Examination of the Actions of EchoCuba (a U.S. Nonprofit)

The Evangelical Christian Humanitarian Outreach for Cuba (ECHO Cuba), a U.S. nonprofit organization, has emerged as one that calls for close examination by U.S. citizens interested in U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation. EchoCuba is active in Cuba, including successful public opposition to a provision of the then proposed new Cuban constitution and commenting on other controversial Cuban issues. It has received significant financial support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Finally EchoCuba has been used by the State Department as one of only two primary sources for the department’s most recent (and critical) annual report on Cuban religious freedom. These activities have not yet received the serious attention that they deserve. This blog post endeavors to start that examination.

ECHOCuba’s Background [1]

The organization was founded in 1994 by Cuban-American Teo Babún. Soon thereafter it was denounced in the Cuban TV news series “Razones de Cuba” for promoting subversion on the island, with funding from the U.S. government, by publishing counterrevolutionary blogs and printed propaganda and by hosting public events.

Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, has reported that Senor Babún and his family before the triumph of the Revolution “owned the second largest sugarmill in the eastern part of [Cuba]; the Diamante construction company; a cement factory; the Sevilla estate; and the Santiago de Cuba ship line.” After 1959, however, he and his family left the island for Miami, where he made connections with the “annexionist” mafia [Cuban exiles], supported the U.S.-organized mercenary invasion of Play Girón [Bay of Pigs in 1961] and a subsequent terrorist attack on the coastal town of Boca de Samá in 1971.

A noted Cuban intellectual and historian, Nestor Garcia Iturbe, added that Senor Babún is (or was) the executive director of Americas Humanitarian Relief Logistics Team, Inc. (ART) , which says that it “provides aid to hurting people in the Americas” and “disaster response assistance throughout the Americas” as well as partnering with the U.S. Navy’s Southern Command and with “USAID and UN/OCHA through the U.N. Humanitarian System.” Indeed, Garcia says this organization also is a recipient of USAID fund. Another organization created by Babún was the Claims Register Assistance to aid persons who wanted to file claims in the 1960s with the U.S. Department of Justice for their Cuban properties that had been expropriated by the Fidel Castro regime.

The current website for EchoCuba states that its mission is “to equip and strengthen the independent evangelical churches of Cuba through theological education and leadership training of their existing and future pastors. . . . Since the early 1990s, . . . [it] has existed to advocate faith and freedoms in Cuba through a vast network of mostly . . . Protestant and Roman Catholic churches who have promoted Christian education, humanitarian aid, and small business initiatives.”

EchoCuba says in 2002 it “cooperated with different foundations and organizations  in distributing humanitarian assistance and training manuals on carrying out social and human services, such as caring for the elderly, disabled, and malnourished children. It also has aided in reaching out to the most marginalized pockets of Cuba’s populations, including the families of those persecuted by the communist regime for their beliefs and ideals.”

“Today [date not specified] we embark on a new chapter . . . [to focus on] the development of effective Christian leadership to promote Biblical truth while transforming communities. . . [and empowering] the in We collaborate with local leaders, seminaries and communities in the island to bring the Gospel to the masses.”

Yet another of its activities is “faith-based advocacy.” It correctly notes that Cuba was an “atheist state” and that during that period Christians suffered. It also claims that freedom of religion today on the island is “not fully available, and persecution of those who publicly profess a creed exists today.” [This statement is true for the period 1959-1992], but misleading on the years since then.]

EchoCuba also participates in the First Frontier Cuba Network, which “serves as a convening platform, which stewards and directs the investment of North American resources, time, energy and manpower wisely to directly respond to the continuing needs of the Cuban Church. [This Network] has been created to provide consultation and leadership to catalyze the right kind of change in Cuba, without harm, confusion, and fragmentation; and to be the voice of Cuban missiology that guides ministry action towards long-term and productive change for the Kingdom of God.”

The final activity listed on its website is “fighting Biblical poverty.” It claims in the last two decades, “Christianity has grown in Cuba in an unprecedented rate. With a population of 11 million, and only 10%-20% of that population being active Christians, the demand for Bibles is unlike any other point in history. For most Christians in Cuba, they feel isolated from the world. The government and its last of freedom restrict the ability of Christians to access the outside world through literature, internet, television even the distribution of Christian material including the Sword of God [the Bible]. In Cuba there are no places to buy or print Bibles on the island. However God always opens doors. Recently, easing of tensions between the United States and Cuba [with President Obama’s December 2014 opening to Cuba] after fifty years offers an unprecedented opportunity for the Church to receive bibles from international organizations like EchoCuba. Now, you can help Cubans discover the life and love of Jesus found in God’s Word. EchoCuba has vowed to bring the Gospel any way it can to God’s faithful servants in Cuba.”

The website also claims that “Churches in Cuba are not legally allowed to be constructed, [thereby forcing] God’s people . . . to operate through house churches, which hold no legal recognition from the government. Cuba has over 25,000 house churches on the island. The average house church holds an average of 20 to 40 members, on average only 5-10 bibles are available for the entire congregation. We believe that by providing Church leaders and seminarians with Bible and Scripture resources, even more people will experience the transformative power of God’s love for all of us. Our 2015 goal is to provide 5,000 bibles to Churches in Cuba.”

EchoCuba also is a member, since November 2007, of EFCA, which “provides accreditation to leading Christian nonprofit organizations that faithfully demonstrate compliance with established standards for financial accountability.”

EchoCuba’s Financial Support by USAID [2]

Although it is not mentioned on EchoCuba’s website, USAID, for fiscal 2009-2017, paid $2,302,464 to EchoCuba. Of this total, $1,033,582 was “for a three-year program entitled ‘Empowering Civil Society by Strengthening Economic Independence.’” Another $1,179,066 was for the Cuba Humanitarian Support Network, which was “aimed at providing “humanitarian aid to Cuba’s vulnerable religious leaders” and creating a “humanitarian network for the sustainable delivery of essential food and health supplies to marginalized Cubans and their family members.” In addition, EchoCuba to date has received at least $1,003,674 from USAID during the Trump presidency.

ECHOCuba’s Recent Activities in Cuba [3]

In late 2018, some Cuban evangelical churches, encouraged by EchoCuba and other U.S. conservative evangelical churches and organizations, registered strong objections to a provision of the proposed new Cuban Constitution that would have legalized same-sex marriage. According to Andrew Chestnut, Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, ““Both the moral and financial support of U.S. Evangelical denominations and agencies has been crucial to backing Cuban Evangelicals in their campaign to oppose gay marriage on the island.”

In response, in December 2018, the Cuban government withdrew that provision before the new constitution was approved in a national referendum.

This year, Cuban evangelical churches and groups, with the support of similar groups in the U.S., objected to Cuba’s version of a gay pride parade in May, resulting in its cancelation by the organizers of the event.

In July 2019, EchoCuba was involved in the creation of the Evangelical Alliance of Cuban Churches  as separate from the longstanding Cuban Council of Churches (CIC) on the ground that the latter did not represent their beliefs, including opposition to same-sex marriage. According to Elaine Saralegui Caraballo, a lesbian pastor and founder of a Cuban division of the Metropolitan Community Church, said, “The creation of this Alliance fosters a space of unity, from which the whole economic, spiritual, religious, and political force of the Christian fundamentalist churches will be deployed” and that the Alliance’s goal was to promote “Christian supremacy” with the guidance of the U.S. far right, in a similar manner as has occurred in other Latin American countries.”

EchoCuba as Source for State Department on Cuban Religious Freedom [4]

The latest State Department’s report on international religious freedom that was released in June 2019 contained many adverse allegations about that freedom in Cuba with only two principal stated sources, one of which was EchoCuba (without any disclosure about its funding by USAID).

