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.