Tuesday, March 31, 2009

El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido

I wrote this to be published in the Ragweed (the JVC South newsletter), and I've incorporated a few photos:

Katie, Stephanie, and I had the great privilege of traveling to El Salvador last month as International Election Observers for the presidential election on March 15th. The three of us studied abroad there during college and we were excited to have the opportunity to return. Our experiences in El Salvador had a significant impact on each of us and our understanding of and commitment to social justice.

The right-wing ARENA party in El Salvador has been in power for the last 20 years. ARENA was founded by Roberto D'Aubuisson, who also founded the death squads in El Salvador and was responsible for the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. El Salvador's civil war ended with the Peace Accords in 1992, and during ARENA's time in power since the end of the war, the country has seen little improvement. There is still a huge disparity between rich and poor, the economy is extremely dependent on Salvadorans in the United States sending back remittances, and the country is wracked with violence (now from gangs rather than the military).

During the civil war, the FMLN was the organization of guerrillas fighting against the repressive government. At the end of the war, the group became a formal political party. This year the FMLN candidate, Mauricio Funes, was hugely popular in the polls leading up to the election, and we knew there was a good chance he would win, for the first time in the party's history.

We went to a few different polling places (centros de votación) on election day, and when the polls closed we were at a big polling place in the city of Santa Tecla. The voting process involved quite a few safeguards, including having representatives from both parties seated at each table that was checking IDs against lists of names, handing out the ballots, and tinting voters' fingers with ink. If one party tried to do something wrong, the other party was literally sitting next to them. We heard some reports of fraud – mainly people from outside El Salvador coming and voting with false IDs (most likely hired by ARENA) – but everything we saw went smoothly and according to the rules.



At the end of the day, the doors closed, and the vote count began. Each table had 450 ballots and a list of 450 voters. After counting the remaining ballots and comparing that number to the number of signatures of voters (thumbprints for those who could not sign their names), they sorted and counted the ballots at each table. This election was just for president and vice president, so each ballot had the flags of the two parties (only FMLN and ARENA were running), and the voter needed to draw an X on their party of choice.



As tables began finishing their counts, we heard cheer after cheer from the FMLN. It became clear that Funes had won at our polling place. We went out into the parking lot where some staunch FMLN friends were listening to results on the radio. Reports from other locations made it clear that Funes was winning in other places as well.

For the first time in Salvadoran history, the country would have a leftist president. We took off our election observer badges (which required that we be neutral), put on FMLN t-shirts that were handed to us, and went out into the streets where people were celebrating. It was a beautiful sea of red shirts and hats and flags and so much joy. It was moving to hear the chant "El pueblo unido jamás será vencido" – the people united will never be defeated. We were with people who were forced to leave El Salvador during the war because otherwise they would have been killed, people who had fought with the guerrillas for the entire war, and people who had simply suffered greatly under the Salvadoran government. It was clear that it was a bittersweet moment for many people – great joy at an FMLN victory after all those years, but sorrow in remembering all the people who fought to achieve it but never lived to see it.


It was an honor to witness this historic event in solidarity with the people of El Salvador. While it felt like we didn't do much, multiple people expressed their appreciation of us being there and said that our solidarity was very important. After reflecting on all the pain that the United States has caused El Salvador, sending millions of dollars daily to the Salvadoran military that raped, tortured, and massacred people for organizing, speaking out, or simply being poor, the importance of solidarity from the U.S. became clearer to me. The U.S. still has a lot of power over El Salvador, and, just like during the war, our actions and decisions can have a great impact on the country, for good or for bad, which is why it is so important that we stand in solidarity with the people of El Salvador.

It is hard to tell what changes President-elect Funes will bring, and we don't really know if he will be a good president, but we do know that for once the left has been given the opportunity to make changes in the interest of the poor people of El Salvador that ARENA never did. In his acceptance speech, Funes specifically mentioned the preferential option for the poor and his desire to be a president for social justice. When I asked Salvadorans what they thought of Funes, if they thought he would do a good job, they usually just said that they hoped so. They hoped that he would bring about change that they so badly want and need.

After the election, we spent the week meeting with people; visiting places like the University of Central America (UCA), where six Jesuit priests and two women were brutally murdered in 1989 (also where we ran into liberation theologian Jon Sobrino, which almost made Katie faint in excitement), and the Cathedral where Monseñor Romero is buried; and spending time with old and new friends from our study abroad program. It was a great joy to spend this week in El Salvador, and we are very grateful to all those who gave donations and prayers to our cause.

