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Jan 10, 2018

Fleeing a Culture of Violence; Migration and El Salvador

It was recently announced that the Trump administration has decided to cancel Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Salvadorans who have been allowed to legally live and work in the United States since 2001 when devastating earthquakes struck El Salvador. There are approximately 200,000 Salvadorans currently living in the United Country under the program. Almost all will try to stay. While some of the country’s infrastructure has been rebuilt El Salvador remains one of the most violent countries on the planet. This should be reason enough to extend TPS for many years to come.

In the summer of 2014 I travelled to El Salvador as part of a human rights delegation with the National Day Laborers Organizing Network. Upon my return, I published a theological reflection in the UU World and preached a sermon about my experiences there that I shared with congregations throughout New England. I wrote a third piece that I submitted to several magazines but was never able to publish. It seems like now is a good time to post the unpublished manuscript. My hope is that it will help further an understanding of what life is like in El Salvador and the kinds of situations that the Trump administration is planning to send Salvadorans back to.

Fleeing a Culture of Violence; Migration and El Salvador

After we pass the thick line of waiting family members I notice a white column next to the gate. At least, it was originally white. Now it is covered with a thick hatch of black ink, the remnants of finger-printing. The deportees emerge, one at a time, through the mesh gate and wipe their hands on the column, hoping, I imagine, to quickly leave behind at least one sign of their humiliation. They were heroes when they left, some of them walking for weeks until they reached the U.S./Mexico border. They were heroes while they were there, many of them sending several hundred dollars a month back to El Salvador to support their extended families. But now they are mostly ashamed and afraid.

I have travelled here with NDLON, the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, to learn about the experiences of migrants: why they leave and what it is like for them when they are brought back.

We visit two repatriation centers during the week I am in El Salvador. The one at El Salvador’s International Airport, the one with the white column covered in fingerprints, is where deportees from the United States arrive. There are as many as 700 of them in a week. The other center is in San Salvador’s La Chacra neighborhood. It is for deportees from Mexico. The center by the airport reminds me of both a prison and a Greyhound bus station. When the deportees are taken off the planes they wait for processing in a poorly-lit room filled with rows of plastic molded Eames chairs in bold colors. None of the red, blue, black, and beige chairs are empty. In each one sits someone whose face is weighed down with a mixture of exhaustion and trauma. One part of their ordeal, usually months in detention, is coming to an end. Another, confronting their place in Salvadoran society, is about to start.


We are not allowed to bring cameras or audio recorders or cell phones into the repatriation centers. The deportees themselves aren’t eager to share their names. But they are willing to share their stories. At the center for deportees from Mexico, one man tells us he was deported after living in the United States for eleven years. He is almost quivering with anger. His wife and children are still there. This is his second time being deported. The first time he was caught in the United States and flown back to El Salvador on a plane. This time he only made it as far as Mexico; he was shipped back on a bus. He says that as soon as he can he will leave again.

Another man at the center explains why he fled. He is a victim of gang violence. He and two of his friends had operated a bus together. He was the driver, while his friends tended to the passengers and collected fares. One day some gang members boarded the bus and killed the fare collector. The bus driver and his other friend were allowed to live. Shortly afterwards the gang members changed their minds. They let it be known that they planned to kill the two friends, because they had witnessed the murder. The gang murdered the friend while he ate dinner at a neighborhood pupuseria. That's when the bus driver decided to leave the country.

When the deportees arrive they are processed quickly. They are given a soft drink, a pupusa, and sent into a waiting room. After a brief wait they are interviewed by an immigration officer and, if necessary, given a health exam. If any of the deportees have criminal charges pending in El Salvador they are handed over to the police. There are three phones where, afterwards, they are permitted to make a free phone call.

The bus driver says he called his mother. She told him that it wasn’t safe for him to come home. He has no idea what he is going to do next.


Away from the repatriation centers I interview Sandra Elizabeth Borja Armero. She is eager to tell me her story. Before she was deported, she worked with NDLON in Los Angeles, taking part in their Teatro Jornalero Sin Fronteras (Day Labor Theater Without Borders). Her husband and son still live in Los Angeles. Her son is five. He is named Barack, after the President who oversaw her deportation. "It is ironic," she tells me. Like many Hispanics, she thought that the election of the first black President would herald a better life for undocumented immigrants. Instead, she says, the first black President has deported more brown people than any of the white Presidents who preceded him, to date more than two million. She and her husband named their son after President Obama because of the hope he represented. She says, "I want to be with my son" before repeating, "Barack, it is ironic."


A red mesh bag containing a wallet, a cell phone, maybe a couple of pieces of mail, shoelaces, is all deportees are allowed to bring back with them from the United States. Whether they were caught sneaking across the border or rounded up after living in the States for fifteen years, they bring back the same small number of possessions.


I meet José Efrain Mortimez Rivas at another event organized by NDLON. This man wants his story told. He lived in the United States for six years. He worked hard, got married, and regularly sent money back to El Salvador. Twice a month, he sent $300: $100 for his mother, and $100 each for the mothers of his two children in El Salvador.

His move to the United States was a family investment. Before he left his family raised $6,000 to pay a coyote to smuggle him from El Salvador to the United States. The investment more than paid off. During his time in the United States he sent back over $40,000. There are no other financial instruments available to poor people in El Salvador with six-hundred percent return rates.