That report contained the following statements about the evangelical or apostolic churches:

  • “There are approximately 4,000 followers of 50 Apostolic churches (an unregistered loosely affiliated network of Protestant churches, also known as the Apostolic Movement) and a separate New Apostolic Church associated with the New Apostolic Church International.  According to some Christian leaders, there is a marked growth of evangelical Protestant groups in the country.”
  • “According to EchoCuba, the ORA [Communist Party’s’ Office of Religious Affairs] approved some registration applications, but it took as many as two to three years from the date of the application.  Other applications received no response or were denied without explanation, while some groups continued to wait for up to 25 years for a response.  EchoCuba said Apostolic churches repeatedly had their attempts to register denied, forcing these churches to operate without legal status.”
  • “In October leaders of Apostolic churches including Bernardo de Quesada, Alain Toledanos, and Marco Antonio Perdomo, issued an official statement on behalf of non-registered groups, which they said are ‘in practice discriminated against,’ urging the government to establish a new statute formally defining and granting the right to, and laying out procedures for, legal registration of religious organizations by the MOJ [Ministry of Justice].  The ORA and the MOJ did not announce any progress on revising the law on associations, announced in August 2017.”
  • “In March the New Apostolic Church, not affiliated with the many loosely affiliated Apostolic churches, registered with the MOJ.”
  • “According to EchoCuba, the government continued to apply its system of rewarding churches that were obedient and sympathetic to “revolutionary values and ideals” and penalizing those that were not.  Similarly, the government continued to reward religious leaders who were cooperative with the government and threatened revocation of those rights for noncooperative religious leaders.  EchoCuba reported that, in exchange for their cooperation with the government, CCC members continued to receive benefits other non-member churches did not always receive, including building permits, international donations of clothing and medicine, and exit visas for pastors to travel abroad.  EchoCuba said individual churches and denominations or religious groups also experienced different levels of consideration by the government depending on the leadership of those groups and their relationship with the government.”
  • “According to EchoCuba, the government continued to single out religious groups critical of the government, such as the unregistered Apostolic Movement, for particularly severe persecution, destroying their churches, confiscating properties, and banning travel of their pastors.  In contrast, the government allowed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also unregistered, to operate with little intervention because the Church continued to maintain a close relationship with the government and did not question the country’s laws.  Some religious leaders said the government continued to grant permits to buy properties for use as house churches, including in some cases when the titleholder to the property did not plan to live there.  Other religious groups said securing permission for the purchase or construction of new buildings remained difficult, if not impossible.”
  • “According to EchoCuba, government agencies regularly refused to recognize a change in residence for pastors and other church leaders assigned to a new church or parish.  A decree continued to place restrictions on internal movement and migration, making it difficult, if not impossible, for pastors and their families to register their new place of residence if they transferred to a church that lost its pastor due to death or retirement.  To engage with even the smallest of bureaucratic details, pastors refused the right to reregister needed to travel to wherever they were officially registered and submit the paperwork there.  Legal restrictions on travel within the country also limited itinerant ministry, a central component of some religious groups.  According to EchoCuba, the application of the decree to religious groups was likely part of the general pattern of government efforts to control their activities.  Some religious leaders said the decree was also used to block church leaders from travelling within the country to attend special events or meetings.  Church leaders associated with the Apostolic churches regularly reported they were prevented, sometimes through short-term detention, from travelling to attend church events or carry out ministry work.”

As pointed out in a prior post, this State Department report made only the following reference to the Cuban Council of Churches (CIC): ““Embassy officials met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches, a government-registered organization with close ties to the government composed mostly of Protestant groups and associated with the World Council of Churches, to discuss its operations and programs.” (Exec. Summary.)

Criticism of U.S. Report on Cuban Religious Freedom [5]

This report’s ever so brief reference to the CIC, in this blogger’s judgment, is a major flaw in the U.S. report as the CIC was founded in 1941 and describes itself as “an ecumenical fellowship of churches and other Cuban Christian institutions, which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior, in accordance with the Scriptures and seek to realize their common vocation for the Glory of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The CIC promotes spaces for encounter, celebration, reflection, formation and joint actions of the churches and other Christian institutions, for the service to our people, as a visible expression of the ecumenism to which we are called by God in Jesus Christ.” Today the CIC’s membership includes 28 denominations, 10 fraternal associations and 14 ecumenical movements and centers.

Relevant here is CIC’s statement (on or about July 17, 2019) in response to the announced intent to create the previously mentioned Evangelical Alliance if Cuban Churches. “We want to reiterate to our people and their churches that the . . . [CIC], as it affirms in its Constitution, works under its motto ‘United to Serve‘ which states:

  • ‘We are a fellowship of churches, ecumenical movements and other Christian institutions that confess the Lord Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior, according to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and seek to realize their common vocation, the glory of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’
  • ‘Our mission is to provide spaces for meeting, celebration, reflection and formation of churches, ecumenical movements and other Christian institutions, as a visible expression of the unity to which God calls us in Jesus Christ, in the service of our people.’
  • ‘Encouraging the study, consultation and different areas of service in accordance with its purposes and functions; the cooperation of Christians in order to strengthen fraternal relations; enrich Christian life and witness; develop a sense of social responsibility and encourage participation in tasks of common interest for the evangelizing mission of the Church.’
  • ‘The Council, without authority over its members to determine issues of doctrine, government or worship, could be a mediating instance, provided that peace and goodness of the Body of Christ is sought, based on the best testimony to the world: the unity of the believers.’

Therefore, the CIC statement continued, “It is not for the [CIC], to rule on doctrinal issues that have been put on the public stage, nor to represent on this or any other issue, before the Cuban people and its authorities, the churches and organizations , members or not.” It then added the following:

  • “In Cuba all denominations enjoy religious freedom and are equal before the law, therefore each church or religious organization establishes the relations it deems with the authorities, and gives testimony before them and the Cuban people as understood from their understanding of the Faith.” (Emphasis added.)
  • “The Council of Churches, in adherence to the values ​​that its Constitution proclaims and in its vocation of service, has carried out mediating efforts since its foundation. And it has done so by sovereign decision of its members, from its governing bodies, without supplanting it, any rights of others.”
  • “On the contrary, in most cases, these efforts have benefited not only the churches and member organizations of the CIC, and in some, all the religious denominations and their practitioners on the island. Suffice it to mention the import and distribution of Bibles, and in the early 90s, their decisive contribution in the cessation of all forms of religious discrimination in Cuba.”
  • “God calls for unity in Christ our Lord, to serve and bear witness to the Gospel. Since its foundation 78 years ago, the . . . [CIC] has shown its fidelity to this call. Our fidelity is only to Jesus Christ, our Lord. There is no other Lord, neither here in our beloved Homeland, nor outside it, to which we MUST serve and adore.”
  • “The . . . [CIC] reaffirms its commitment to continue working for the unity of the churches. Serving the people and the nation, seeking together and together the paths of peace, faith and hope, the dignity of the people and the care of Creation, that help us to build and live the signs of the Kingdom of God: equality and love for all and all in the midst of our beloved country.”

Personal Testimony [6]

As a member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, which for the last 17 years has had a partnership with a sister church in Cuba, I have been on three mission trips to the island to visit our partner and other churches and the office of the CIC. I also have welcomed Cuban visitors to our church in Minneapolis, have discussed other members’ trips to the island, have read widely about many aspects of Cuban-U.S. history and have written many blog posts criticizing hostile U.S. policies and actions against Cuba and encouraging reconciliation and normalization of relations. As a result I now have many Cuban-Presbyterian friends and can testify that these churches and members as well as the CIC enjoy many aspects of religious freedom and embrace a warm and loving Christian faith.

