Panchimalco and Baghdad

NOTE: This speech was given by Mary K. Meyer for the SHARE Regional Meeting in Kansas City, MO on October 25, 2003.   

I’m glad to have been a part of this day, because if life has taught me anything it is that accompaniment is where it’s at. We are all in this together and the more we can walk with each other, the happier we will be. And, I’m sure, the happier God will be.

El Salvador taught me a lot about accompaniment. I went to the refugee camp in Honduras several times to accompany Salvadoran refugees home and was embarrassed and ashamed at how much power our white, North American faces had when they were mixed in with poor refugees returning to their homeland. Because we were there accompanying them, they were safer from the evil that would prevent their going home.

As we will soon be going in to celebrate our traditional family meal, I want to recall a couple of memory-filled accompaniment meals with brother and sisters in more stressful circumstances than we have here today.

Panchimalco – the first refugee resettlement by the Lutheran Church in El Salvador was 1/4 –mile straight down a mountain in a little jungle clearing. We made the arduous descent with the desire to visit and encourage refugees who had barely survived.

After seeing their poor, little, fledgling clinic (sparsely stocked with medicines) and after listening to the hopes, dreams and fears, the families invited our group to split up and visit individual homes.

My host family lived in a tiny hut with a dirt floor. The invitation to eat was accompanied with embarrassed apologies for the simple meal consisting of thin bean soup and tortillas. As we were eating and feeling very guilty to be drawing from their meager supply, I heard a whimpering in the only other room. The mother brought out little Luis, probably less than a year old, and began to feed him some soup. She said he had been sick for a long time, but she nothing else to give him. Her milk was long ago dried up. Luis promptly threw up, with the vomit running down his care distended belly. She did the only thing she could do – wiped him off with her hand – no Kleenex or Handi-wipes, no paper towels, warm wash cloth or even a rag. Her only help – her hand.

It was difficult for me to finish my soup knowing that little Luis was on his way out. His parents didn’t say so, but one could taste their sadness in the soup. I’m sure he was dead and occupying a tiny grace in the hamlet cemetery before we ever left El Salvador.

Joseph in Baghdad was 3 years old but he didn’t walk. Some members of our delegation to Iraq walked to the Caldean Catholic Church from our hotel and we meet Joseph’s family after Mass. The oldest girl had a good command of English and through her the family invited us to their home. I was nervous on two account – I knew food would be involved and I really wanted to stay healthy in Iraq. Food and water were dangerous but I knew I couldn’t refuse their hospitality. Also I resisted because I knew how short food was for most Iraqis and I didn’t want to eat their last egg.

The very meager home set in the middle of a narrow street, behind an iron fence. Where Panchimalco was located amid lush jungle green the Baghdad picture was stone, concrete, dust and heat. But the welcome could not have been more cordial. They had gathered extended family and friends who came with warm smiles, hand shakes and precious offerings of food for the meal we were to share.

Several children milled around and shyly came up to satisfy their curiosity. One little fellow caught my attention, because someone was always carrying him and looked to old for that. His hair and skin were light (unlike most the children) and he wore a very light blue romper-like suit, which made him look even paler. His mother told me his name was Joseph and he would soon be 3 years old. He was a sweet child with an inviting smile and it seemed everyone was quite enamored with Joseph.

Then it dawned on me – Joseph, like little Luis, is on his way out. The reason people carried him was because his thin little legs wouldn’t hold him up and the reason his hair and skin were so light was because he was in the last stages of malnutrition. The family was so attentive because they knew their son would die soon and they wanted to savor the memory of him.

So, we ate together and Joseph sat on his mother’s lap. The children sang for us and showed us their little treasures like kid do everywhere. Adults explained the photos of men on the walls –this one died in the Iran-Iraq conflict, the other two died in Gulf War I. It was a Sunday gathering after church that happens in Christendom all over the world.

I told Joseph goodbye, held his thin little hand, he smiled his winsome smile – and my heart cracked.


What did they bury Joseph in since shroud material was on the US/UN list of sanctioned items? (I’m glad they had decent burial cloths when they laid Jesus away.)

The family meal – the son about to die – Luis, Joseph, Jesus. The disciples were family to Jesus. (I’m sure the gather included women. Women were a part of Jesus’ ministry up to the very last.) Jesus told his friends to gather and remember. We need to gather and re-member as we eat together the family meal. Put the memories and members back together.

Jesus left a mandate for those who ascribe to follow in His way. He said, “DO THIS in memory of me.” He didn’t say simply remember me – He said, DO THIS. D-O something.

Jesus was a refugee. He hung out with refugees – people who for a variety of reasons had to leave the comfortable and the familiar to be gathered into a larger family.

The Eucharist is like a pot-luck dinner to which everyone has an invitation to come and to bring something. We can’t remember Jesus’ last supper since we obviously weren’t there. But we all have a living memory that we can bring to make the Eucharist – for us – a living meal.

The table is set, but before we go in, let us take a few minutes to dip into our dish of memories and bring out one or more that we want to bring to the supper. May we remember with thanksgiving times when we, like Jesus, gave ourselves to others.

I’m bringing the gatherings at Panchimalco and Baghdad and all the folks there. You bring yours and we will feast together with Jesus.





1 Comment »

  1. Jose Artiga said

    Dearest Mary K,

    You live in the hearts of the people of El Salvador, especially the ones you accompanied from Mesa Grande Refugee Camp in Honduras back to El Salvador in the late 1980s.

    I remember an older woman approached me at the Refugee Camp on the first repatriation and said can you help me to communicate to the woman with white hair (Mary K). With tears in her eyes the woman held Mary K’s arms and said, “I am afraid of joining this first repatriation but would like to gather strength and go in the next one. I want to ask you to return and accompany me and my family in the journey home.”

    Mary K embraced the woman and said “SI” Yes I will return and accompany you and your people.

    Mary K returned to the refugee camp and walked with the people and with her presence offered a “pillar of fire to give the refugees warmth in the evening and a cloud to offer shade during the day”

    Mary K we say Gracias for your love and solidarity to the people of El Salvador. We want to thank you and the community in Kansas for walking with the people of Monsenor Oscar Romero over the last 25 years.

    Mary K. PRESENTE

    Mary K. PRESENTE

    Mary K. PRESENTE

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