Rivas lived in Melbourne, Florida, and worked as day laborer there. He made, on average, $70 to $80 a day. Now that he is back in El Salvador, when he can find work, which isn’t often, he is lucky if he can make $10 a day. He isn’t able to support his mother or his children. His wife, who still lives in Florida, has left him. He is not sure if he wants to risk the return journey, but he knows that his options if he stays are very limited. He is exactly my age, 37, and tells me that the best part of his life is over.


The journey to the United States is dangerous, the deportation process ugly. One young woman I meet outside the repatriation center describes a little of her experience. It took her five weeks to travel to the United States. Before she made it across the border she saw two of her fellow migrants die. Both young men, they drowned trying to cross a flooding river. She was in the United States for ten months: the first five in Los Angeles hustling for all kinds of work; the last five in a deportation center in Texas.

Her story about her time in detention catches my attention. The place was called the Coastal Bend Detention Center. There, she worked everyday from 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. She says, she was paid $1.00 a day. A phone call cost a dollar. A bag of chips from the canteen was $2.50. The center, she claims, was privately run.


When we arrive at the repatriation center in San Salvador, there is a small swarm of reporters. They are waiting outside to get interviews with and pictures of families that have been deported. No one wants to talk to them. The families draw shirts up over their heads and pile into taxis in an effort to escape the journalists. The journalists, meanwhile, chase after the taxis like paparazzi pursuing celebrities. Two news anchors, young women caked in make-up and wearing bold single color dresses, have started to work-up a sweat.

Our arrival provides a welcome distraction. Pablo Alvarado, NDLON’s Executive Director, holds an impromptu press conference to publicize the results of a study on migrants that his organization has commissioned with José Simeón Cañas Central American University (which everyone calls UCA). Then the gate opens, the journalists scatter, and the chase after another taxi begins.


Inside the repatriation center a bus with children from Mexico has just arrived. I see a nursing mother whose baby can’t be more than a month old. There are three boys traveling together unaccompanied, the oldest no more than fifteen. The center feels like a refugee camp. It is overrun. There’s no place for the adults to sit or for the children to play. The bathrooms don’t include tables for changing diapers. After seeing the nursing mother I ask someone in my group, "How bad does your life have to be to make migrating to the United States with a tiny baby seem like a good idea?"


While not visiting the detention centers, we talk with NDLON leaders, attend presentations, and meet with some senior government officials. The main reason we have any access here is Francisco "Pancho" Pacheco, NDLON’s National Director of Organizing. Pancho is a former central committee member of one of the organizations behind Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, better known as the FMLN, now El Salvador’s ruling party. It turns out that many of Pancho’s old comrades in arms are now leading members of the government. During our week in El Salvador we meet with the President of El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly, the Vice President, the Vice President’s wife, and Lidwina Magarín, the Deputy Foreign Minister for Salvadorans Living Abroad. Lidwina fought under Pancho and took his command when he fled to the United States in 1995, three years after the Peace Accords were signed. In the years between the signing of the Accords and Pancho’s decision to leave El Salvador he survived three assassination attempts.

He arrived in Los Angeles with little English and began shaping up on corners, looking for work, like so many other Salvadorian migrants. A brilliant organizer, he naturally began to talk to other day laborers and became involved in a local workers center. This led, in time, to him becoming part of NDLON’s leadership. In recent years it has become safe for him to travel back to El Salvador. The FMLN has won the last two presidential elections and more than twenty years have passed since the end of the civil war. Politically motivated violence is largely a thing of the past. Now, the danger is gang violence. Despite this change, Pancho doesn’t want to move back to El Salvador. After almost twenty years in the United States it feels like home and he is not confident he could find work in his native country. Still, he tells, he thinks he might move back when he retires.

During the week I spend in El Salvador I only see Pancho get flustered once. The van we are traveling in breaks down in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. Quickly, I learn that we are in gang territory. On one side of the road: a coffee plantation. On the other side of the road: sheer rock crowned by crowded foliage, trees draped in tropical greenery.

Pablo, or someone, makes a phone call and two cars appear. There are three white people in our delegation. It is urgent that the three of us leave immediately. As we get into the cars I see that a group of people had begun slowly moving up the highway towards us.


As many as 90,000 unaccompanied children are expected to migrate from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to the United States in 2014. The majority say they are fleeing violence. The murder rate in the communities they are leaving is below only Syria.

Another member of our delegation tells me about a child who successfully made it to her community in Los Angeles. He left because the local gang started threatening the kids on his soccer team, trying to extort money from their parents. When the gang killed one of the team members, he fled. By the time he was safely reunited with family members in the United States, the gang had murdered six more children on the team.

CommentsCategories Human Rights Tags El Salvador Immigration NDLON

Aug 16, 2015

Skinner Sermon Award

I am pleased to announce that I'm receipent of the 2014 Skinner Sermon Award for my sermon "Through Eyes that Have Cried." The UUA will be putting up the text of the sermon eventually. In the meantime, you can read it here

CommentsCategories News Tags El Salvador Immigration Sermon Awards

Sep 4, 2014

Featured on the UUA International Blog

An abridged version of my sermon "Through Eyes that have Cried" is featured on the UUA's International blog. You can read it here.

