Saturday, October 15, 2005

"The Good News Through CRS" - An El Salvador Experience

This article and reflection is generosly contributed by Judy Swazey, Liturgy Director at St. Martin of Tours Parish. Judy traveled in June this year with a CRS delegation to El Salvador.

Note: On October 1, tropical storm Stan made landfall
on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico bringing with it heavy rains resulting in severe flooding and landslides. El Salvador has been the hardest hit as it was also impacted by the eruption of the Santa Ana volcano and earthquakes. CRS is responding with disaster relief. For current information and to see how to offer help, see the website at CRS stands ready to offer direct assistance following this disaster and also to continue the redevelopment efforts that Judy describes in her article.

"Our second collection today will be for Catholic Relief Services." For the majority of Catholics, all they know about Catholic Relief Services is that it is one of the many second collections in church. They may also remember that it was one of the leading relief organizations after the tsunami in Southeast Asia. However, they may not know that CRS was so effective in these kinds of crisis because it has been working with impoverished communities throughout the world for a long time.

In June, I had the opportunity to travel to El Salvador with a delegation from California and saw, first hand, the work of Catholic Relief Services. In a country where most of the people live in poverty, CRS is working with the poorest of the poor and the outcasts of El Salvador.

We met with a group of women in the countryside, who were so poor that they borrowed chairs and a table for their meeting with us because they didn't have such "luxuries" in their homes. These women sold tortillas and hand-made clothes on the streets of San Salvador but were able to receive a loan through Enlace, a CRS-sponsored organization that has recently become independent. Although they had nothing they could present as collateral they were able to receive a "solidarity loan" as a group. Since it is in the interest of the group to see that each person pays their share, they all work together in achieving their goals.

In Aguilares, we met with the mayor, Chief of Police, and gang members who were participating in a CRS program of "restorative justice," so that the youth could become productive members of the community once again by doing community projects to help repair the damage they had formerly done. It was interesting to see how each group viewed the other, and we were surprised at how young these "notorious" gang members seemed to be.

We met with community "animators" in Soyopango, who were doing education and accompaniment work with people living with HIV/AIDS and their families. They were also engaged in "peace building" as they gathered together people who had been on opposing sides during the war to begin working together for the good of their community. They trained people in the ways of peaceful resolution of conflict, which one woman said had been a life-altering experience after having spent years as a guerilla during the armed conflict. We were grateful that the people of this war-torn nation have the legacy of Oscar Romero, who spoke out against violence, upon which they can build.

We met with a group working with immigration in the city (CARACEN) and a coffee cooperative in the country (COMUS) and all of these organizations extended their work beyond any one single cause into all areas of the community's life, such as education, human rights, health care, empowerment, etc. In the face of overwhelming obstacles, we saw people working with great strength, courage, intelligence and hope to better the life of the community. People who had little in material possessions but much in spirit, shared them with us wherever we went.

We spent an afternoon listening to the stories of Don Lito, a wise old catechist, who told us how the campesinos had been empowered when the Jesuits first taught them to read the Bible, and they learned that the poor were loved by God and had dignity. The authorities perceived this radical word of God as a threat to their authority and being a catechist was considered a subversive activity, so many catechists were killed. These stories helped us to remember the power of scripture and of our shared faith.

At the beginning of our immersion experience, we had met with Dean Brackley, S.J., who had come to at the University of Central America in 1989 following the deaths of the six Jesuits there, along with their housekeeper and her daughter. He told us to "let them break your hearts," referring to the people of El Salvador, and they did. Our lives have been changed by the experience.

These are just some examples of the people in El Salvador that CRS is empowering, and the scope of their work extends throughout the world. At a time when many people are discouraged or apathetic about the Catholic Church, we can all be proud of the work that Catholic Relief Services is doing in the world. For more information about CRS, check out their website at They also offer Action Alerts and many ways to get involved at


At 5:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the CRS uses monetary contributions it has received to send someone as a tourist, who I'm sure is well-intentioned, all the way to a needy nation so that she can write a vacant account of it, then I will think twice before contributing in the future.

At 7:53 PM, Blogger dsjjustice said...

Those who travel on immersion experiences with CRS pay for the expenses of their travel. CRS generously does provide staff time and expertise while the group is in the host country. Those who participate in these experiences are carefully screened and the expectation is that they will contribute to the work of global justice in their local community upon their return.


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