Bishop David Alvarado

By Matthew Townsend

More than 6,600 murders in 2016. Thirty people killed in a 24-hour period in March, including public gunfire exchanges between gangs and police. Women shot on the street. A hippopotamus savagely beaten to death in the national zoo in February.

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The headlines about life in El Salvador are grim, with publications like the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times providing frequent coverage of the country’s escalating violence. Last year, El Salvador’s murder rate was the highest in the Western Hemisphere, prompting concern that the Central American country of 6 million was returning to the kind of violence seen in its civil war period.

During the bloody era between 1980 to 1992, 75,000 El Salvadorians lost their lives — including Oscar Romero, the assassinated Roman Catholic archbishop whose efforts to halt the violence are acknowledged through a feast day and a statue at Westminster Abbey.

As in 1980, churches in today’s El Salvador are trying to offer an alternative to violence and vengeance in a country with surging gang membership and a massive outflow of professionals trying to seek safety in other countries.

According to the Rt. Rev. David Alvarado, this work begins with the Anglican Church of El Salvador’s mission to carry the good news of God’s salvation in Christ to all people regardless of class, focusing on evangelism, education, and justice. On the ground, this mission translates into a great deal of work that is often uneasy or unsafe.

“The specific or parochial plan that each priest prepares every year includes activities, objectives, methods, and results,” he told TLC in Spanish. “But beyond those plans of our human preparing is God’s plan, in which he sends us as his instruments to work with people who are the most suffering, most dispossessed, and most vulnerable — even in risky conditions for the people and for ourselves.”

Much of this work involves collaborating with institutions inside and outside of El Salvador. Alvarado said churches in his diocese, which is part of the Anglican Church in Central America, serve on a Citizen Security Council with state institutions and civic organizations. “The Citizen Security Council is a space where discussion is had around plans, measures, and direct actions that prevent and diminish the violence that’s plaguing our country,” he said.

One example of these measures is the Episcopal Dignity and Justice Program, an effort in partnership with St. Francis Community Services of Kansas. Alvarado said the program works with communities to encourage a “culture of peace” and harmonious coexistence, while also fortifying values of child and family welfare. “With this work we contribute, along with the state, to the process of building a healthier, more orderly, and more well-formed society.”

Last year, the diocese joined with Reformed, Baptist, and Lutheran leaders to pursue reconciliation through this program. An international conference met at the start of 2016, and the year ended with a visit from the Rev. Michael Lapsley, an Anglican priest from South Africa and founder of the Institute for Healing of Memories. Lapsley, who stood against Apartheid, developed that ministry of healing and reconciliation after he received a letter bomb that cost both of his hands and the sight in one eye.

Alvarado said Lapsley’s visit provided opportunities for public conversations, university conferences, and interviews in mass media. “The next step for this year is to introduce his model of Healing of Memories to a first group of leaders and begin training facilitators in the methods,with which we will kick off a process that will positively impact the population, starting in our own communities,” he said.

The Episcopal Dignity and Justice Program began in August 25. In addition to supporting efforts at reconciliation and healing, the program offers legal assistance to those being displaced by the violence, especially with the right of asylum. “It also helps families and individuals leave the country if necessary, in order to safeguard freedom and human life,” he said.

The program is working directly with four communities comprising 160 families, addressing migration, human trafficking, childcare, peace, and the environment. It addresses the entrepreneurial needs of women and youth in El Salvador, where risk of violence is high. “We are aware of the need for opportunities and livelihoods for people,” the bishop said.

Another far-reaching initiative with church involvement is the Program of Integral Health, which offers 28 communities about 3,000 medical and dental consultations each year. Programs focusing on food security and financial education work inside of 18 communities, offering microfinance and business education “in order to lessen extreme poverty and achieve a dignified life.” That program serves about 6,000 people each year.

The church is very busy, but it is also working with a limited number of priests — about a dozen for 20 parishes — and, in some cases, shrinking congregations. Alvarado mentioned the case of Holy Trinity in San Martin, San Salvador, which has lost about 50 percent of its congregation to emigration.

These conditions make collaboration with churches and entities outside of El Salvador essential, though frightening headlines make that task even harder. The bishop said news of violence should not keep American Christians from helping. “To our brothers in the United States and other countries: we ask you to accompany us, to support us in the search for light and hope for a people that suffer the torments of poverty, of physical and structural violence,” he said.

Alvarado explained that this accompaniment requires not only setting aside fears but also understanding who, exactly, is at risk.

“We are a people of faith; in consequence, we have to put our fears into the hands of God, who is our principal protector,” he said. “I believe that the news inside and outside of El Salvador sows or inculcates not only fear, but also terror that for many people in the U.S. this country is a place that they shouldn’t visit because of the risk it represents.

“Concretely, I must say that while the El Salvadorian state is experiencing great violence, it’s worth clarifying that that violence is especially affecting people who live in places of poverty and extreme poverty. That is, those on the margins.

“And paraphrasing the words of Blessed Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the snake always bites the barefoot.”