CommentsCategories News Tags Immigration El Salvador

Aug 17, 2014

Through Eyes that Have Cried

preached at the First Parish in Lexington, August 17, 2014

It was the martyred Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero who said, “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” Unitarian Universalist theologians Forrest Church and Rebecca Parker offer us similar advice. Church claimed that the core of our universalist theology was “to love your enemy as yourself; to see your tears in another's eyes; to respect and even embrace otherness, rather than merely to tolerate... it.” Parker, meanwhile, writes, “There is no holiness to be ascertained apart from the holiness that can be glimpsed in one another’s eyes.”

As many of you know, last month I spent a week in El Salvador as part of a delegation organized by the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, also called NDLON. Our goals were to better understand the reality of migration from Central America to the United States; the reasons for migration; and the experiences of deportees. During our week in El Salvador we met with academics, representatives of the Salvadoran government, and a popular education organization. The most visceral parts of the trip were our conversations and interviews with deportees and the stories we heard about migrants.

I invite you to see through their eyes. I have already shared with you two stories that we gathered while in El Salvador. Let me share with you two more, one from a deportee and one from a migrant.

Imagine you are a nineteen-year-old Salvadoran woman. Your parents are dead. Your grandparents raised you in dire poverty. The home your family shares is on the outskirts of San Salvador, the country’s capital and largest city. The floor was dirt. There is no running water. Often, there was not enough food to eat. You rarely had your own bed. As you grew older you wanted to find a job to support your grandparents. They were getting old. Your grandfather had heart trouble. You searched for months. You found nothing. Finally, you decided to set out for the United States. You have a cousin who lives there. He sends your aunt and uncle money each month, more than enough for them to live on. You want to provide the same kind of support for your grandparents. Your grandmother has arthritis. It is difficult for her to move.

Your grandparents and your other relatives raised money to help you on your journey to the United States. They came up with $2,000. It was not enough to hire a coyote to guide you across the border. But it did help.

You set out. The journey took five weeks. Part of the time you walked. Part of the time you rode “El Tren de la Muerte,” the death train. It is a network of freight trains that stretch from Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, to the US-Mexico Border. When you rode it you saw someone slip between freight cars and have their legs severed. You can still hear the screaming. You and several of your fellow migrants tried to ford a flooding river. You saw two young men die, drowning when the rising water swept them away. You barely made it across ahead of them.

You made it to Los Angeles. You found work, illegally, in a laundry. Your wages were enough that you could send back a couple of hundred dollars a month, provided you lived in a cramped apartment with several other migrants. You did not mind. The money was a small fortune for your grandparents. After five months there was an immigration raid on your workplace. You were caught and carted off to a detention center. You were told that if you agreed to be deported voluntarily you could return to El Salvador immediately. You refused and tried to fight deportation. So, you spent five months in a privately run deportation center in Texas before you lost your case. Every morning you woke up early to work in the facility’s laundry. You made a dollar day. The corporation who ran the center charged you that much to make a local phone call. If you wanted to buy a bag of chips from the canteen it was $2.50. After you lost your case you were manacled, chains were put around your ankles, wrists and waist, and put on a plane back to El Salvador.

You arrived at the repatriation center outside the El Salvador International Airport after spending twelve hours on an airplane in chains. Everything you have with you fits into a standard issue red mesh bag: a couple of pieces of mail, your shoelaces, and a wallet. It is all you bring back with you after ten months in the United States. After you are processed by immigration officials, fingerprinted, and told that there are no criminal charges pending against you locally, the woman who runs the repatriation center directs you to the phone. She tells you to call someone to pick you up. You call your grandparents. Your grandmother tells you that your grandfather died while you were in detention. He was a victim of his bad heart. No one can meet you at the airport. It will take you at least a day to get to your grandparents' house. And then what?

You are a fourteen-year-old boy. You left El Salvador after the local gang started threatening kids on your soccer team. They tried to extort money from the players’ parents. To make sure everyone knew that they were serious, the gang members killed one of your teammates. They shot him in the middle of the street, after school. That was when your parents sent you to the United States. They gave a coyote $6,000, almost everything they had, and prayed the coyote could get you across the border. The journey was terrifying. You were afraid that the coyote was going to abandon you in the desert. You were afraid that he was going to kidnap you and demand that your parents pay him ransom. You made it to Los Angeles. By the time you received asylum and were safely reunited with family members, your aunt and uncle, the gang had killed six more of your teammates. Each of them was murdered in public.

When we look through eyes that have cried what do we see? If I was placed in the same kind of situations that many migrants find themselves in I would make the same choices that they have made. I would stuff a backpack, raise money and depart for the unknown land of opportunity and safety. What would you do? Didn’t many of our parents and grandparents do the same thing?

There are stories about migration in my family. My grandfather Morrie and great aunt Claire fled the Ukraine with their parents in the early 1920s. It was after the Russian Revolution. They were Jewish. Things for Jews in the Soviet Union seemed to be getting worse, not better. Violence was on the rise and religious persecution was increasing. My grandfather, great aunt, and my great grandparents left their home in Odessa with the clothes on their backs and whatever they could put in a small handcart. My grandfather was two or three years old. My great aunt pushed him in the handcart most of the way across Europe until they reached a port where they could sail to the United States. Their story and the stories of migrants from El Salvador vary only in the details.

It should not be hard to see through eyes that have cried. Who has not cried? And yet faced with the pain of others we humans often react fearfully rather than lovingly. We turn away. We try to push people away. Jesus offers us a story in the Christian New Testament that challenges us to greet the tears of others with love rather than with fear. You might remember it, it is usually called the “Parable of the Good Samaritan.”

