For my second Salvadoran asylum case, I decided that I needed to go to El Salvador to do investigations for the case and to learn more about the country. In April 1989 I made my first of six trips to the country. I went with a group led by Minneapolis’ Center for Global Education at Augsburg College.
The Salvadoran Civil War was still going on, and on the day we arrived her Attorney General was assassinated with a car bomb. In response, the Salvadoran military forces were in the streets with their automatic rifles at the ready, stopping everyone to provide identification. People in the “popular organizations” were being arrested. It was a very dangerous and tense 10 days in the country.
These days turned out to be the most intense religious and spiritual experience of my life. It was and still is a major reason why I now say that El Salvador liberated this American lawyer in many ways and helped him integrate his religious faith with his professional life.
We went to a service of solidarity for a Catholic priest who that week had received death threats. The service was in a screened recreational building next to a very dusty soccer field. As we entered, we were handed mimeographed sheets with words for hymns of the people about Archbishop Oscar Romero, who had been murdered nine years earlier. Thus began my learning about Romero.
Our group visited the office of COMADRES in a small house in the city. (It is the committee of the mothers of the disappeared and assassinated). A young woman talked about her jailing and torture earlier that week. Right behind her I saw a bust of Robert Kennedy representing the very first Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. It was granted to COMADRES for its struggle for amnesty for political prisoners, information regarding the “disappeared” and punishment for those responsible for human rights violations. (During the Reagan Administration, the U.S. would not grant a U.S. visa to a COMADRES representative to come to the U.S. to receive the award.)
At the COMADRES’ office I also saw a framed copy en espanol of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which I had never regarded as important and about which I knew nothing. Even though I could not read the Spanish text, I could see that it was an inspirational document for these people. This experience came rushing back to me when later I learned about the Universal Declaration.
Our group met with Phil Anderson, a Lutheran pastor from Minnesota who was working in El Salvador for Lutheran World Federation. Earlier that week he had sent faxes to the Federation’s headquarters in Switzerland with information about the arrests of many people from the popular organizations so that the next day the headquarters could send faxes of complaints to the Government of El Salvador. I gained a new appreciation for the work of international organizations around the world and about the sinister messages that are sent when they are kicked out of a country.
My fellow travelers on this trip were from the Washington, D.C. Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (the successor of the Lutheran Church in America, my client in the Sanctuary Movement case). Through their connections I was introduced to the significant work in El Salvador of its small Lutheran Church and its Bishop Medardo Gomez, who is frequently regarded as the spiritual heir to Archbishop Romero.
We also met Salvador Ibarra, a lawyer for the human rights office of the Lutheran Church of El Salvador. He told us that in late 1980 a judge had appointed him to represent one of the Salvadoran national guardsmen accused of raping and murdering the four American church women. Someone from the U.S. Embassy then asked Ibarra to call a press conference and announce that he had investigated and had found no involvement of higher officials in this horrible crime. This, however, was not true, and he refused to hold a press conference. In response he received death threats that prompted him and his family to flee the country. His wife told him that he was stupid to put her and their children’s lives at risk, and she took the children and divorced him. Yet Ibarra subsequently returned to his country to be a human rights lawyer and thereby continued to put his life on the line. He spoke about the joy he had in his work as a lawyer for people whose human rights were at greater risk.
In my subsequent work as a pro bono asylum lawyer and human rights advocate, I continued to be inspired by Salvador Ibarra. How easy it was for me as a large law-firm lawyer in Minneapolis to do this work. I did not have to risk my life as he did.
Our group visited the “22nd of April” community in San Salvador. This community was a three-block area of land on a steep hill between railroad tracks above and a road below. It had been used as a garbage dump, but on April 22nd in the early 1980’s displaced Salvadorans (“desplazados”) started to occupy it. In April of 1989 there were at least 10,000 people living there. They were mainly women and small children because teenage and adult males were fighting in the civil war or had been killed or disappeared. The people lived in “houses”– some of concrete blocks and tin roof; others of cheap tin or aluminum sheets or scrap lumber; yet others made with cardboard.
We walked around “22nd of April” with its pastor–Father Jim Barnett, a Dominican priest from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He talked about his ministry of accompaniment and solidarity. He was inspired by the example of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who had entered the total experience of the poor–physical, spiritual, social, economic and political–and who had spoken about the church’s need to be incarnated in the life of the people and the institutional injustice and violence in El Salvador.
Another stop on our trip was UCA, the Universidad de Centro America, a Jesuit institution with a beautiful, serene campus on a hill in the capital city. We spent an hour with Father Jon Sobrino, a noted liberation theologian. Only seven months later six of his fellow Jesuit priests were brutally murdered at that very place by the Salvadoran Armed Forces. (Sobrino escaped this fate because he was in Thailand giving lectures.)
We went to the small, modern, beautiful, serene Chapel of Divine Providence on the quiet grounds of a cancer hospital. This is where Oscar Romero was assassinated while celebrating mass on March 24, 1980. (Across the street was the three-room apartment where Romero lived. No luxurious Archbishop’s palace for him.) Along the way to the chapel I saw graffiti messages: “Romero vive!” (“Romero lives!”)
The Cathedral of San Salvador, on the other hand, is in el centro with all the noise and hurly-burly of buses and other traffic. In April 1989 the building was not finished. (Romero had halted all construction because he did not think it was right for the church to be spending money on its building when the people were suffering from poverty and human rights abuses.) On the steps were women from COMADRES with their bullhorns protesting against the latest wave of repression. Inside, scraps of linoleum were on the floor along with scattered plain wooden benches. In the right transept was Romero’s tomb–plain concrete and covered with flowers and prayers of the people. As I stood there, the words “My body broken for you” from the Christian sacrament of communion echoed in my mind.
 Later posts will discuss the life and witness of Archbishop Romero and why he is my personal saint.
 Medardo Gomez, Fire Against Fire (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress 1990); Medardo Gomez, And the Word Became History (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress 1992).
 E.g., Ford v. Garcia, 289 F.3d 1283 (11th Cir. 2002), cert. denied, 537 U.S. 1147 (2003); Gonzalez, 2 Salvadoran Generals Cleared by U.S. Jury in Nuns’ Deaths, N.Y. Times, Nov. 4, 2000, at A3.
 Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas,” http://www.uca.edu.sv/.