Amber, Katie, and Stephanie

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

We Are Many Parts, We Are All One Body

When I studied abroad in El Salvador, I took a class on liberation theology, and it was up to us to create our own final projects. One of the suggestions was to write (and give) a homily (sermon), and I chose this. I was revisiting my files from El Salvador a couple nights ago and re-read what I had written. I like it a lot, so I wanted to share it. Not everything will make sense since I wrote it for a group that had a shared experience in El Salvador, but I'm hoping it will have some relevance for other people as well.

A reading from the Letter of Paul to the Romans (Chapter 12)

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peacably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

We Are Many Parts, We Are All One Body
by Amber McChesney-Young
Liberation Theology
May 4, 2007

A recurring theme for me, and I think for many of us, throughout this semester has been dealing with our privilege. Why do I have so much and they don't? Why do they have to work so hard and I don't? What do I do with the money, education, opportunities, and so many other advantages that I have and they don't? My privilege made me feel distant from the people here. I felt guilty and confused and angry. I kept asking myself what is my role? How can I help the poor when I, with my U.S. middle-class white upbringing, am so limited in my ability to understand their reality? But, as Paul says, we are many different parts of one body. We each play different roles with our different gifts, but we must work to support each other because we are one in the body of Christ. It's important to recognize the limitations of our contexts, but we cannot change where we were born or who are our families. What we can do is choose what we do with the situations and gifts we are given. We can recognize that our inequalities are unjust, and that our privilege over others is not right, but unfortunately change does not happen with a snap of the fingers or a click of the heels. We have to recognize where we are in our lives, what are our contexts, what are our gifts, and then what we can do from there. Maybe we don't have to completely understand each other to support one another anyway. The lung can never truly understand what the heart does, and vice versa, but that doesn't mean that they aren't each essential to the other. The fact is that we are all connected, and when one part of the body hurts, it affects the rest of the body. To me, this is what solidarity means. We recognize our oneness and live our lives according to this.

The key to solidarity, I believe, is humanizing everyone. We recognize the inherent value of every member. We understand that everyone is a child of God with equal dignity. This is easier said than done. Our U.S. society and culture are not based in soldarity. They are based on individualism and self-advancement, including, and usually, at the expense of others. We dehumanize people who are distant from us—geographically, socially, or economically. An Iraqi citizen is far less human to us than a college student in Virginia. An old homeless man dying on the street is far less human to us than a child from a wealthy family suffering from cancer. Paul says "Do not be conformed to this world." Our experience in El Salvador has helped unconform us by turning the Salvadoran poor into our friends. It has humanized them. They're not just poor people, they are Joselin, Angelica, and Teresita. They are very real people. Paul says, "be transformed by the renewing of your minds." Now that we are preparing to return to the U.S., this message is especially important. When we return, we must remember the humanity of the Salvadoran people and all the peoples of the world. We have to remember that an undocumented immigrant is not just an immigrant but could be Lupita's sister, Amilcar's father, or someone we stayed with in the campo.

It's easy to get caught up in thinking about what divides us, but in reality we are incredibly connected. Remember how a couple weeks ago Sr. Peggy told us that we inhale approximately 30,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms of argon every time we breath, and that's the same argon that Ghandi breathed, that Romero breathed, and that Jesus breathed. We are constantly breathing each other in. We depend on each other for sustenance and life. We laugh and cry and sing, just like people all around the world. We are one body in Christ.

Finally, I want to touch on the last sentence of the reading: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." We've seen a lot of evil in El Salvador, and when we return to the U.S., we will see a lot more. It's really frustrating, and I've found myself feeling hopeless a lot of the time. But we can't give up, because if we don't do anything there's no chance of making any progress towards justice. We need to respond to evil with love. You can't overcome evil with more evil. We must remember that we are all sisters and brothers, and if we live our lives in consideration of every person's dignity, we can make a tremendous impact. We have to use our gifts to serve the body as a whole, always remembering every person's humanity.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Ultimate Distraction When You're Hungry

My sister recently introduced me to foodgawker, a delightful website that highlights beautiful photos of food from many different blogs and websites (my roommate Katie calls it food porn). When you click the photo it leads you to the recipe. So far I've only made one recipe from the site, Baked Tofu Indian Style (which I highly recommend!), but I've saved many more recipes that I hope to make in the future.

Here's my photo of the tofu dish I made: