We begin our pilgrimage in El Salvador by placing prayers at the crypt of Archbishop Óscar Romero, saint of El Salvador, martyred in March 1980. It is the first step for our group of 23 pilgrims, who have come from Toronto to learn about Romero, as well as the six Jesuit priests assassinated on a San Salvador university campus in 1989.
Standing at the crypt, I feel the familiar pull between fear and grace. I have been writing in my journal about climate change, refugee deaths, missing Aboriginal women, the changing church and a Saviour who calls us to engage — but I’m fearful of what that might involve. As we pray, 50 Salvadoran schoolgirls on a field trip surround us and begin to sing a folk song. Their teacher hands us photocopied lyrics, and we join the children.
The song is about Romero, voice of the poor and oppressed, shot dead by the authorities as he stood presiding over mass. It’s also about God, who overcomes our fear and calls us to serve. In the weeks prior to his murder, Romero told people he no longer feared death: “If they kill me, I will rise up in the people of El Salvador.”
As we tour the country 35 years after his death, we see his prophecy has come true — in families rebuilding their lives after a decade of civil war, in nuns opening schools in areas ruled by gangs, in human rights workers fighting for mining justice and in towns devoted to keeping the legacy of justice and hope alive. Everywhere we go, people evoke Romero’s name.
We discuss what it means to believe that there is a fate far worse than death. Just weeks before the six priests were murdered, one of them told concerned international activists that although they knew their deaths were imminent, God’s call to work for peace in El Salvador was too important to abandon. We ask ourselves, “Are there fears that keep us from living in the presence of God?”
On the last night of our journey, we join thousands of pilgrims from around the world on a candlelit march to the San Salvador cathedral square to mark the 35th anniversary of Romero’s
martyrdom. Looking up at the cathedral, I notice the stained glass window of a dove, wings outstretched, looking as if it is about to alight on the church and people below. “God be with us,” I pray as the choir performs the same folk tune the children sang at Romero’s crypt. Thousands raise their voices, and together we sing about the God who will not keep silent in the face of injustice.
We reach the final verse, and I look up into the night sky. I notice a blue pigeon, cousin of the white dove, soaring toward us from the direction of the church. Over thousands of heads it flies, getting closer and lower until it dives abruptly and lands on my belly. Its powerful wings beat and bless my body as its claws grasp at my shirt. Gingerly, it walks up my torso and rests for a moment over my heart. Then, with the brush of wings on my cheek, the bird takes flight.
Filled with grace, I watch my fear disappear into the evening sky.
Rev. Alexa Gilmour ministers at Toronto’s Windermere United. She travelled to El Salvador with Toronto’s Romero House, a community home for refugees.