In the Gospel of Luke it reads: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’”

The Gospel reports that after telling this story, Jesus asked his listeners, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

“The one who had mercy on him,” someone replied. To which Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

There are many interpretations of this parable. One I particularly like comes from the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez. He observes that the Samaritan in the story crossed the road to help the man in the ditch. The wounded victim of the robbery was not initially in the Samaritan's path. The Samaritan made a conscious choice to aid him. Reflecting on this, Gutiérrez writes, “The neighbor... is not the one whom I find in my path, but rather the one in whose path I place myself, the one whom I approach and actively seek.”

This is an important lesson for Unitarian Universalists, especially Unitarian Universalists in overwhelming white and affluent congregations like this one. Many of us have the privilege to close our eyes to others. We can choose to ignore things that make us uncomfortable. We can choose to be ignorant of the violence that exists in countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The majority of child refugees who have fled to the United States this summer have come from these three countries. They have some of the highest murder rates in the world. In 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras all ranked amongst the planet’s five most violent countries. Since 1995 El Salvador has topped the list at least five times and Honduras has topped the list at least four times.

I did not understand how violent El Salvador was until I went there. In a good year the whole country has a murder rate equivalent to that of Detroit or New Orleans. In a bad year, the murder rate can be two or three times that found in the most violent cities in this country. The communities that migrants are fleeing have murder rates significantly higher than their country’s average. If I lived in such an unstable society I would leave it too.

Do we close our eyes? Or do we open them? Can we see through the eyes of others? It is imperative that we do. Closing our eyes is an act of fear. Opening them is an act of love. Which do you want as the motive force in your life? Fear or love?

Choosing neighbors who might make us uncomfortable is an act of love. Choosing to live with neighbors who only look, act, and think like us is an act of fear. Which shall we choose? The influx of refugee children forces us to make such choices. Shall we welcome those who are fleeing violence? They are children. They have suffered far too much already. Shall we increase their suffering and fear the changes they bring to this country? They do bring changes. They will make this nation a little browner and a little more fluent in Spanish. They also bring us the chance to see through their eyes. We need to.

The truth, and it is a truth which for many of us does not sit easy, is that this country has significant responsibility for the crisis of violence in Central America. It is a legacy of the region’s civil wars. Those wars began in the 1960s and ended in the early 1990s. The United States government fueled them, sending arms to prop-up right wing regimes against left wing popular insurgencies. The United States military trained the death squads that massacred tens of thousands. In 1980, Oscar Romero challenged President Carter’s support of El Salvador’s right wing thusly, “instead of favoring greater justice and peace in El Salvador, your government’s contribution… [sharpens] the injustice and the repression inflicted on the organized people...”

The cycle of deportation continues to sharpen injustice in El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America. Over the past few decades the United States has deported millions of people, a small minority of whom have been gang members. When these gang members find themselves back in their country of origin they organize gangs. By deporting gang members, the United States government has exported American gang culture. The governments of Central America lack the resources to control gangs and they have spread throughout the region, bringing violence and instability with them. Immigration will not be stopped by deportation. Deportation will only further destabilize the countries that people are leaving. Deportation is an act of fear. Immigrants need to be met with love. The only way for people in the United States to stem the tide of migrants is to help stabilize the societies that they come from. In the short run, that will be far more difficult than deporting people. In the long run, it is the only solution.

Before I close, let me offer a brief coda. This week the murder of Michael Brown and the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have made the human cost of living in a white supremacist society clear. This morning liberal and conscientious ministers across the country are focusing their sermons on our society’s desperate need to address its ongoing racism. They are expressing righteous rage that unarmed African Americans continue to be gunned down by the police. They are expressing indignation that police departments throughout the United States have been militarized. Many are invoking what Michelle Alexander has called the New Jim Crow, the partially privatized prison system that continues to target, stigmatize, and marginalize people of color. Many are calling for a rejuvenated civil rights movement. A few are going so far as to echo Martin King, who said, “riots are caused by nice, gentle, timid white moderates who are more concerned about order than justice;” and “The judgment of God is upon America now;” and “America too is going to Hell... If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty... she too will go to Hell.” King, remember, saw racism, poverty, and militarism as interlinked. He called them the giant triplets. The triplets are born together. We will only be rid of one of them if are rid of all of them.

The only way we will rid ourselves of the giant triplets is if we learn to see through the eyes of others. Imagine yourself in Michael Brown’s situation. Imagine yourself killed by a police officer in broad daylight, unarmed, hands raised. Imagine yourself as Trayvon Martin, gunned down while walking home from a convenience store. Imagine yourself as any other of the millions of black men and women who have been victims of racial violence. Try to see the world through their eyes. You will find your own tears there, whatever the color of your skin.

This is the task of our religious community. If we are, in the words of Micah, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly” then we must learn to see with the eyes of others. We must remember, as Rebecca Parker charges us, “There is no holiness to be ascertained apart from the holiness that can be glimpsed in one another’s eyes.” It is only by seeing holiness in one another’s eyes that we can begin to turn from fear to love. It is only by recognizing someone else’s tears as our own that we can overcome racism. It is only by seeing through eyes that have cried that we can learn to welcome, and not to fear, the migrants who have come to our borders.

Amen and Blessed Be.

CommentsCategories Sermon Tags El Salvador Immigration

Jul 28, 2014

Reading Romero in El Salvador

One of the books I took with me on my trip to El Salvador last week was Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements. It is an edited volume of some of Oscar Romero’s most important writings from his tenure as Archbishop of El Salvador. Romero served as Archbishop from 1977 to 1980. He was assassinated after speaking out against the government oppression during the opening months of El Salvador’s Civil War. The day before he was shot, while celebrating mass, he preached a homily, broadcast on radio, in which he said: “In the name of God, then, and in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise daily more loudly to heaven, I plead with you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: put an end to this repression!”

Romero is the patron saint of El Salvadoran democracy. There are portraits of him throughout the offices of the popular education organization, Equipo Maiz, that we visited. The main building of the Ministry of the Exterior, the equivalent of the Secretary of State, has a painted image of his face on the outside that is at least twenty feet high. He features prominently in murals at the airport and in the streets.

He was a gifted pastor who believed in what liberation theologians call the preferential option for the poor. Towards the end of his life he wrote, “the world that the church ought to serve is, for us, the world of the poor.” In the same speech, delivered at the University of Louvain in Belgium scant weeks before he died, “Because the church has opted for the truly poor, not for the fictional poor, because it has opted for those who really are oppressed and repressed, the church lives in a political world, and it fulfills itself as church also through politics. It cannot be otherwise if the church, like Jesus, is to turn itself toward the poor.”

He urged his priests to follow the preferential option for the poor through a religious practice he called “‘companionship’ or ‘following’” (companionship can alternatively be translated as accompaniment). This was the engagement of religious leaders in popular, or mass, organizations both as political activists and religious leaders. Priests who accompanied the poor, which in El Salvador during Romero’s tenure included more than 90% of the population, were to participate critically and politically from “the perspective of gospel values” with organizations actively trying to overthrow an unjust government and economic order.

I had wanted to read Voice of the Voiceless closely for awhile. Romero figures heavily into the article I am writing on Staughton Lynd. Reading Romero in El Salvador seemed the right thing to do. In doing so, I was able to walk a few of the streets that he walked and see some of the things he saw while thinking about his words.

Mostly, I thought about how difficult it is, both for individual religious leaders and for religious communities, to choose the preferential option for the poor. Religious communities by necessity have to raise money to function. Every religious leader I know spends a great deal of time fundraising. This is even true of those--and here I’m thinking of my friends Susan Frederick-Grey, Ian White-Maher, Kay Jorgenson and David Fernandez Davalos--who I think of as having chosen the preferential option for the poor.* The poor, by the nature of their poverty, do not have money--they have other gifts to give. It is to middle income and wealthy people to whom religious leaders must frequently turn for funds. This creates a tension. Genuinely choosing the preferential option for the poor means denouncing the fundamentally unjust nature of capitalism. To denounce capitalism one day and the next have to turn to people who benefit from it in order to raise funds to keep a ministry alive creates a difficult dynamic. Gifted clergy manage to navigate these tensions. They are the exception. Most find it easier to become, as my professor in seminary David Bumbaugh named them, chaplains to the middle class. A few of them, and here I am thinking of the legendary IWW organizer A. S. Embree and the great anti-war and labor activist A. J. Muste, find that in order to choose the preferential option for the poor they must leave formal religious leadership.

Even more challenging is learning how to bridge the wide gap between the experiences of the poor and my own experiences as a person with a great deal of privilege. Most religious leaders have a great deal of privilege. Even if they started out poor they, by the very nature of their being religious leaders, have access to resources and social connections that many of those around them do not. Somewhere, Ivan Illich wrote about this and argued that someone from a middle income background would never be able to really understand the suffering of the poor. Even if they somehow become poor themselves they will still have experiences drawn from a life outside of poverty. (The situation’s a bit like Pulp’s classic song “Common People.”)

This gap was made clear to me not just by the horrid poverty of most people in El Salvador but by something that happened my last full day in El Salvador. One of the things NDLON did while I was with them was hold a series of forums on migration. These forums included testimonies from Efrain and Sandra, two people who had been deported after living several years in the United States. All of the presenters went out to dinner with our delegation. We went to a fairly inexpensive restaurant, my food was less than $3. We paid for the dinners of the two deportees, one is unemployed and probably makes less than $10 a day at her job.

Efrain and Sandra were virtually excluded from our conversation. It was not people did not try to engage them. Efrain sat kitty-corner across from me and both I and the person sitting next to me tried to draw him into our dialogue. The problem was that we had very little in common. Most of the people at the table were day labor organizers and had come to the United States as undocumented immigrants. The plots of their stories were very different from Efrain and Sandra’s stories. They had achieved either legal citizenship or permanent residency. This effectively placed them in a different world from Efrain and Sandra. They were able to return to the United States while Efrain and Sandra were not.

My own life is even further removed from the life of a deportee in El Salvador. I can reach out to people like Efrain and Sandra, I spent a lot of time on Friday talking with Efrain, but at the end of the day I can’t really understand what it is like to live their lives. If I were to move to El Salvador and devote myself to working with deportees or become a day labor organizer in the United States I would always be equipped with the skills and privileges to leave or make a different choice. Even voluntary poverty is just that, voluntary.

This prompts me to wonder: What does the preferential option for the poor really entail? How can it be chosen? Can the separation between people of different social and economic classes ever actually be overcome?

*I am not sure all of them would agree that they operate within that framework. Kay and David certainly identify with liberation theology. I am not sure Ian and Susan do.

CommentsCategories Ministry News Tags El Salvador Immigration

Jul 26, 2014

Why They Leave

My last full day in El Salvador was so packed that it would take me a few thousand words to do it justice. The delegation held two forums to publicize the findings from NDLON and UCA's joint study on migration, I met with Andreu Oliva (UCA's rector), I conducted two interviews with deportees, and we visited the center where deported migrants arriving from Mexico were processed before being released. Members of the delegation also met with the Vice President. 

The visit to the deportation center was jarring. It is the place where children, and parents with children, arrive. Outside the gate waiting for people to step out was a media circus. Whenever a child would be released with his or her guardian a swarm of television journalists would try to get video and a statement. It was clear that no one wanted to talk to the press. Parents and children exited with shirts pulled up over their heads.

When we walked into the center itself we were confronted with suffering. I was particularly struck by the sight of a nursing mother whose baby could not have been more than a month old. Seeing her and her child prompted me to wonder, "How messed up does your life in El Salvador have to be to make you decide that taking your tiny vulnerable child on a harrowing five week journey is better than staying home?" I received my answer in the form of two stories shared with our group.

The first comes from a young man one of us talked to in the deportation center. He was fleeing gang violence. He and two of his friends had operated a bus together. He was the driver, his friends tended to the passengers and collected fares. One day some gang members boarded the bus and killed the friend who collected fares. The young man and his other friend were allowed to live. Shortly afterwards the gang members changed their minds. They let it be known that they planned to kill the two friends because they were witnesses to the murder. When the gang killed the young man's surviving friend he knew he had to leave the country. After failing to make the journey North, the young man called his mother to let her know he was back in El Salvador. She told him it was not safe to come home.

A story told during one of the forums was far worse. It involved a kid, his age was not given, who is now living in Los Angeles. He comes from a rural community. He fled it because gang members started to threaten the kids on his soccer team. He left for the United States when they killed one of his teammates. By the time he got to Los Angeles six kids on his team had been murdered.

Stories like these take the mystery out of the question, "Why are people coming to the United States?" I would leave El Salvador too if I was placed in a similar situation. 

I am sure I would also leave El Salvador if I lived with the kind of poverty that we were confronted with at the deportation center. El Salvador is a terribly poor country and its government has insufficient resources for almost everything. The deportation center was not fit for children. There was no place for them to play and no tables on which to change diapers and clean little ones. Social services essentially did not existent. We saw three young boys sitting together. The oldest one was probably about 15 while the youngest may have been only 8. They had tried to make the journey North and were caught in Mexico and brought back. When we saw them they were being interviewed by the only social worker in the facility. When I mentioned this to one of the Salvadorans who studies migration she told me it was the first time she had ever seen a social worker in the facility. Her research takes her there several times a week. I am confident that the kids are faced with few choices now that they are back in El Salvador. They can either join a gang or become potential victims of gang violence. If they somehow escape these two options they will still face a life of grinding poverty. Most Salvadoran families survive on only a few thousand dollars a year. I suspect that ultimately they will choose to try to reach the United States again.

Meanwhile the United States government continues to have its priorities completely wrong. President Obama is currently asking for 3.7 billion dollars to deal with the influx of children into the country. Much of this money is to be spent on border enforcement. The entire budget of the Salvadoran government is only about 500 million dollars more than this. If the United States government had its priorities in order it could spend its money on economic and human development in El Salvador instead. I am sure that would have a greater pact on slowing the flow of migrants than money.

CommentsCategories Ministry News Tags El Salvador Immigration

Jul 24, 2014

Lunch with the Vice President's Wife

One of the things that has most surprised me about this trip is the level of access we have had to high ranking government officials. Today we met with both the wife of the Vice President, Elda Tobar de Ortiz, and Liduvina Magarin, Viceministra para los Salvadorenos en el Exterio (the equivalent of the undersecretary of State). I know our access is due to the leadership of NDLON's close ties to the FMLN. Still, the experience of having multiple hour meetings with government officials is, to say the least, novel.

During our meeting with Elda Tobar de Ortiz we learned quite a bit about the deplorable state of El Salvador's public services. There is, for instance, no foster care program and nothing really akin to Child Protective Services. The best the government can do when a child is in an unsafe or abusive situation is place them in an institution. This means that the government of El Salvador is utterly unprepared to receive the influx of children headed its way. Currently, about 400 minors, accompanied and unaccompanied, are returned each week from Mexico, en route to the United States. The US government has told the government of El Salvador to prepare for 20,000 by the end of the year. However, the US government is providing El Salvador with absolutely no aid to deal with the returning children. The goverment of El Salvador lacks the the resources to handle the situation, its annual budget is only about 500 million more than that of Harvard.

Liduvina Magarin told us about what El Salvador is doing to advocate for its citizens in the United States and described some of the horrors people face when crossing Mexico. She spoke to us about a man who had his organs harvested, young girls who were pregnant with their rapists' children, and the burns women suffered as a result of being driven around locked in the trunk of a car under the hot sun. It is all further proof that the immigration system brutalizes and dehumanizes people.

CommentsCategories Ministry News Tags El Salvador Immigration

Jul 23, 2014

The Forum of Deported Dreams

Yesterday NDLON held a forum, in conjunction with researchers from the University of Central America, at the University of El Salvador on the realities of deportees. The campus was tropical and lovely. It was also a visceral reminder of why people might want to migrate to the United States. Harvard, where I am graduate student, is the richest academic institution in the world. As a student there I am surrounded by opulence, there are chairs in the Divinity School Library that cost several thousand dollars and expensive art can be found throughout the campus. The University of El Salvador resembles a poorly maintained American public high school. While the forum took place a group of students were painting the building. One of the truths about migration is that until the wealth disparities between the United States and Central America are significantly reduced people are going to continue to do whatever they can to migrate. The opportunities in the United States are a lot greater. As someone our delegation, himself a migrant put it, "the reality is you live so much better once you get to the United States."

The forum itself focused on releasing data from a study that NDLON commissioned on migration. It was conducted by researchers in the sociology department at the University of Central America. They report that between 2011 and 2013 57,000 people were deported back to El Salvador. They all discovered that there were three major reasons for migration: fear of gang violence, poverty, and a desire to be reunited with family members. 

The forum was attended by about 60 people and the stigma around deportation was really made visible when one of the researchers from the University of Central America asked the audience two questions. The first question he asked, "Who has a relative in the United States?" Everyone raised a hand in response. When he asked, ᤾"Who knows someone who has been deported?," no one raised a hand. This is simply unbelievable. The sheer number of deportees means that almost everyone must know someone who has been deported.

After we left the forum, the realities of the violence in El Salvador were made a little clearer to me. Our van broke down in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. The delegation organizers, both of whom are Salvadoran, called cars to pick us up immediately. It turned out that we had broken down in gang territory. It looked like an isolated stretch of rural highway surrounded by coffee trees. The only way to stay safe was to keep moving. It was especially important that the three white people in delegation leave as soon as possible. Our presence put everyone else at risk.

Later in the day one of the Salvadorans shared a story about his father's funeral, which took place last month. The funeral was huge, over a thousand people attended, and it was too difficult to take all of the flowers to the cemetery at the time of the burial. The next day when the family went to take the flowers to the cemetery they learned that it was gang territory and that had to pay the gang a bribe if they wanted to bring flowers to their father's grave.

The level of violence in El Salvador is now worse than it was during the Civil War. By closing our borders to people coming from El Salvador we are closing our borders to refugees fleeing violence, often fleeing for their lives. People in such a situation will do whatever they can to find a better life for themselves and their families.

Deporting people back to El Salvador is further destabilIzing the country. It often cuts families off from their major source of income, the money migrants send back to their home communities, and in doing so increases poverty. The stigma that the deportees face make them targets for recruitment by gangs, thus increasing the cycles of violence. Until the government of the United States recognizes these two intertwined realities there will be no solution to the migration crisis.

CommentsCategories Ministry News Tags El Salvador Immigration

Jul 22, 2014


Our day started with a presentation by the American sociologist Elizabeth Kennedy. She has interviewed 322 deported children, I'll post some stuff about the data is she shared with us later. Suffice  to say it was pretty startling.

The most intense portion of the day was our visit to the airport to meet deportees as they got off the plane from the U.S. The center where the deportees are processed is a squat cinder block building a few hundred meters from the main airport terminal. The building has two doors, one for the staff and visitors to come and go and the other where the deportees to exit. The staff and visitor door is made from the kind of nice plate glass that one expects in modern office buildings. The deportees' exit is crude chainlink. The cinder block to one side of it is smeared with ink left by deportees who wiped it with the leftovers from fingerprinting.

Inside the building we met with Jenny Vazquez, the director of the return center. She told us that deportees go through a three part process when they arrive in El Salvador. First, they are processed by migration and, if necessary are examined by a medical professional. Second, they speak with the police. Third, they are given back their belongings. She also told us that the center is set up to process 120 deportees a day. It receives one plane a day, except Wednesday when it receives two. On that day the center processes up to 240 deportees.

Today there were 45 women and 69 men. After meeting with Jenny Vazquez, we were taken three at a time to see them in the holding area. It resembled a worn out Greyhound bus terminal. There were beaten up plastic chairs in several colors, bad fluorescent lights and very little space. I think I saw 70 or 80 people in that area. I was surprised by how young most of them were. They were clearly traumatized and exhausted. I felt like a voyeur. I also felt like my humanity and their's was lessened.

Shortly afterwards we went outside to wait for people as they were released. The Sun was fierce and there was very little shade. People were release with their belongings, all of which could fit into a beaten up red mesh drawstring bag. One of the deportees shared her story with me and a couple of other people from my group. She was in her early twenties and had just been deported after 10 months in the United States. She spent half of her time in a detention center in Texas. It was privately run. She worked from 6 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon in the laundry. She made a dollar a day. Prior to being detained she lived in Los Angeles for 5 months with family members. She shared with us that she has been manacled for the entire flight from Texas to El Salvador. She also told us about her trip from El Salvador to the United States. She was sexually harassed and saw two young men die en route. They drowned crossing a river. The only family she had in El Salvador were her grandparents and she had just learned that her grandfather recently died of a heart attack. She arrived with no money and no idea what she was going to do next.

We talked to several other deportees. Three of them, all men, shared that they had left El Salvador because they were being threatened and blackmailed by gangs. Now that they were back they feared for their lives.

We left the deportees after an hour. I I left with a mixture of emotions: anger, shame, sorrow... How is it human beings you can be so cruel to each other? How do we fail to see each others suffering? Why do we inflict such pain on each other? Why are we so afraid of each other? We need to answer these questions. We need compassion.

CommentsCategories News Tags El Salvador Immigration

Today the Airport

Yesterday we met with Sigfrido Reyes, the President of El Salvador's National Assembly. The meeting itself was a testimony in to the distorted power relations between the United States and Central America. It is almost impossible for me to imagine John Boehner, Reyes's equivalent in the United States, taking an hour to meet with a delegation of human rights activists from another country. 

Reyes is a former FMLN guerilla commander and he spent more time listening than talking. When he did speak he mostly spoke abput the difficult political situation in the U.S. around immigration politics. He didn't seem to know a lot about the intricacies of US immigration law, which some people found disappointing. 

Today we are holding a press conference to announce the findings from a study on the impact and causes of immigration in El Salvador. The study was conducted by faculty at the UCA and throughout the rest of the week we will be holding town halls to share its findings. This afternoon we are heading to the airport to interview people who have been deported after they get off the plane.

CommentsCategories News Tags El Salvador Immigration

Jul 21, 2014

Equipo de Maiz

I arrived in El Salvador a few hours ago and was met at the airport by two gracious Salvadoran activists, Paula and Mila. Paula works with the Salvadoran organization Equipo de Maiz, a group that focuses on popular education. Mila is part of an organization that is based in the United States that works with the Salvadoran population there. On the way from the airport to Equipo de Maiz's office they gave a bit of background information on the situation of Salvadoran migrants. One thing I was surprised to learn that there are almost 3 million Salvadorans living outside of El Salvador, the majority of them in Los Angeles. El Salvador itself only has a population of about  8 million, which suggests something of the dynamic that migration plays in the country. 

When I arrived at Equipo de Maiz I discovered to my delight that they are very inspired by the legacy of Oscar Romero. There is a full audio library of his homilies and several portraits to him. There are also ample materials celebrating the FMLN and the 1992 Peace Accords. 

The major project of the moment is one I am better equipped to observe than participate in. The other members of the group all belong to different immigrant rights organizations in the United States. They are creating popular education materials to help immigrants in the US know their rights and understand the history of immigration laws. The materials will be a mixture of text and cartoon images. We leave very shortly to meet with the National Assembly.

CommentsCategories News Tags El Salvador Immigration

Jul 19, 2014

An El Salvador Reading List

I am starting pack for my trip to El Salvador. I have two long plane rides and so I am anticipating having a fair chunk of time to read. I have compiled a small of list texts to bring with that will either provide me with historical and political background or aid me in the theological reflection.

Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, Aviva Chomsky
Aftermath: Deportation Law and the New American Diaspora, Daniel Kanstroom
Witness to War: A Doctor’s Moving and Urgent Story, Charles Clements
Ignacio Ellacuria: Essays on History, Liberation, and Salvation, ed. Michael Lee
Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements, Oscar Romero

The first two are some of the better recent books on immigration. Clements is a Harvard professor who served as the Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee for a several. He spent his politically formative years in El Salvador. Ellacuria and Romero are both important Catholic liberation theologians. Both were assassinated by right-wing thugs during the civil war. I also plan to bring a good Spanish dictionary, I’m fond of Larousse, and Enrique Vila-Matas’s Chet Baker piensa en su arte; Relatos selectos. I realize that’s rather a lot of books for such a short trip but we’re going to be based out of a hotel and I’d like to have useful tools on hand preparing notes and, possibly, blog posts.

CommentsCategories News Research Notes Tags El Salvador

Jul 17, 2014

El Salvador and Immigration

Last week the Unitarian Universalist Association’s International Office and Congregational Advocacy and Witness Director asked me to represent the UUA on a delegation being organized by the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON) to El Salvador. I leave on Monday. The trip is promoted by the increasing number of children attempting to migrate to the United States and the abusive, outrageous and immoral treatment they have experienced at the hands of the Border Patrol. The goal of the trip is to better understand the causes for their migration and the horrors that they experience when they migrate to the United States, during the deportation process and when they return to their native country. We will be taking testimony from people who have been deported and organizing public town halls to raise awareness about their plight and the need for investment in reintegration initiatives.

I hope that my participation in the delegation will equip me to aid in the effort to shift the conversation about immigration. It is currently rooted in fear. It needs to be rooted in compassion. Immigrants are not abstractions. They are human beings. They suffer the same as anyone else and deserve to be treated with dignity and kindness. The cores of the Western religious traditions--Christianity, Judaism, and Islam--all revolve around loving one’s neighbor. Good hearted religious people, whatever their political alignment, should be reminding America’s politicians of this at every moment of the immigration debate.

When I get back I will be preaching and writing about my observations in El Salvador. On August 17, I will give a sermon, “Through Eyes that Have Cried,” at the First Parish in Lexington. I will also be working with one of the editors at N+1 on a piece and will be looking for other venues for my reflections as well. I am not bringing a computer to El Salvador but if I can find an internet cafe I will post about the delegation as it unfolds.

CommentsCategories Ministry News Tags El Salvador Immigration