Therefore, it is totally illegitimate for the State Department virtually to ignore the faith and work of these churches and members and of the CIC. It also is illegitimate for the Department and others in the U.S. government implicitly to assume that some U.S. notions of religious freedom should apply to Cuba without considering the vast differences in economic circumstances. This especially is true with respect to building new church buildings. Like the U.S., construction permits are needed in Cuba for new buildings, religious and otherwise. That does not make such construction illegal, as is claimed in the previously mentioned State Department report. Moreover, the granting of such permits in Cuba is inhibited by limitations on the island’s financial resources.

Although I did not visit Cuba during the period of its close relationship with the Soviet Union, until 1992, it is true that Christians and other religious people were discriminated against. However, Cuba did not assassinate or disappear religious opponents of the regime as was done by the right-wing government of El Salvador in the 1980’s. On one of my trips to our partner church on the island, one of the members told me that she had not been brave enough to have been a Christian during those prior years. Another member told me that he had been in seminary with the pastor of our partner, but he had left the Cuban church in order to become a public school teacher. Now that he was retired, he again freely could attend church.

After the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba adopted a more conciliatory position towards religion and lessened its promotion of atheism. In November 1991 the Communist Party began to allow believers into its ranks, and in July 1992, the constitution was amended to remove the definition of Cuba as being a state based on Marxism–Leninism, and article 42 was added, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of religious belief. Another important change after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the increased acceptance of religion in Cuba, several Protestant pastors became members of the National Assembly, two of whom I have met: Rev. Sergio Arce, a Presbyterian-Reformed pastor, and Rev. Raúl Suarez, a Baptist pastor.[ii]

In 2004 the first Greek Orthodox Cathedral opened in Havana; shortly thereafter I visited the island and saw flags welcoming Greek Orthodox Archbishop Bartholomew to the city while my Presbyterian delegation delivered an icon to the new Cathedral from a Minneapolis’ Greek Orthodox Church. Four years later, in 2008, the first Russian Orthodox Church was opened in Havana during an official ceremony attended by then President Raúl Castro. Three Popes have visited the island: Pope John Paul II (1998), Pope Benedict XVI (2012) and Pope Francis (2015).[iii]

Nevertheless, it must be noted that upon the recent appointment of Monsignor Juan de la Caridad as the new Roman Catholic Archbishop of Havana, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba lamented that the Catholic Church on the island does not have schools, universities, newspapers, radio stations or welfare centers while less than 3% of the population attends Sunday Mass even though at least half confess being of that faith.[iv]

The recent State Department report on Cuban religious freedom also blindly accepts assertions by EchoCuba and Christian Solidarity Worldwide about alleged Cuban discrimination and persecution of various evangelical churches, especially when at least EchoCuba receives USAID funds. The U.S. government should not forget or ignore that the State Department and USAID over the years have helped finance so-called U.S. “democracy promotion” efforts on the island that in reality were efforts at “regime change.” As a result, it is reasonable for Cuba to exercise close surveillance of the activities of such organizations.

Conclusion [7]

As someone who strives to follow Jesus as a member of a Presbyterian Church, I am glad to see the U.S. emphasizing the importance of religious freedom around the world. However, given the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election and the support for Trump in the last election by many U.S. evangelical leaders and groups, one has to wonder whether current U.S. hostility towards Cuba and the Trump Administration programs like the new U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights and the first two of promised annual Ministerials on International Religious Freedom are really designed to solidify that U.S. domestic political support for the re-election of Donald Trump.

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[1] EchoCuba; Castro Morales, Who is Teo Babún and why is he going after Cuba? Granma (Feb. 21, 2019); Sanchez, The ‘charity’ made in Miami and the strange faith of ECHOCuba, The Insomniac Pupil (April 18, 2011).

[2] Eaton, God, USAID and Cuba, Cuba Money Project (Nov. 20, 2018); Eaton, Cuba spending under Trump, Cuba Money Project (June 17, 2019); Eaton, Lawmakers want $20 million for Cuba projects in 2020, Cuba Money Project (June 21, 2019;); AmericasReliefTeam, Cuban Humanitarian Support Network. The Cuba Money Project is a U.S. “journalism initiative aimed at reporting stories about U.S. government programs and projects related to Cuba” that is operated by Tracey Eaton, a journalist and former Havana bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News.

[3] Bodenheimer, How American Evangelicals Helped Stop Same-Sex Marriage in Cuba, VICE (April 20, 2019)

[4] State Dep’t, 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Cuba (June 21, 2019); State Department’s Latest Report on International Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (June 25, 2019); U.S. State Department Unfairly Criticizes Cuban Religious Freedom, dwkcommenaries.com (July 18, 2019).

[5] Background on the Cuban Council of Churches; World Council of Churches, Cuban Council of Churches; Joint Statement of the Cuban Council of Churches and the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (Apr. 25, 2019); Larkman, Cuba contingent hopes to further partnership between U.S., Cuban churches (Nov. 13, 2017); Reformed Presbyterian Church in Cuba, Wikipedia

[6] E.g., Praise God for Leading U.S. and Cuba to Reconciliation, dwkcommentareis.com (Dec. 22, 2014); The Cuban Revolution and Religion, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 30, 2011); posts listed in the “Pope Francis Visits to Cuba & U.S., 2015” section of List of Post to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA; Bishops lament that the Catholic church lacks a ‘massive social presence in Cuba,’ Diario de Cuba (Sept. 3, 2019).

[7] See posts  to dwkcommentaries about the Commission on Unalienable Rights; U.S. State Department’s First Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom, dwkcommentries.com  (July 7, 2019); U.S. State Department’s Second Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom , dwkcommentaries.com(July 21, 2019); Realpolitik Analysis of U.S. Ministerial To Advance Religious Liberty and U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 23, 2019).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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[1] Castro Morales, Who is Teo Babún and why is he going after Cuba?, Granma (Feb. 21, 2019); Sanchez, The ‘charity’ made in Miami and the strange faith of ECHOCuba, The Insomniac Pupil (April 18, 2011); EchoCuba, About US; ECFA, ECHOCuba.

[2] Eaton, God, USAID and Cuba, Cuba Money Project (Nov. 20, 2018); Eaton, Cuba spending under Trump, Cuba Money Project (June 17, 2019); Eaton, Lawmakers want $20 million for Cuba projects in 2020, Cuba Money Project (June 21, 2019); AmericasReliefTeam, Cuban Humanitarian Support Network. The Cuba Money Project is a U.S. “journalism initiative aimed at reporting stories about U.S. government programs and projects related to Cuba” that is operated by Tracey Eaton, a journalist and former Havana bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News.

[3] Bodenheimer, How American Evangelicals Helped Stop Same-Sex Marriage in Cuba, VICE (April 20, 2019).

 

 

 

 

Carolyn Forché’s Additional Comments about Saint Oscar Romero

A prior post discussed poet-memoirist Carolyn Forché’s four encounters with Archbishop (now Saint) Oscar Romero that were included in her memoir, What You Have Heard Is True.

Recently Forché had additional comments about Romero in an interview by Robin Lindley, a Seattle-based writer and attorney and features editor of the History Notes Network.[1]Here is what Forché said:

“Monsignor Romero was very kind. He was a bit shy, very studious, and deeply thoughtful. He had studied in Rome.”

“As things started to deteriorate and as the killing escalated, one of his close friends, Father Rutillo Grande, a Jesuit, was murdered. Monsignor Romero went to keep vigil with his body and then began to publicly denounce the military regime. He became the only institutional voice against the oppression in the country. He was a very visible public figure, and he saw himself as a shepherd, as a bishop of his people, as someone to stay with his people and keep watch with them and take care of them. Every Sunday he would say mass in the cathedral and his homily would be broadcast all over the country on radio.”

“The right hated Monsignor Romero. He was number one on the death squad hit lists, some of which were printed in the newspapers. Yet he stood up and he denounced the oppression every Sunday. And he read out the names of the dead. He was very compelling. He said yes to the call of that moment.”

