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An American Family’s Journey: Experience of the Church in El Salvador in 1977

Mark and Louise Zwick and their children, Joachim and Jennifer

We arrived in San Salvador on January 27th. The house we were to rent for $50.00 a month was located in a marginated area near the river and the dump. It had running water and electricity and was to be shared with a Salvadoran family. The only problem was the dust. It poured in constantly, especially when the children played soccer in the street or if the livestock passed by. The open sewers were some value in settling the dust. We attempted to drive to our house but the holes and rocks were too much.

Our trip by car from the United States with our two children, Jennifer and Joachim, had been pleasant, thanks not only to the Sanborn travel guide, which lists every bump and curve in the road and all the safe restaurants, but also to our well functioning 1965 Chevy. Our car was large and had a big trunk which held all of our possessions including dolls, violins and 200 children’s books to help with homesickness.

The Guardia in Guatemala did hassle us and threatened us with jail but soon turned generous and offered to take our fine to the judge.

We found Father Bernard Survil, a Maryknoll associate with whom we were to work. He welcomed us and arranged for us to dine with the nuns who staffed a girl’s school which our nine year old daughter was to attend. The nuns were also involved in comunidades de base.

Father Survil had been in that area for many months and traversed his parish daily, usually carrying with him the diocesan newspaper “Orientation” and “Justicia y Paz” a justice and peace sheet, which he sold for about a penny. We later learned how he covered so much ground. His pace was a slow gallop.

These diocesan papers were Father Survil’s downfall. They were considered subversive. (Imagine the Texas Catholic Herald being considered communistic. These papers were not that different). He was arrested and jailed two weeks after we arrived.

This was the first we realized that the government was getting nervous. The upcoming elections were the reason. Prior to our coming no clergy had been expelled, arrested or killed. People hinted periodically at the problems connected with the upcoming elections but did not indicate the seriousness of the situation. Had we known of the problems that would arise we would not have come.

Prior to his arrest Father Survil had asked us to atttend a Mass protesting the expulsion of a popular Colombian radio priest. We assisted at the Mass and heard Father Rutilio Grande make his famous statements which were his downfall and made him a marked man, “Nowadays,” he said, “it is practically illegal to be an authentic Christian in Latin America.”

Father Grande, a Jesuit who left the University to work with the farm workers, was constantly interrupted by applause. He said that he feared that the Bible would soon be considered a subversive document and not be allowed within the confines of the Country. “If Jesus were to cross into El Salvador,” he continued, “the government would arrest him. They would take him to many courts and accuse him of being unconstitutional and subversive, a revolutionary.”

We noticed when we parked the car to assist in the procession before Mass that there were several nicely dressed men in brand new American cars with pistols on the seats who were parked near us. Only later did we realize who they were and what they were doing there. We were still naive about the government.

Father Rutilio Grande was killed shortly thereafter, not with pistols but with heavy government arms. The government of course expressed their sympathy and promised an investigation.

We eventually learned the procedure. Foreign priests working with the people were deported, native priests and lay people were killed. During our stay several native priests and hundreds of lay people were killed and a number of foreign priests were expelled. Citizens of the United States were safe or so we were assured after visiting the American embassy. Many of the Americans there would side with the government, especially the business community, who supported the oppression of workers and some of whom said the Church was communistic. One can only imagine what their reports to the United States contained. It gives a Catholic a funny feeling to hear Notre Dame graduates talk this way.

We started out to attend Rutilio Grade’s wake but the vehicle in front of us, a jeep packed with people, mostly nuns, flipped over at a high speed directly in front of us. People flew all over the place but fortunately no one was killed. We spent the remainder of the day at the hospital to give solace to the Sisters and allowing our children, who witnessed the terrifying accident, an opportunity to speak with the injured in order to lessen their trauma.

Our parish and every parish in El Salvador was closed the Sunday following the death of Rutilio Grande. We walked from our parish and gathered in the square in front of the Cathedral to celebrate as a country a memorial liturgy commemorating the life and death of a great Jesuit who was already canonized in the minds of the people.

It was not long before pictures of this martyr were everywhere. These too were considered subversive and those who possessed them suspects.

A day or two following the Mass at the Cathedral, Mark was driving to one of the lavish hotels to buy English newspapers when stopped by a police car manned by two soldiers of the guardia.

