By Sarah (Stephens) Hotzel 

This essay originally appeared in Hearts of Flesh published by the Salvador Faith Accompaniment Committee in May, 2006. To read the e-book, go here (PDF).

I have been blessed to travel to El Salvador on four occasions. My first trip was during the war in 1988, the first delegation from Good Shepherd after our parish voted to twin with Tres Ceibas (now Buen Pastor). My time there in February, 1988 is still a vivid part of my memory. We met members of our community the day after we arrived at a town close to Tres Ceibas call Apopa where the Saturday evening liturgy was being celebrated. That evening I met Marta, a strong woman and leader in our sister community.

After Mass we all sat together and listened to Marta’s story of her capture by the military. I was moved as she spoke in detail of the arrest and cruel treatment as they questioned her and coaxed her and offered her favors if she conformed to their wishes. She was brave and unrelenting. Marta’s capture encouraged the community to organize and seek out the help of human rights organizations and to demand freedom for the captured brothers and sisters. Marta had endured many trials: she lost a husband, two teenage daughters and one son who served in the civil war. More recently she lost another son in a car accident. While living in the refugee camps during the war Marta learned to read and write. Marta is a strong leader in the community and in the region, helping to improve the lives of the poor. We continue to share letters with each other. She is a guiding light in my life and is truly a sister and a friend to me.

In February of 2000 I accompanied Fr. George Seuferling on a special pilgrimage to our sister community of Buen Pastor. This journey was an attempt to bring some healing to our Salvadoran sisters and brothers grieving from the traumatic experiences of their civil war.

During our 1998 trip to Buen Pastor, we had listened to many family histories; stories about fleeing from their homes, capture and torture, living in refugee camps and the death of family members whose bodies were never recovered. Father George had asked if a memorial service would bring comfort. Their answer was, “Yes!”

Gigi Gruenke, a former member of Good Shepherd, who now works in El Salvador as a Maryknoll lay missionary, accompanied us to Buen Pastor and translated for us.

We arrived early Friday afternoon and received a warm welcome from the community and a lunch of Marta’s delicious fried chicken and after a short siesta we began our visits to the homes. Father invited each family to the Saturday evening healing service.

On Saturday we continued our visits to the homes while each family prepared for the healing service by very quietly erecting a beautiful shrine adorned with colorful flowers. Some placed the shrine in their home while others cradled their shrine within a well-tended flower garden. Many shrines included pictures of loved ones or holy pictures such as Our Lady of Guadalupe.

In late afternoon on Saturday, when the heat began to subside, the healing service began. The community procession, which began at the far end of the courtyard, stopped at each house. As the family gathered around their shrine, one person spoke the names of their deceased loved ones, sometimes describing their death. Candles were lit for each person remembered.

Fr. George offered prayers and laid his hands of blessing on family members, praying “Loving and gracious God, we ask your limitless blessing on these you very special children. Be with them in their deep pain and sorrow. Give them strength and courage as they carry their cross of loss and suffering. Grant a place at the banquet table of your son to their loved ones and may they enjoy eternal peace.” Then Fr. George blessed each home saying, “Bless this house and may all live here in good health and peace.”

Some families told stories about their loved ones. One mother, Maria Rosa Mendoza, shared that she prayed to her children every night and believed they listened and took care of the family. Marta Cerna talked about her three teenagers who died in the war. She remembered how her oldest daughter cared for the little children. On her children’s birthdays, Marta wished that she could give them a piece of cake. Some people recited prayers such as Our Father, Hail Mary or the Serenity Prayer.

Tears were shed and hopefully some pain released. The atmosphere in the community throughout the service had been prayerful and reverent. Surely the presence of the Lord was in this place.






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