“The last time I talked to him, he told me I had to leave the country the next day. I asked if he would leave the country. He said, ‘No, my place is with my people and your place with yours now.’  That was difficult for me to accept, but Monsignor Romero knew what was coming. He knew his time was short.”

“I also thought he was a saint long before the Vatican acknowledged his sainthood. There was a kind of tranquility about him, even though he felt fear. He talked about feeling fear like any other human being. But he gave his life for his people. He didn’t abandon them. I have utmost regard and also love for him, and his loss was a grave one for humanity.”

“But now we have him among us in spirit.  The people of El Salvador venerated his sanctity long before the Vatican acknowledged it.”

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[1] Lindley, Carolyn Forché: Bearing Witness to the Wounds of History, History News Network (May 12, 2019).

 

One of Saint Oscar Romero’s Final Conversations

Carolyn Forché, an American poet and author, [1] then 27-29 years old, lived in El Salvador, January 1978—March 1980. Her memoir recounts her amazing sojourn in this country, which then was on the precipice of a brutal civil war.[2]

As an admirer of Monseñor (now Saint) Oscar Romero, I was especially interested in her accounts of seeing him on four occasions and conversing with him on the last of these.[3]

Mass in the Cathedral

Forché first saw Romero while he was celebrating mass in the then unfinished Cathedral of San Salvador, the capital of the country. He was “in his white vestments before a spray of microphones, giving a homily with a litany of names of those disappeared or found dead that week, some of whom were in coffins lined up at the altar, with windows cut into the lids to reveal their faces, except the mutilated. “ (Pp. 193-94)

“In shafts of sunlit dust sent from the louvers of the two bell towers we stood shoulder to shoulder; women in scarves or mantillas, men holding their straw hats, children sitting along the altar rail as the homily was broadcast to thousands of radios throughout the country, to machine shops, bodegas, to pickup trucks, and the battery-operated radios in the villages. When his homily giving guidance and counsel came to an end, Monseñor walked toward the coffins with an aspergillum [liturgical implement], sprinkling holy water on the dead, and then he walked through the congregation, and we parted to make a path for him, the water sprinkling down on our bowed heads, as it had on the coffins.” (Pp. 193-94.)

Upon later reflection, “I would understand that here the dead and the living were together, and those who stood alive before him, he was blessing in advance.” (P. 194.)

Lunch at the Carmelite Convent

On another occasion Forché went for lunch with the Carmelite sisters at their convent where they operated the Hospital of Divine Providence for cancer patients. Monseñor Romero, who lived in a small casita on the hospital grounds, came late for lunch. Apologizing for his lateness, he said, “there were so many meetings this morning, so many problems to address, that he lost track of time.” Forché heard someone mentioning her name, and Monseñor nodded his head yes, glancing at me.” (Pp. 213-15.)

But the two of them did not have any conversation on this occasion although she later recalled hearing his voice from the convent kitchen, saying,“ We must hope without hoping. We must hope when we have no hope.”(P. 336.)

It should also be mentioned that the hospital’s small, modern chapel is where Romero was assassinated while celebrating mass on March 24, 1980. (P. 332.)

Another Mass at the Cathedral

Presumably in early 1980, Forché attended another mass at the Cathedral,  “hoping once again to receive Communion from Monseñor, to feel the raindrops from his aspergillum land on me. . . . I took photographs of him at the altar, speaking into what appeared to be a telephone held by an altar boy . . . .[To] the left of the altar is Father Ignacio Ellacuria, arms folded, not wearing his glasses, his eyes appearing to focus on Monsignor’s raised hand.” [4] (Pp. 311-13.)

After mass that day, Forché “noticed a man wearing sunglasses, who was, inexplicably, carrying an attaché case . . . He paused near one of the side altars as if offering a special prayer. The following day, a priest found an attaché case carrying seventy-two sticks of dynamite behind that side altar. It had been set to detonate during a funeral Mass for a civilian member of the junta, scheduled for that afternoon, but the detonator had apparently failed.” (P. 312.)

Conversation with Romero

On March 14, 1980, Forché and a Venezuelan journalist met with Romero in a community room at the Hospital of Divine Providence. Responding to questions from the journalist, Romero said finding a solution to the conflict had not been exhausted. “For if that were true, we would already be in the midst of a full civil war.” (P. 327.)

Another question prompted Romero to say, “My relation with the [guerrilla] organizations is one of a shepherd, a pastor with his people, knowing that a people has the right to organize itself and to defend its right of organization. And I also feel perfectly free to denounce those organizations when they abuse the power and turn in the direction of unnecessary violence. This is my role as pastor: to animate the just and the good and to denounce that which is not good.” (Pp. 327-28.)

Romero continued, “As I have told you, I do not have a political role in El Salvador, but rather a pastoral one. As a pastor, it is my duty to construct this Church, my community, the church. That is what I am responsible for. And this Church, as a people, illuminated by God, has a mission too among the people in general.” (P. 328.)

The journalist then asked about Monseñor’s own safety. The response, “ I have a great confidence in the protection of God. . . One does not need to feel fearful. We hear from Jesus Christ that one should not tempt God, but my pastoral duty obliges me to go out and be with the people, and I would not be a good pastor if I was hiding myself and giving testimonies of fear. I believe if death encounters us in the path of our duty, that then is the moment in which we die in the way that God wills.” (P. 328.)

After the journalist left. Forché and her friend Leonel, who also was there, discussed with Romero a meeting she had had with a Salvadoran official who was going to defect. Romero then told Leonel that “It is for the best” that Forché leave the next day (March 15), and Leonel agreed. (Pp. 328-29.)

Forché, however, did not want to leave and said to Romero, “But Monseñor, forgive me but it is so much more dangerous for you.” He replied, “My child, my place is with my people, and now your place is with yours.”  Romero added that he wanted her to “speak about the sufferings of the poor, the repression, and the injustice,. . .[to] say what I had seen.” He “assured me that the time would come for me to speak, and that I must prepare myself and I could do that best through prayer.” (P. 329.)

Forché left El Salvador the next day (March 15), and Romero was assassinated on March 24. (P. 332.)

Conclusion

On April 26, 2019, before I had read her book, I heard Forché speak about it at a “Literary Witnesses” meeting at Minneapolis’ Plymouth Congregational Church.

I asked her whether she had any comments on the impact on Romero of the March 12, 1977, murder of his friend and fellow priest, Rutilio Grande, and the opinion, often expressed, that this death converted or transformed Romero to be more outspoken against the human rights abuses of the Salvadoran government. (Pp. 28-29.)

In response, Forché said that Grande was murdered just before she arrived in the country, but based upon what she heard about Romero and her conversation with Romero, noted above, she disputed any contention that Romero was converted or transformed by that murder. He always expressed solidarity with the people and spoke out against repression.

For anyone interested in El Salvador, this well-written book is highly recommended.

==================================

[1] Carolyn Forché , Poetry Fnd; Carolyn Forché, Wikipedia.

[2] Forché, What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance (Penguin Press;  New York; 2019); Goldman, A Young Poet, a Mysterious Stranger and an El Salvador on the Brink of War, N.Y. Times Book Review (April 20, 2019); Meyer, How to Write Poetry About Conflict. The Atlantic (Mar. 25, 2019).

[3] This blog has published many posts about Romero, his life and death, his continuing inspiration for many people throughout the world, including this blogger as well as various legal proceedings regarding his assassination. See the posts listed in the “Oscar Romero” section of List of Posts to dwk commentaries—Topical: EL SALVADOR.

[4] Father Ellacuria at the time was Professor and Rector of the Jesuit University of Central America (UCA) as well as a Jesuit priest, philosopher and theologian On November 16, 1989, he was was one of the six Jesuit priests who were murdered near their apartments at UCA. This blog has published many posts about these priests, their brutal murders and various legal proceedings regarding that horrible crime. See the posts listed in ”The Jesuit Priests” section of List of Posts to dwk commentaries—Topical: EL SALVADOR.