As fate would have it his car papers were out of order and he would have to go to jail. Mark was to follow the police car with one of the soldiers accompanying him. However, the soldier could hardly enter into his car because his gun was so big.

They proceeded some blocks until they arrived at a desolated area where they pulled over and ordered Mark out of the car again, guns and all. Various thoughts raced through Mark’s head, such as there would be no witnesses!

Here he was going to be killed for being a communist and he had not even seen one, much less talked to one. He was going to be killed by those very guns his tax money had purchased to send to El Salvador to stop communism. The communists, wherever they were, were not being killed with the guns his taxes purchased. These guns seemed only to kill teachers and labor leaders and catechists and priests. The bullets rarely reached their targets, the communists.

It was obvious that Mark was not a communist. He was obviously a capitalist, driving his own car, living with his family in a foreign country without salary and in possession of a pocketful of very respected credit cards.

Mark regained his composure sufficiently to blurt out the words “…para evitar la carcel,” even though he hadn’t been to language school as yet. These words which mean, “What can I do to avoid jail?” got the attention of these heavily armed soldiers and their attitude seemed to change. Thank God they could be bribed and forgot about subversiveness. They let him go for forty colones. Mark didn’t purchase any papers that day. He returned home to hug his wife and kids, on his knees.

Father Survil was released from prison only to be expelled from the country. He had introduced us to his community and they accepted us. The nuns emerged as leaders along with the lay people and were a very important presence in the neighborhood.

Everyone expected us to leave for the United States since our American patron had been forced to depart. We felt we should stay, however, to provide some encouragement and symbolic support since we could afford it without being a burden to the community and the diocese. We felt secure as American citizens in our educational venture.

As it turned out, we were the ones who received support and who gained. We couldn’t be paternalistic if we tried. The people who lived in these one room homes and cardboard huts were people of profound faith and culture.

We wanted to learn about comunidades de base and that goal was met, but we learned much more. It was sort of strange that we were being enlightened by these people who had little formal education and were living on the margin of human existence. We did not expect such intelligent conversations, since in the United States we are influenced by the theories that the elect are upwardly mobile and the poor are the sinful, unelected ones. We were impressed that the people were not full of despair.

Celebrating Lent and Holy Week with the people of our community was a tremendous experience. Every Friday we would wind through the narrow passages called streets making the Way of the Cross, stopping in front of homes with makeshift altars for each Station. The “Stabat Mater” took on a new meaning. It was the via dolorosa in every possible sense with local orejas (Spanish word for “ears”, meaning government informers) checking on who was going and coming.

Holy Thursday was celebrated in a small garage-like building located 4 feet from the railroad tracks and served as a community building. The washing of the feet and the Eucharist took on special significance, to put it mildly.

Many of the songs used at liturgies were inspired by the Gospel and commitment. Louise learned them immediately and brought them back to the States and made them part of a Spanish song book that she put together for the Spanish Mass.

We wanted to remain with the community. Our children were adjusting to school, learning Spanish and feeling at home. However things continued to deteriorate. Father Alfonso Navarro was killed.

Opponents of the Church began taking out ads in the paper with such recently made up organizations as “Catholic Mothers United for Peace” or similar names. The ads attacked the Church which was guilty of standing with the Poor and protesting murder.

A mother in one of the community groups shared the information her policeman son was given by his superiors. If you come upon any group meeting, shoot them all. In the state of siege all meetings were illegal.

With meetings forbidden and unable to be further involved with our community, we decided to leave El Salvador and go to language school in Antigua, Guatemala for several months. We planned to return to El Salvador and work with the Cleveland, Ohio team and the Maryknoll Sisters whom we had gotten to know.

We left El Salvador a changed people, a changed family. Our Catholicism and our faith would never be the same. The Church standing with the Poor in the face of death gave us an insight into the Church we did not experience before. The Church of El Salvador, The Church of the Martyrs, lay, religious and clerical, was the institutional Church, not some marginal leftist dissatisfied clique. It’s the kind of Church one can live with — and die for. This obviously was the institutional Church that Dorothy Day hoped for.

Houston Catholic Worker, September 1981, Vol. 1, No. 2.