Monday, April 7, 2014

Risking for Change—There's No Other Way

A church that suffers no persecution
but enjoys the privileges and support of the things of the earth
—beware!—is not the true church of Jesus Christ.
Archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated in El Salvador in 1980

I can’t get these words out of my head. They come to mind as I think of the incredible generosity and solidarity of the architects from Mexico City who are helping the people of San Marcos rebuild their homes and their lives after the terrible landslide there in September 2013.
Architects Israel and Ligia showing the lots (Salvador, with sombrero, is mayor)
The other words I can’t get out of my head are those of Father Jorge Decelis, who used to be the parish priest in Cochoapa el Grande. Knowing that Jorge had worked as a Combonian missionary in different countries of Africa for eighteen years, I asked him what he saw as the main difference between working in the mountains of Mexico and working in Africa.
Father Jorge Decelis
“The most surprising thing I've discovered here,” said Jorge, “is that the people have no sense of forgiveness. If someone resents you for something that he believes that you’ve done against him, he is going to do something against you. There is always payback—but not in the good sense of the word.”
One little girl was attentive in the village assembly
On Saturday I drove architects Ligia, Israel, and Jaime to San Marcos. The architects brought detailed topographical plans that showed that the hill that had been leveled to create building lots could comfortably house twenty-four families. These could be the nine families that lost their houses in September and fifteen families whose houses are along a grieta (“crack”) on the mountainside—a mountainside that will almost inevitably be washed away during the next rainy season.
An attentive mother in the assembly
This is what the village authorities had requested. However, the villagers made it clear in the assembly on Saturday that not everyone was happy. One man had wanted the houses to be built on his land about two kilometers outside San Marcos; he thought that the government would pay him generously for the land. However, another villager had donated a piece of land that was actually already in the village, so it made more sense to build there.
Israel (helped by Ulisa) measuring one of the lots
Another man wanted the best lot among the twenty-four envisioned in the topographical plan; however, his family already had a perfectly safe house in the village, so he wasn't even included in the twenty-four families to be given a lot.
One family getting ready to build on their lot
Another man, who considers himself to be a political “big shot” in the municipal government, thought that he should be the person in charge of this rebuilding effort. He hadn't even been named to the coordinating committee.

So the people warned the architects: beware! There are rumours that these unhappy people are blaming you for what’s happening and that they are going to pay you back for your “meddling.”
Ivan and Ulisa walking to their new lot
What does “payback” often look like in these mountains? It often means death. The dirt road to San Marcos is a solitary one: I've often driven it for hours without encountering a single vehicle. It’s almost straight up and straight down the mountainside, and it’s narrow; a driver has no choice but to go slowly. One couldn't find a better place for an ambush: someone shooting from above would never even be seen.
Road to San Marcos
So the drive back to Tlapa on Saturday evening was rather a silent one. It wouldn’t have been a big shock to come around a corner in the road and find a tree trunk blocking it. I even thought, “If that happens, what do I grab? Do I grab the gear stick to change to reverse and try to back up as quickly as possible, or do I grab my mom’s rosary hanging on the mirror and whisper words of love for my family?”
Mom's rosary—it's a nice reminder
I debated about sharing these thoughts with you, the reader. I’m not trying to scare anyone; but I wouldn’t be honest, either, if I didn’t share this aspect of reality here. It’s life here.
Road to San Marcos
Will the architects return to San Marcos? Almost definitely. If this project is to succeed, their orientation and participation is still needed. Will they tell their loved ones—at least their spouses—in Mexico City about the “warning” that the villagers gave them? I have no idea. I suspect that their loved ones already know about the risks of working for change. And I suspect that many trust in one of Jesus’ favorite expressions to his followers: “Be not afraid.”
Two women walking home after the assembly
To close, I want to thank Father Fred Monk for his pre-Easter reflection on “A New Creation” at It's a beautiful way to bolster one's faith, hope, and love. God bless.

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