Presente!

This weekend marks the 25th Anniversary of the Jesuit Salvadoran Martyrs. For those unaware, at the University of Central America, 6 Jesuits, their housekeeper and their daughter were brutally killed by ARENA, a government-run death squad in 1989 in El Salvador. The Jesuits, most notably Ignacio Ellacuria, were speaking out on government reforms for the poor, guarding against the oligarchy of the rich that was prevalent in their country at the time.

Civil War had already claimed the lives of thousands including 4 Maryknoll churchwomen and Archbishop Oscar Romero earlier in the decade. It was a brutal time for the people of El Salvador.

In 1989, I was a Sophomore in College and was blissfully unaware that things like this were going on in Central America. When I heard of the massacres, I was really shaken up. Our University President, Joseph O’Hare, SJ travelled with other Jesuit Presidents down to the University of Central America (UCA) to investigate. When he returned, he insisted on presiding at our 10PM mass that evening.

I was the sacristan for that mass and I cornered him before mass began:

Mike: Papa Joe, (As we called him) dare I ask, how was your trip?

Fr O’Hare: “Mike, it was horrible and beautiful. These men gave their lives for their faith and for the poor. (He started to tear up here) We know who did this! But there’s not a damn thing we can do about it!”

Then I stupidly asked him the following question:
Mike: “Does this mean the Jesuits are going to be leaving El Salvador?”

Fr O’Hare: (Smiles) “No, son, we already have guys lined up around the block volunteering to take their places.”

I think it was then, that I started to cry.

That was a faith changing moment for me. Seeing actual martyrs giving their lives for something that mattered much to me, the poor of the world inspired me and gave me much to consider. How often do I even mildly sacrifice for the poor in my life? Growing up as the son of a school custodian, we too, were of meager means, but by no means close to the poverty that existed in El Salvador. And yet, priests had given many opportunities to me to be able to climb out of that kind of poverty. The least I could do was to make some kind of effort to not merely speak for the voiceless but to pitch in now and again as well.

Needless to say, I signed up for several social justice initiatives that year of college.

This past summer, I went to El Salvador with students from Canisius and with Fr. Frank LaRocca, SJ, a good friend. We went to the UCA to see where the martyrs were killed and to look at the museum dedicated to the martyrs. It was more moving than I had imagined and less moving in many ways as well. in many ways it made me angry. Seeing the books of the Jesuits that had been “machine gunned” during the massacre–a message for certain that said not to use your intelligence to speak out against the government. There were two small photo albums that has the gruesome pictures of the Jesuits dead in the backyard with their brains splattered on the grass. Seeing the room where Elba Ramos, the cook and her daughter were murdered so their would be no witnesses was one of the more moving places there. They had huddled in the room and when the death squad heard them breathing, they blew rounds into the wall, killing these two innocents who had stayed there that night because they thought it was safer than trying to travel home at night with violent uprisings going on closer to their neighborhood.

Looking at the backyard today, you’ll see those spots where the slain Jesuits were dragged now marked by roses. The rose garden (pictured, here) is holy ground for me. In the chapel, you’ll find a tiny mausoleum where the Jesuits now rest. As I was about to leave, I turned toward the mausoleum and was about to walk over and say a prayer and touch the cold metal markers of the Martyrs. It was then I saw Fr. Frank do exactly that. He did so tenderly and prayerfully and as I followed him I realized that we are all following these men on our journey to care for the least of us. The Jesuits have led us in so many ways, but these men, men I have never known personally, have given me more than I had hoped.

This week, our President here at Canisius and a number of delegates are in El Salvador celebrating the 25th Anniversary. Celebrating seems like the wrong word. And yet, it seems so right to say. These men did not just live life, they celebrated it. And with their lives they looked to restore dignity to the poor. It was their indignant murder that now has been transformed into so many who have lifted up their lives to give them poor in Central America an opportunity to live peacefully and joyfully.

And if that’s not worth celebrating, then I’m not sure what is.

Eternal rest, grant unto them, O Lord. And let perpetual life shine upon them. May their souls and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Coffee With Meg

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So for most of my life I have not been a coffee drinker. I can remember drinking one large cup of coffee when I was an undergrad pulling an all-nighter (By the way, it didn’t help).

In general, I just haven’t acquired the taste. Mostly I don’t like the taste, or I should say I haven’t liked it.

On my recent trip to El Salvador, I decided to look into what Salvadoran food we would be eating. Pupusas are the most famous. These are essentially stuffed tortillas (some with cheese, or beans, or pork). They are amazing.

But a big export in El Salvador is coffee. I decided that I would at least try some coffee while in El Salvador.

So on our first day, we immediately were taken to an inner city daycare center. And lo and behold, we were welcomed with sweetbreads (again, delicious!) and coffee.

Meg with a Bunny at Casa de Solidaridad, a study abroad program through Santa Clara.
Meg with a Bunny at Casa de Solidaridad, a study abroad program through Santa Clara.
One of the students who travelled with me was named Meg. I didn’t know her well, but she’s pretty active on campus in student government and so I knew her mostly by her reputation as a hard worker and her commitment to women’s issues. She’s also a lover of good coffee. She looked at me as I started to pour my initial cup of Salvadoran coffee and said:

“Your life is about to get so much better!”

Turns out she was correct. It was indeed delicious. Two spoonfuls of sugars was all it needed. Later in the week I added some cream and realized that what I don’t like is cream in my coffee. Black is fine with just a bit of sugar.

But coffee for Meg is more than just coffee. It makes one feel warm and comforted and allows conversations to linger over a second cup. The caffeine makes one a bit more alert during times of dreariness. I really enjoyed hanging out with Meg and listening to how important women’s issues are to her. As a man, I need to understand what women are facing and feeling and perhaps how I’ve even been a part of misogyny and the oppression of women. Meg helps me see more clearly what I cannot often see for myself. We heard some stories of devastation from the Salvadoran people, who lived through the long civil war. Meg was often quick to point out how women were targeted in several cases and how a “macho culture” played a role in the continued oppression of women in this still-poor country.

Meg, much more than coffee, opened my eyes further, to see a bit more clearly what was really present. She allowed me to be more present to the women that I companioned and because of her, I was able to be more present for these students throughout the week.

And within those coffee moments with Meg, i found grace waiting for me as well.

Upon my return to the United States, I decided to try some coffee from the various coffee chains. I’ve discovered a few things:

1) Coffee in the United States clearly has more caffeine in it. Or at least it has a greater effect on me. If I have two cups of “American” coffee I’m up later than I’d like to be.

2) Salvadoran coffee is AWESOME. So far the closest to it is Tim Horton’s.

3) My coffee rankings so far are:
a) Tim Horton’s
b) Spot Coffee
c) Family Tree (a local diner)
d) Dunkin Donuts

I have yet to try Starbucks. There’s just not one near my house.

3) My single serve coffee maker makes a damn good cup of the Salvadoran stuff.

4) On our trip the first Finca (the plant where they grow coffee) that I sampled was by far the best. That day care center should open a coffee bar with coffee from that place. Angel, who I stayed with in El Sitio made a nice cup of coffee. And Sr. Peggy, who we stayed with in Suchitoto had coffee that was also pretty good. But that first Finca was awesome and I bought their coffee to take home with me.

My last discovery is that a cup of coffee shared is much better than a cup of coffee solo. So thanks Meg, for teaching me how coffee serves a larger purpose at times and helps us get to understand each other a bit more.