 

“Whose People Will Be Our People?”

This was the title of the November 18 sermon by Senior Pastor, Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Preparing for the Word

The Prelude for the service was Franz Joseph Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto (Movements I and II) that was performed by Douglas Carlsen, trumpet (Minnesota Orchestra) and Melanie Ohnstad, organ.

Associate Pastor, Rev.  Alanna Simone Tyler, then led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “O Holy One, we gather today aware that we fall short of your hopes for us. We are a people divided. We do not trust one another. We forget we belong to the whole human family, not merely to our little circle. We do not accept the stranger as if it were you, O Christ. Forgive us, and make us one again, with you and with those from whom we are estranged.”

Listening for the Word

The Scriptures: Ruth 1: 1-18 (NRSV):

“In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.”

“Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.’ Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.”

“So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’”

“But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’”

“When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.”

The Sermon:

“Few stories in Hebrew Scripture are as central to our Christian narrative, and are as reflective of what God is up to in Jesus, as the account of Naomi and Ruth.”

In many ways it’s a thoroughly modern story, a tale of love and survival, of refugees and immigrants, of loyalty and generosity, of family legacy and the quiet strength of women.” (Emphasis added.)

“Naomi, an Israelite, marries a man from Bethlehem. They flee famine in Israel and travel as refugees to the land of Moab to the east, beyond the river Jordan, where they settle as a family.”

“But after a time Naomi’s husband dies, and with no one to provide for her and being a refugee from a foreign land, she faces serious hardship. Fortunately, her sons have grown up. They marry women of Moab, Orpah and Ruth, and can now care for their mother.”

“We often view the story of Ruth as the tale of individuals and the decisions they make. But their lives, and this story, are lived in a much broader context. Naomi, from Israel, and Ruth, from Moab, represent two nations historically in conflict. Their people are enemies.” (Emphasis added.)

“To get a feel for the unsettling power of this narrative, imagine it set in the modern Middle East. If we replace Moab with Palestinian Gaza, and Bethlehem with Israeli Tel Aviv, we begin to get a sense of the larger, treacherous, complicated implications of this story.” (Emphasis added.)

“For a time all is well for Naomi in her new life in Moab, but then tragedy strikes again. Both sons die, leaving her vulnerable once more. The only hope for Naomi is to return to Bethlehem where she has relatives on whom she might be able to depend. She learns the famine that caused them to leave in the first place is over, and she decides to go home.”

“When Naomi sets off for Bethlehem, her two daughters-in-law decide to go with her, but Naomi stops them. She tells them to go home to their own people, where they have a chance of surviving, of marrying again and starting new families, and being among their own people. Orpah chooses to return home, but Ruth’s love and loyalty compel her to go with her mother-in-law, who tries again to dissuade her. I imagine them standing on the banks of the Jordan, the border between Moab and Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel, Naomi urging her to return home one last time. But Ruth stands her ground.”

“’Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!’ she says to Naomi.”

  • Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.’ (Ruth 1:17-18)” (Emphasis added.)

“It’s a stunning soliloquy, with far-reaching consequences. With her words, Ruth reframes and redefines existing norms and realigns historic assumptions. She chooses to ignore the accepted boundaries between people and nations. She sets self aside and declares her intention to use love as the measure by which she will live.” (Emphasis added.)

The story of Ruth points to the dangers of exaggerated nationalism and the risks of restrictive boundaries within the human family. The story upends old rules about identity, and proposes new ways of thinking about relationships. It shows that grace and generous love can disrupt historic patterns of exclusivity.” (Emphasis added.)

“After Ruth’s words, Naomi really has no choice, so the two of them set off together for Bethlehem, climbing up into the hills of Judah from the Jordan Valley. Once they get there, they have no means of sustaining themselves. In order to provide food for the two of them, Ruth goes to glean in the fields with other poor, hungry people, picking up leftovers after the harvest. She happens to do this, to glean, in the field of Boaz, a kinsman of her dead husband’s family.”

“Boaz sees her and is attracted to her, and asks about her and, eventually, with a little encouragement from Ruth, falls in love with her. They have a son named Obed, whose wife has a son named Jesse. Remember the prophetic prediction that ‘a shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse?’ That shoot would be David, son of Jesse, great-grandson of Ruth – David, who would become king of Israel, and from whose line the Messiah would one day come, as the prophets of old had foretold.” (Emphasis added.)

“In other words, without the courage and strength of Naomi and the perseverance and love of Ruth, the story would end. There would have been no Obed, no Jesse, no David – and, eventually, no Jesus. The entire biblical story for Christians rests on this one foreign enemy woman, a young widow who leaves her own people, with great risk, goes with her mother-in-law, to support her, because it was the right and just thing to do. As the Shaker poem the choir sang earlier says, ‘Love will do the thing that’s right.’”

“’Where you go I will go, ‘Ruth says. ‘Where you lodge I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God my God.’”

The prophet Micah asks, ‘What does the Lord require of us’ Ruth, a foreigner not under the law of the Hebrews, instinctively knows the answer: ‘To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.’” (Emphasis added.)

The story of Ruth is a parable for our time. It may not be Moab and Israel, but in America today we live as if we were enemies of one another. There’s no longer a common understanding of what unites us as a people. We think the worst of those with whom we disagree. Everything has a zero-sum quality to it. Either you’re with me or you’re against me.” (Emphases added.)

“Your people cannot possibly be my people.”

“American individualism has always been in creative and generative tension with the call to live as one community. These days, however, that tension has largely been displaced by rampant sectarianism. Very few now try even to talk across the divide anymore. Rigid partisanship precludes the possibility of building a shared purpose as a people. We cannot see beyond our own firm boundaries.”

“Presidential historian Michael Beschloss spoke at the Westminster Town Hall Forum last Tuesday. More than 1700 people were here. The sanctuary and Westminster Hall were filled to overflowing.” [2]

“We were surprised by the crowd. Why did so many people come? The midterm elections were over and the relentless campaigning was behind us , and I think people wanted to take a longer view of where things stand in America. We had just marked the 100th anniversary of the Armistice ending the First World War. And our national Day of Thanksgiving is nearly upon us, always a time to pause and reflect on the road we as a people have trod, and on the journey ahead. People came that day to find hope for the future of our nation.”

“The questions asked of Beschloss at the Town Hall Forum focused less on any particular president, current or historic, and more on the present contentiousness in our land. People wrote question expressing serious anxiety about the health of our democracy. They wanted to hear from a professional historian whether things are as bad as they seem. They are, in his view.“

“Beschloss is deeply concerned about the nation and its future. In his study of history, he said, he knew of few times in our country’s life as fraught with division and discord, and the potential for worse, as ours. Even as he expressed hope about the enduring strength of American democracy, he warned about the risk of conflict escalating into violence.”

“This is not only a Republican-Democrat problem, or a conservative-progressive matter. It’s not even solely a political problem, nor merely a lack of civility. It’s something far more than that.”

“It’s the same question Ruth faced, a question of identity and belonging: whose people will be my people? Our people?”

“It shows up in the rural-urban divide. It can be seen in the widening gulf between those with a high level of economic comfort and those who have been left behind – and in the policies aimed at keeping things like that. We see it in unresolved racial disparities among us. It’s there in the backlash against immigrants. There’s a growing education gap and a perception of elitism among us.”

“We’re all caught up in it. We’re all caught up in the cultural dividing lines that cut across the nation. And naturally we think the “other side” is at fault; but none of us is innocent.”

“Beschloss said that when American presidents have found themselves leading in a time of war they always become more religious. He described Lincoln coming to Washington as an agnostic, and maybe even an atheist,, but as he sent men off to fight and die on the battlefield he turned to the Bible and to prayer for wisdom and strength and succor. We can hear it in his speeches; he quoted scripture all the time. He needed something beyond his own resources to bear the terrible burden and to help resolve the national crisis.”

“We need something, as well, beyond our own limited resources. What we’re facing, I think, can be described as a spiritual problem. We’re too mired in mundane, daily outrage to see things from a higher point of view.” (Emphasis added.)

“In contrast, Ruth refuses to let the prevailing perception of reality – that Moab and Israel are enemies – define her own point of view. She chooses to live according to a different reality. She seeks a deeper, broader, more generous perspective on the human family. She lifts her vision above the discord and looks beyond it. She wants to see things more as God intends them to be, not as the world sees them.”

“We’re in a moment where our nation lacks that kind of moral vision, a vision that looks beyond the immediacies of our divided house, a vision summoning us to conceive anew the possibilities the American experiment was meant to offer. We cannot keep living like this; there’s simply too much at stake not to try to reclaim the values at the heart of our democracy – values never perfectly implemented, but that have served as aspirational measures of our life together.”

This is a Naomi and Ruth moment, and the question facing us is: whose people will be our people?” (Emphasis added.)

As Christians, we believe that Jesus embodies God’s response to that question.” (Emphasis added.)

“In the coming season we will we speak of this one who is born in Bethlehem, the descendant of David. We will speak of him as Emmanuel, God with us.”

Jesus does with all humanity what Ruth does with Naomi. He lives for others and loves them unconditionally, even at the risk of losing his own life.” (Emphasis added.)

In Jesus, and in Ruth, we have the blueprint for human community: a generosity of spirit that starts by saying, “Your people will be our people.” (Emphasis added.)

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

This sermon provided historical and contemporary contexts that made the story of Ruth and Naomi more powerful.

Naomi and Ruth were from countries, Israel and Moab respectively, that were enemies. Yet Ruth “reframes and redefines existing norms and realigns historic assumptions.” She “chooses to ignore the accepted boundaries between people and nations” and thereby “shows that grace and generous love can disrupt historic patterns of exclusivity.”

“Jesus does with all humanity what Ruth does with Naomi. He lives for others and loves them unconditionally.”

It is easiest for nearly everyone to first experience love in a family and define yourself as a member of that family. Then as we grow up we enlarge the family group to include friends and neighbors, eventually people from a geographical area and then a nation. All of these groups are logical and hopefully enriching.

The challenge then is to understand and treasure all human beings who are outside these groups. We are offered opportunities to do so by reading about people in other cultures and lands, by seeking to engage with nearby neighbors with different cultures and traditions, by welcoming newcomers of all faiths and traditions to our cities and towns and by traveling to other lands.

I have been blessed in this quest by a superb education; by living and studying for two years in the United Kingdom; by traveling to many other countries in Europe, North America and Latin America and a few countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa; by being a pro bono asylum lawyer for Salvadorans, Somalis, Colombians and men from Afghanistan and Burma; by learning and teaching international human rights law; by researching and writing blog posts about Cuba, Cameroon and other countries and issues; and by getting to know their peoples and by getting to know people in Minnesota from many other countries.

Especially meaningful for me has been involvement in Westminster’s Global Partnerships in Cuba, Cameroon and Palestine and learning more about these countries’ histories, traditions and problems and establishing friendships with individuals in these countries. For example, this past May, individuals from these three counties visited Westminster in Minneapolis and we all shared our joys and challenges. Especially enriching were three worship services focused on each of our partnerships.

For example, our May 20, 2018, service on Pentecost Sunday featured our Palestinian brothers and sisters from our partner congregation, Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.[3]

We had Palestinian music from the Georges Lammam Ensemble (San Francisco, California). Rev. Munther Isaac, the Senior Pastor of our partner congregation, provided the Pastoral Prayer and led the unison Lord’s Prayer. My new friend, Adel Nasser from Bethlehem, chanted the Twenty-third Psalm in Arabic.

Then Rev. Mitri Raheb, the President of Dar-Al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, had an illuminating conversational sermon with Rev. Hart-Andersen that was centered on the Biblical text (Acts 2: 1-12). This passage talks about a gathering in Jerusalem of  people “from every nation under heaven,” each speaking “in the native language of each” and yet hearing, “each of us, in our own native language” and thus understanding one another. Here are some of the highlights of that conversation:

  • Hart-Andersen said the text emphasized that all of these people were in one place together, affirming the vast display of God’s creative goodness in the human family when no one has to surrender his or her own identity and thereby affirms the identity of every human being.
  • This is what God wants in the human family, Hart-Andersen continued. Make space for people who are different. The miracle of Pentecost is the existence of bridges over these differences and the destruction of walls that we tend to build around our own little groups.
  • Hart-Andersen also pointed out that Minnesota today is like that earlier gathering at Pentecost with over 100 different language groups in the State.
  • Raheb agreed, saying that Palestine is also very diverse and God wants diversity in the human family. As a result, there is a need to build bridges between different groups, and the Covenant Agreement between Westminster and Christmas Lutheran Church expressly calls for building bridges between the U.S. and Palestine. He also treasures the gathering this month of Cubans and Cameroonians with the Palestinians and Americans because it helped to build bridges among all four of these groups. We were experiencing Pentecost in Minneapolis.
  • Raheb also mentioned that the original Pentecost featured the miracle of understanding among the people speaking different languages. The Holy Spirit provided the software enabling this understanding.
  • Hart-Andersen said the diversity of the human family compels us to build bridges. The mission of the church is to resist walls that keep us apart.
  • Raheb emphasized that Acts 2:1-12 is a foundational text for Arabic Christianity as it mentions Arabs as being present on Pentecost.
  • He also contrasted Pentecost with the Genesis account (Chapter 11) of “the whole earth [having] one language and the same words” and the resulting arrogance to attempt to build a tower to the heavens. God responded by confusing their language” so that they would not understand one another and stop building the tower of Babel. This is emblematic of empires throughout history that have attempted to impose one language on all parts of the empire.

Yes, we all are brothers and sisters in Christ!

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[1]  The text of the sermon is available on the church’s website.

[2] See Beschloss Discusses “Presidents of War” at Westminster Town Hall Forum, dwkcomentaries.com (Nov. 15, 2018).

[3] The bulletin and an audio recording for this May 20 service are available on the Westminster website.

 

The Canonization of Oscar Romero

On October 14, 2018, Pope Francis at the Vatican canonized Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. The Vatican’s press release briefly stated the following:

  • “Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated on March 24, 1980 as he was saying Mass in the chapel of the Divine Providence cancer hospital where he lived.  He was an outspoken voice for the poorest people of his country, so got caught up in a conflict between the military government and guerilla groups that claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives.”
  • “Thirty five years later, he was declared a martyr of the Church, killed out of hatred of the faith, and was beatified on May 23rd[1]

Pope Francis, who wore the bloodstained rope belt that Romero wore when he was assassinated, canonized Romero and Pope Paul VI at a Mass in St. Peter’s Square before about 70,000 faithful, a handful of presidents and 5,000 Salvadoran pilgrims who traveled to Rome to honor a man whom many Latin Americans consider a hero. Back in El Salvador’s capital, tens of thousands more Salvadorans stayed up all night to watch the Mass on giant TV screens outside the cathedral where Romero’s remains are entombed. Below are photographs of the crowd at St. Peter’s, Pope Francis and of  photographs of Romero and Pope Paul VI hung on the exterior of St. Peter’s.

 

 

 

Pope Francis’ Homily

In his homily Pope Francis said that Romero “left the security of the world, even his own safety, in order to give his life according to the Gospel, close to the poor and to his people, with a heart drawn to Jesus and his brothers and sisters.”

The homily was based upon Hebrews: 4: 12-13 (NRSV): “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” The passage from Hebrews “tells us that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword . . . . It really is: God’s word is not merely a set of truths or an edifying spiritual account; no – it is a living word that touches our lives, that transforms our lives. There, Jesus in person, the living Word of God, speaks to our hearts.”

“The Gospel, in particular, invites us to an encounter with the Lord, after the example of the ‘man’ who ‘ran up to him’ (cf. Mk10:17). We can recognize ourselves in that man, whose name the text does not give, as if to suggest that he could represent each one of us. He asks Jesus how ‘to inherit eternal life’ (v. 17). He is seeking life without end, life in its fullness: who of us would not want this? Yet we notice that he asks for it as an inheritance, as a good to be obtained, to be won by his own efforts. In fact, in order to possess this good, he has observed the commandments from his youth and to achieve this he is prepared to follow others; and so he asks: ‘What must I do to have eternal life?’”

“Jesus’s answer catches him off guard. The Lord looks upon him and loves him (cf. v. 21). Jesus changes the perspective: from commandments observed in order to obtain a reward, to a free and total love. That man was speaking in terms of supply and demand, Jesus proposes to him a story of love. He asks him to pass from the observance of laws to the gift of self, from doing for oneself to being with God. And the Lord suggests to the man a life that cuts to the quick: ‘Sell what you have and give to the poor…and come, follow me’ (v. 21).”

“To you, too, Jesus says: ‘Come, follow me!’ Come: do not stand still, because it is not enough not to do evil in order to be with Jesus. Follow me: do not walk behind Jesus only when you want to, but seek him out every day; do not be content to keep the commandments, to give a little alms and say a few prayers: find in Him the God who always loves you; seek in Jesus the God who is the meaning of your life, the God who gives you the strength to give of yourself.”

Again Jesus says: ‘Sell what you have and give to the poor.’ The Lord does not discuss theories of poverty and wealth, but goes directly to life. He asks you to leave behind what weighs down your heart, to empty yourself of goods in order to make room for him, the only good. We cannot truly follow Jesus when we are laden down with things. Because if our hearts are crowded with goods, there will not be room for the Lord, who will become just one thing among the others. For this reason, wealth is dangerous and – says Jesus – even makes one’s salvation difficult. Not because God is stern, no! The problem is on our part: our having too much, our wanting too much suffocates us, suffocates our hearts and makes us incapable of loving. Therefore, Saint Paul writes that ‘the love of money is the root of all evils’ (1 Tim 6:10). We see this where money is at the centre, there is no room for God nor for man.”

“Jesus is radical. He gives all and he asks all: he gives a love that is total and asks for an undivided heart. Even today he gives himself to us as the living bread; can we give him crumbs in exchange? We cannot respond to him, who made himself our servant even going to the cross for us, only by observing some of the commandments. We cannot give him, who offers us eternal life, some odd moment of time. Jesus is not content with a ‘percentage of love’: we cannot love him twenty or fifty or sixty percent. It is either all or nothing.”

“Dear brothers and sisters, our heart is like a magnet: it lets itself be attracted by love, but it can cling to one master only and it must choose: either it will love God or it will love the world’s treasure (cf. Mt 6:24); either it will live for love or it will live for itself (cf. Mk 8:35). Let us ask ourselves where we are in our story of love with God. Do we content ourselves with a few commandments or do we follow Jesus as lovers, really prepared to leave behind something for him? Jesus asks each of us and all of us as the Church journeying forward: are we a Church that only preaches good commandments or a Church that is a spouse, that launches herself forward in love for her Lord? Do we truly follow him or do we revert to the ways of the world, like that man in the Gospel? In a word, is Jesus enough for us or do we look for many worldly securities? “

“Let us ask for the grace always to leave things behind for love of the Lord: to leave behind wealth, leave behind the yearning for status and power, leave behind structures that are no longer adequate for proclaiming the Gospel, those weights that slow down our mission, the strings that tie us to the world. Without a leap forward in love, our life and our Church become sick from ‘complacency and self-indulgence’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 95): we find joy in some fleeting pleasure, we close ourselves off in useless gossip, we settle into the monotony of a Christian life without momentum, where a little narcissism covers over the sadness of remaining unfulfilled.”

“This is how it was for the man, who – the Gospel tells us – ‘went away sorrowful’ (v. 22). He was tied down to regulations of the law and to his many possessions; he had not given over his heart. Even though he had encountered Jesus and received his loving gaze, the man went away sad. Sadness is the proof of unfulfilled love, the sign of a lukewarm heart.”

“On the other hand, a heart unburdened by possessions, that freely loves the Lord, always spread’ joy, that joy for which there is so much need today. Pope Saint Paul VI wrote: ‘It is indeed in the midst of their distress that our fellow men need to know joy, to hear its song’ (Gaudete in Domino, I). Today Jesus invites us to return to the source of joy, which is the encounter with him, the courageous choice to risk everything to follow him, the satisfaction of leaving something behind in order to embrace his way. The saints have travelled this path.”

Conclusion

In my first trip to El Salvador in April 1989 I started to learn about Oscar Romero and his courageous denunciations of human rights violations by the Salvadoran government and, to a lesser extent, the rebels. For these acts he was assassinated while he was saying mass in a small, modern and beautiful chapel on the grounds of a cancer hospital across the street from his small apartment. As a Protestant Christian I came to regard Romero as my personal saint. Thus, I treasure the Roman Catholic Church’s formally recognizing him as a saint.[2]

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[1] Vatican, Bl. Oscar Romero: A martyr of the option for the poor, Vatican News (Oct. 14, 2018); Vatican, Booklet for the Celebration: Holy Mass and Canonizations (14 Oct. 2018); Vatican, Homily of His Holiness Pope Francis (Oct. 14, 2018); Zra, Óscar Romero, Archbishop Killed While Saying Mass, Will Be Named a Saint on Sunday, N.Y. Times (Oct. 13, 2018); Assoc. Press, Pope’s Canonization of Paul VI, Romero Personal, Political, N.Y. Times (Oct. 13, 2018); Sherwood, Salvadoran priest óscar Romero to be declared saint by Pope Francis, Guardian (Oct. 11. 2018); Winfield & Aleman, Pope makes El Salvador’s Oscar Romero and Pope Paul VI saints, Wash. Post (Oct. 14, 2018); Pavoledo, Archbishop Óscar Romero and Pope Paul VI Are Made Saints, N.Y. Times (Oct. 14, 2018).

[2] Previous posts have discussed my discovery of Romero and various legal proceedings about his assassination. (See the posts listed in the “Oscar Romero” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: EL SALVADOR. A website totally devoted to honoring Romero and promoting his beatification and canonization is Super Martyrio. There also are frequent posts about Romero in the blog El Salvador Perspectives.

Developments Regarding the Summit of the Americas 

Later this week the Summit of the Americans takes place in Lima, Peru. Interesting  developments regarding the Summit have taken place from the U.S. and Cuba.

U.S. Developments[1]

On April 10 President Trump cancelled his scheduled attendance at the Summit of the Americans in Peru. The stated reason was his need to attend to the new crisis in Syria: the Syrian regime chemical weapons attack on some of its citizens and President Trump’s announcement that the U.S. was considering a military response.

The New York Times reporter, Julie Davis, said, “Scrapping the trip spared Mr. Trump potentially unpleasant interactions with leaders of Latin American nations whose citizens have been insulted by his harsh language about their countries as sources of illegal immigration, criminal gangs and illicit narcotics. White House officials said Vice President Mike Pence would attend the summit meeting in the president’s place.

“Skipping the Summit of the Americas sends a terrible message about U.S. disengagement in our hemisphere, compounding negative message of Trump’s Cuba, NAFTA and immigration policies,” was the opinion of Benjamin J. Rhodes, who served as a deputy national security adviser in Mr. Obama’s White House and who was the principal negotiator of the U.S.’ opening to Cuba in December 2014.

A similar opinion was voiced by Richard E. Feinberg, a senior Latin America fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor at the University of California San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy. He said, “Trump’s dropping out of the Lima summit is an appalling demonstration of disrespect for Latin America. “This has to be seen in the context of a president who has been ranting and railing against Latin America continually for the last several years. They’re his bête noire. They’re his scapegoat for everything that’s wrong in America, from immigration to narcotics to alleged loss of jobs from trade.”

A more nuanced opinion was offered by Christopher Sabatini, executive director of Global Americans, a group promoting better engagement in the region. He said,  “The truth is, given the level of discourse on trade, immigrants and intervention coming from this administration, not paying much attention to the region may be welcome by a number of governments as they search for their own alternatives. The question though is what it means for U.S. leadership, not just now but over the long term.”

The region’s leaders  seemed to be taking the U.S. decision in stride, reflecting some of the unease generated by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and growing economic self-confidence in a region long resentful of Washington’s dominance.

The U.S. State Department announced that Acting Secretary of State John J. Sullivan will accompany Vice President Mike Pence at the Summit, where the U.S. “will promote priorities of mutual interest to the region, including supporting democracy; addressing the political and humanitarian crisis and restoring democracy in Venezuela; stemming corruption and transnational crime, and promoting economic prosperity.” Sullivan will meet separately with leaders from Peru, Brazil, Haiti, Mexico, Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Lucia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

The State Department noted that Sullivan “will also engage with members of Cuban and Venezuelan independent civil society.” Apparently he will avoid meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro.

In another release the Department said it had “received numerous, credible reports that the Cuban government prevented, and continues to prevent, members of independent civil society from traveling to Peru to participate in the Summit . . . .  Cuban authorities prevented these individuals’ travel through arbitrary stops at the airport, short-term detentions, and visits to individuals’ homes to warn them against trying to leave the island.”

The Department’s release further stated that the U.S. “condemns these actions. We call on the Cuban government to facilitate full, robust participation in the Summit by allowing the free and unrestricted travel of its citizens, a universal human right.” As a result, the U.S. “stands with the brave activists facing repression by the Cuban regime. We are working with the Government of Peru and civil society to promote a Summit that features open, inclusive dialogue with the full participation of independent civil society representatives from Cuba and the hemisphere.”

At the Press Briefing the same day, the Department said that on April 12 Sullivan would be meeting with “with Cuban NGOs and opposition leaders,” but there was no meeting scheduled with Castro.

Cuba Developments[2]

Cuba has an official delegation of people from its purported civil society, who already are in Peru to attend the alternative Peoples Summit that has been organized by Peru’s General Confederation of Workers (CGTP). Its leader said it would express “support for the Cuban Revolution and reaffirm the commitment to progressive and left governments of Latin America and the Caribbean currently being ‘sabotaged by imperialism.”’ On April 12 they have planned an anti-imperialist rally called “Trump out of Peru,” but with Trump not coming, they will have to have a different theme.

The official Cuba delegation of civil society has criticized “attempts by mercenaries and groups with links to terrorists to pass for supposed representatives of Cuban civil society.” The official delegation’s official statement expressed their desire “to contribute the experience of the Cuban Revolution that has, over almost 60 years, constructed a consensus in favor of our political, economic, and social system, forged through participative, socialist democracy, in which human beings constitutes the highest priority, and in which government is exercised by the people.”

These Cubans vandalized a Lima billboard that said in Spanish (here in English translation): “Cuba, enough of corruption, repression and impunity, stop human rights violations.”

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[1]  Davis, Trump Cancels Trip to Latin America, Citing Crisis in Syria, N.Y. Times (April 10, 2018); Assoc. Press, Latin America Takes Trump’s Forgoing of Summit in Stride, N.Y. Times (April 10, 2018); U.S. State Dep’t, Acting Secretary Sullivan Travel to Lima, Peru, To Participate in the Summit of the Americas (April 10, 2018); U.S. State Dep’t, On Cuba’s Restriction of Civil Society Participation in the Summit of the Americans (April 10, 2018); U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing-April 10, 2018.

[2] Gómez, People’s Summit kicks off in Lima, Granma (April 10, 2018); Statement from Cuban delegation to 8th Summit of the Americas parallel forums, Granma (April 9, 2018); ‘Shock troops’ of the Cuban regime in Lima vandalize the fences that denounced the repression, diario de Cuba (April 11, 2018); “CUBA in #Cumbre”, Cuba Debate.

 

Archbishop Oscar Romero To Be Canonized as a Saint by the Roman Catholic Church                                                                                                     

As discussed in previous posts, the Roman Catholic Church on May 23, 2015, beatified Archbishop Oscar Romero after it had determined that he was a martyr, who is someone who was killed because of hatred of his Christian faith and, therefore, who did not have to have committed a miracle for this honor. Such beatification is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for someone to become a saint of the Church.[1]

On March 6, 2018, Pope Francis authorized the Church’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints to promulgate a decree concerning “the miracle, attributed to the intercession of Blessed Oscar Arnulfo Romero Galdámez, archbishop of San Salvador.” That miracle was the healing of a Salvadoran pregnant woman who was suffering from life-threatening complications, but who was healed after she had prayed for Romero’s intercession. [2]

This papal decree followed the October 2017 unanimous decision by a Vatican panel of medical experts that there was no scientific explanation for the woman’s recovery; the December 2017 approval of that decision by a panel of theologians; and the February 2018 approval of that decision by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints is the congregation of the Roman Curia that oversees the complex process that leads to the canonization of saints, passing through the steps of a declaration of “heroic virtues” and beatification. After preparing a case, including the approval of miracles, the case is presented to the Pope, who decides whether or not to proceed with beatification or canonization.[3]

In 2016, Cardinal Parolin, under the mandate of Pope Francis, approved the current Regulations for the Medical Board of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints that introduced the necessity of a qualified majority of at least at least 5/7 or 4/6; to proceed to the examination of a presumed miracle. These new rules approved by Pope Francis are designed to make the process for approving a miracle in a sainthood cause more stringent.

We now await announcement of the time and place of the canonization.

As someone who strives to be a Christian of the Presbyterian persuasion and who already has self-designated Romero as his personal saint because of his courage in proclaiming the Gospel in El Salvador and denouncing its government’s violations of human rights, I am grateful for the Roman Catholic Church’s making Romero’s sainthood official.

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[1] Previous posts about Oscar Romero are listed in the “Oscar Romero” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: EL SALVADOR.   Here are the ones about his beatification: Beatification of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero? (May 23, 2013); Progress on Vatican’s Canonization of Oscar Romero (May 20, 2014); Pope Francis Urges Swift Beatification of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero (Aug. 22, 2014); Comment: Salvadoran Bishops Unhappy with Possible Beatification of Oscar Romero (Oct. 5, 2014); University of Centro America Endorses Beatification of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero (Nov. 25, 2014); Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero Closer to Beatification (Jan. 19, 2015); Pope Francis Confirms Martyrdom of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero (Feb. 3, 2015); Additional Details About Future Beatification of Oscar Romero (Feb. 4, 2015); Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero To Be Beatified on May 23, 2015 (Mar. 13, 2015).

[2] Vatican, Promulgation of the Decrees of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, 07.03.2018Pope Francis approves sainthood for Oscar Romero, Catholic Herald (Mar. 7, 2018); O’Connell, Pope Francis opens the door for canonization of Oscar Romero and Paul VI, America: The Jesuit Review (Mar. 7, 2018); Pope approves miracle for Romero, SuperMartyrio (Mar. 7, 2018); Canonization of Oscar Romero announced, El Salvador Perspectives (Mar. 7, 2018).

[3] Vatican, Congregation for the Causes of SaintsCongregation for the Causes of Saints, Wikipedia.