line of Christians who had come here to impose their will on these people. I said if you wanted to preach religion, maybe he might want to follow the model of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero. Looking at me with a confused expression, our missionary friend simply said, “Who was he?”

The above was taken from my book, Sembramos, Comemos, Sembramos: Learning Solidarity on Mayan Time. That book is about how the people of Central America and Chiapas, Mexico had transformed my life and helped me to come to the realization that real solidarity takes place when we accompany people who are fighting for liberation from oppression.

I also shared this story about the US missionary in El Salvador, because it demonstrates how arrogant and clueless most people in the US are when it comes to the life and commitment of the late Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero. In El Salvador, people affectionately referred to Romero as Monsenor, because Romero had demonstrated his commitment to the people of El Salvador towards the end of his life. And Romero had primarily demonstrated his commitment to the people because he accompanied them in their struggle, walking with them and making the church in El Salvador their church of the poor and oppressed.

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 “Monsenor.” 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. The Vatican did not try to silence Romero for his critique of US imperialism, but they also did nothing to challenge the Salvadoran military to cease their threats against Romero and other religious workers in the tiny Central American country. This fact alone, makes you wonder, why is the Vatican now canonizing Romero as a Saint, when they were complicit in many ways in the US-back counterinsurgency campaign that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths in the 1980s?

How Romero Transformed my life

In March of 1980, when Oscar Romero was assassinated, I was completely oblivious to what was happening in El Salvador. However, within a few short years, my world was opened to the realities of US-sponsored terrorism in Central America.

When I first moved to Grand Rapids in 1982, I quickly came in contact with folks who were doing weekly vigils for Central America on the Monroe Mall. The picture shown above, was part of that ongoing consciousness raising work around Central America when the US was supporting counter-insurgency wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, the Contra War in Nicaragua and had turned Honduras into a massive US military base.

When I was in the seminary in 1983/84 and studying at Aquinas College, a student group that I was part of continued to hold vigils, hand out literature and invite speakers to campus. We hosted a Salvadoran labor organizer who had survived a bombing of her labor hall earlier that year.

After I had left the seminary and helped to found the Koinonia House, we continued organizing around Central American solidarity issues, but it never felt like it was enough. Then in 1986, our community house on LaGrave, decided to take the next step and declare ourselves a sanctuary for Central American political refugees. It was this decision that led me down the path of living and working in Central America, making 13 trips between 1988 and 2006, doing primarily accompaniment work.

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 spoke out against the injustice in El Salvador, because that is what the people told him to do. Romero did this in his sermons, in his letters and on his radio show.

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.

This was the most important lesson I learned from Romero. I learned to walking with people, to listen and to accompany them even if it meant putting my life at risk.

When I was in El Salvador during the cease fire in 1992, the women from the grassroots organization COMADRES (an organization founded as a result of the assassination of Archbishop Romero), had invited us to stay at their offices, because it would help keep them safe. What these Salvadoran women meant was that the presence of gringos would provide them with some extra space to do what they needed to do and maybe it would mean they would be able to stay alive for another day.

COMADRES, like so many other Salvadoran groups were constantly receiving death threats and having members of their organization disappear or end up murdered by the Salvadoran army. The four of us who stayed at their office were honored that they would ask us to have a presence with them and we delighted in the opportunity to sleep on the floor.

Because the cease fire had begun, there was a massive demonstration planned a few days later in San Salvador, where hundreds of thousands of people who converge on the capitol and celebrate the end of the counter-insurgency war that Romero and so many others fought against. Again, the women at COMADRES asked us to accompany them in the march and to even make our own banner expressing our solidarity with the Salvadoran people.

The march and celebration was amazing and lasted all day, all night and into the following morning. It is hard for those of us who have not grown up in a war torn country to understand the emotional and psychological relief that people were experiencing during the celebration that took place right next to the Cathedral that Romero had preached at while he was the Archbishop.

I’m still not sure how I feel about the Vatican’s decision to canonize Monsenor Romero, since for me and for most Salvadorans, Romero did not need to be validated by the Catholic hierarchy. Romero found his validation in the work of accompaniment. We shouldn’t need to feel validated by awards or recognition, rather our validation should come from those we accompany on the road to collective liberation. Viva Monsenor Romero!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: