El Salvador travel seminar broadens the perspective of seminarians
Second-year seminarian Sharon Richter of Philadelphia says her travel seminar visit to El Salvador in January “helped me face the realities of the oppressed world” while discovering how people facing trials in another land “still come out hopeful because they trust in their faith.” She described the people she met in the Central American country “as a hopeful, forward-looking people.”
Seminarian Seth Rumage of Rockford, Illinois, said he believes his encounters with the people of El Salvador have “helped me to better understand my own faith by finding models of faith in other people. There is no doubt the nine days we spent in El Salvador have shifted my perspective on life. But I am still processing the experience, and the impact on my faith may not truly flower for years.”
Richter and Rumage were among nine seminarians accompanying the Rev. Dr. John Hoffmeyer, the seminary’s associate professor of systematic theology for the past 16 years. For Hoffmeyer, the January 13-22, 2015, visit to El Salvador was the fifth in his lifetime, four of them accomplished with seminarians. El Salvador has endured turmoil, unrest, and political transition through much of its history.
Hoffmeyer explained that the seminary conducts at least one travel seminar annually in an attempt to broaden seminarians’ perspective. This latest trip was made possible via logistical planning offered by Augsburg College’s Center for Global Education, assisted by Menno Travel of Indiana. Both organizations discounted some costs to support the seminarians. In addition, some funds to support the trip came from a bequest of the late Dr. Dorothy Marple, who served in an executive capacity with the Lutheran Church in America, a predecessor body to the current Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, before retiring in Philadelphia.
Hoffmeyer’s first El Salvador trip took place prior to his ordination. In 1992 he was invited by the west coast SHARE Foundation to spend one month accompanying Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez, whose life was in danger due to death squad threats. A Lutheran pastor had been abducted and murdered by a death squad prior to Hoffmeyer’s visit. Gomez subsequently visited the LTSP campus to share his experiences with seminarians.
Civil war had been part of the fabric of El Salvadoran life from 1980 to 1992 pitting government forces against guerrilla groups comprising the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) in a struggle over unionization rights, agrarian reform, better wages, accessible health care, and freedom of expression. From the period of the late 1970s, death squads were killing about 10 people each day. In an effort to quell the growing insurrection, the U.S. had supported and financed the creation of a junta headed by Napoleon Duarte, who was unable to control a growing insurrection. Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Salvador Oscar Romero denounced injustices and massacres committed by government forces against civilians. The insurrection was greatly fueled when Romero was assassinated by a death squad while saying Mass in March of 1980. The civil war in El Salvador became more visible in the headlines when four U.S. church women were killed by death squads in 1980 and when a group of Jesuit educators was killed in similar fashion in 1989.
One of Hoffmeyer’s most vivid recollections of accompanying Gomez in 1992 was to see first-hand how closely people identified with Gomez “and the little Lutheran Church begun in the 1950s” because of its witness. “People identify with the church even though they do not belong to it.” Hoffmeyer accompanied Gomez to a plaza location in San Salvador where striking teachers were demonstrating for higher wages. A bloc of the teachers had been on a hunger strike for more than two weeks, Hoffmeyer explained. Gomez was invited to speak to the group “and when he got up on a platform, the crowd began to chant, ‘Long live the Lutheran Church!’ and then “Long live the church that walks the talk!’” Hoffmeyer said that kind of expression of support in El Salvador is something to shoot for in the U.S.
El Salvador today has a population of about 6.2 million. Conditions in the country have improved somewhat since a peace agreement ending the civil war was reached in January 1992. Economic reforms since the 1990s have improved social conditions. However, crime has been a major problem.
Richter described the impact of learning about street gangs in San Salvador that “seek to extort money from businesses there.” She noted that many businesses hire security protection provided by some of the country’s “wealthiest families.” About two million immigrants from El Salvador now live in the U.S., having chosen to escape the oppression and hardship of their native land. Some have entered the U.S. as unaccompanied minors. “I found myself asking, why would a mother risk sending a child, a 7, 8, or 9-year-old, across the border to the U.S. unaccompanied?” Richter said. “It is because such children face the risk of death at home.” She said she learned that some street gang leaders in San Salvador have learned about gang leadership from prisons in the U.S., after being first arrested for crimes in the U.S. and then subsequently being deported. “Some of the gangs are actually named after streets in Los Angeles,” Richter said. She noted there have been instances of gang leaders having abducted children from schools to serve in their gangs. U.S. immigrants from El Salvador comprise about 30 percent of El Salvador’s population.
Hoffmeyer explained the rationale for such travel seminars. “We learn about the history of a place by being there,” he said. “We experience a lot in our daily travels and at the end of each day we talk about our experiences and their emotional and spiritual impact.” Paul’s message to the Thessalonians gives expression to experiencing the Salvadoran context he said. “We have heard your faith and word (of it) has gone out to all the world.”
“One’s theological ideas are shaped by one’s own context,” he added. “Sometimes it is hard to see our own context clearly from within. Seeing another context can help our own understanding come alive. We may look back on the context we come from with new eyes, and our thinking about life here in the U.S. becomes more reflective.”
Hoffmeyer explained another benefit is geopolitical. El Salvador is close to the United States geographically, but has little geopolitical power. “People there know more about us than we know about them,” he said. “In 1992 I listened to a conversation about the various vice-presidential candidates. People in El Salvador knew all about them. Yet few people in the U.S. know who the president of El Salvador is.” (Salvador Sanchez Ceren, one of five guerrilla leaders during the civil war, is the current president.) The U.S. dollar is the currency in El Salvador, and much revenue to the nation’s citizens comes from relatives who live in the U.S., who send money home.
“One of the reasons why we go is we want to experience the contagion that El Salvador’s people of faith have to pass along to us,” Hoffmeyer said. “And the people of El Salvador say that our presence in their community builds them up as well.”
“I went to El Salvador because I thought it would be a warm place, a good vacation in winter,” Rumage said. “My biggest learning was to experience a context so different from my middle class life and education.” He vividly recalls standing in a garden “where priests and women were killed by death squads when I was two-years old. It is so easy to divorce oneself from the reality of other places. For me that garden experience was one of concrete realism. It was emotional, eye-opening. It forces a perspective shift coming from a place of strong privilege as I do.”
Richter, a student of anthropology, had heard before about liberation theology and El Salvador’s civil war with its death squads. “I was alive during the period of civil war in El Salvador, and I remember reading about the death squads. I found it powerful to meet and talk with people from both sides of the civil struggle.” She notes that both right wing government forces and left wing guerrilla groups of the day had been guilty of atrocities, but said a United Nations report she had scrutinized reported most death squads were connected to the government.
“I found representatives of both sides that we met were powerfully influenced by their faith,” Richter added.”What was most memorable for me was to encounter the amazing resilience and hopefulness of so many people who are being fed by their faith.”
“They are not wallowing in the struggles of their past,” Rumage added. “They are incredibly resilient. They have a strong, strong optimism. It is a quality I hope to be able to pass on to those with which I work, whether it is in a congregation, or in service as a chaplain, something I am thinking about.”
Watch the extended interview, and Professor Hoffmeyer’s comments on the El Salvador Lutheran connection: