Different Hands, Same Soul: My Visit to El Salvador with American Jewish World Service – Student Rabbi Scott Fox

Our student rabbi Scott Fox shared the following teachings at Shabbat Services on Friday, September 28, 2012, at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple. Scott participated this summer in a visit to Ciudad Romero in El Salvador, a trip sponsored by American Jewish World Service. He is returning to Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple for his 2nd year, and the final of his five years as a student at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. We encourage you to share your thoughts below, or forward to others who may want to learn more.

The Catholic church in Ciudad Romero has about 20 slats of wood fastened to the concrete wall behind their altar. Brought together they display the bright yellows and reds of powerful images of faceless soldiers in uniform and burning homes. The wood was brought piece by piece to their new home in El Salvador after the community’s long exile, telling their story with the faces of their friends and family. Directly in the center and below a picture of Jesus on the cross, there rests a photograph of Father Oscar Romero, the namesake of the community.

During their civil war, which began in the 1970’s, the government of El Salvador targeted religious leaders in the small communities that grew many of the young guerrilla fighters. Father Romero began to speak out against this, despite the significant dangers involved. Beseeching the government and its solders to stop the violence escalating in the torn country Father Romero said: “Brothers, you came from our own people. You are killing your own brothers. Any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God, which says, ‘Thou shalt not kill’. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you obeyed your consciences rather than sinful orders. The church cannot remain silent before such an abomination. …In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: stop the repression.”

The day after he spoke these words, while Father Romero was performing mass for the community, a plain clothed soldier fired his gun from a back window of the church and killed the beloved priest. The community was distraught and greatly mourned. Knowing that the domestic conflict had spilled into their community they organized themselves and left under the cover of night to Panama where they received amnesty. While in exile, the community renamed themselves Ciudad Romero, “the city of Romero,” after their fallen religious leader. There they learned a new way of life, and waited for the time to come for them to return to their home, a story we know well.

I distinctly remember the keen eyes of the man who told us the story of his community. Jesus Fuentes, or Chungo as he is known to his friends, was the leader of Ciudad Romero during this time. While he told us the story his eyes lit up and both laughter and tears came to him easily. Chungo spoke to us in Spanish, and our leader Rachel translated, so there was a delay almost as if over the phone long distance. But it was easy to know what he was talking about simply from his eyes, they spoke more deeply than the words of any language, and the translation only came later to fill in the details.

He continued his story: When the civil war had died down, and after more than ten years of waiting, the community returned to El Salvador, but to a different area. There they discovered a whole new set of obstacles. To address them, the people formed an organization to talk over and deal with their needs with the support and strength of the entire town. This was the only way that my group would have known that what the community really needed help with, was composting toilets. So for ten days, while I was on the Rabbinical Student’s Delegation of the American Jewish World Service in El Salvador, 15 rabbinical students, Jewish leaders and I stumbled through the construction of these facilities with the members of Ciudad Romero. Had we acted without working with the community, there is no way that we would have known what they really needed. We might have spent sweat, time and money on a health clinic when they already have one, or helped them plant crops that would die before they bear fruit.

And in fact a great deal of the time that we spent with the community was talking with them, hearing their stories, their troubles, triumphs and needs. One afternoon we met with the majority of the community organization’s heads and heard about what the community is currently dealing with. One major trouble, is that the town suffers from terrible flooding during the rainy season. Without warning their entire crop, their whole livelihood, can be wiped out, their streets coated with flowing water often to such a height that the entire population has to flee to high ground, leaving their photo albums, beds and pets to be consumed by too much water. While I sit in the sukkah this season, I will be very mindful that when rain comes I will simply walk indoors.

Much of the community’s industry is farming. And like all people struggling to survive, the community has sought out new ways to make their means give greater yield. A good deal of the farms in the area have moved from subsistence farming to cash crops. Large corporations have made contact with these farmers and sell them genetically modified seeds with the promise of a better and more valuable crop. Then the companies sell them herbicides and pesticides to keep weeds and animals from getting at their growing land. But when the next season begins, and the farmers plant the seeds they collected, nothing grows because the genetically modified produce planted last year were engineered to produce dead seeds. This keeps the farmers coming back to buy seeds, and pesticides, and herbicides every year. And by the time she sells them she has made only a little more than the nothing that she had before.

Were this the only problem, many of these farmers would be able to just barely scrape by, but they suffer from further issues. The chemicals that these farmers use to keep their crops safe wreak havoc on their bodies. Cancer rates have skyrocketed among farmers using these chemicals, and as the substances enter their bloodstreams from overexposure they pass the toxins on to their future children. Many of the babies of these farmers are now being born with severe birth defects, attacked in the womb by chemicals meant to keep tomatoes round and spotless. Some of the farmers who use these products know about their horrible consequences but feel they can’t do otherwise because they have to feed their families. They are forced to trade their health for their family’s hunger.

I remember standing in the field of one farmer who was growing without pesticides, and looking on to her neighbor’s plot, walking between perfectly lined rows of green leafy plants, and spraying them from a pack of chemicals he toted on his back. I’m not sure how she competes with him for sale of produce, I’m not sure she does.

One of the largest crops in El Salvador is sugarcane. I was shocked to discover that we, you and I, are the largest consumers of their sugar. I know that I am not always mindful of whether the sugar I consume is organic, but because it is cheaper we, and the stores and restaurants we frequent, buy it in droves. Sadly, our ignorance and neglect causes their harm. This is part of what it means to be citizens of a powerful nation, our small actions have great impact globally. The community organization of Ciudad Romero now works with its farmers to teach them how to build organic farms using the advanced techniques of Permaculture, but these farms are few, and struggle to compete in the same market as their neighbors who often unwittingly trade their health for food. We here in the States can help support these farmers by buying organic sugar in the grocery store, and by insisting on organic sugar in restaurants. A small action that could cause a big change. We do not buy organic food for our own sake, we buy it for the safety of the families who grow our food.

And food was an important part of our time in El Salvador. Three times a day, our group divided to enter the homes of host families that graciously cooked for us while we were visiting their community. I and five others had the pleasure of sitting with Marcelina breakfast, lunch and dinner. She shared her unbelievable cooking with us, and her stories. A woman who lost her house, blown down by the fast waters of a flood only ten years ago, and who lived through the displacement of her community, the displacement of her home, and scarce food, met us every day with an impregnable smile.

For 10 days I had the privilege to meet face to face with people I see on postcards asking for my support. It is remarkable to meet someone, to put a entire person, their whole story and being, to an individual. It is not enough to give tzedakah, if it does not remind us that we give to support people. We are all born of the same bodies, minds, and souls. We owe all people the aid of our bodies, to help them build homes after the storm, we owe them our minds, to hear and understand their needs, and our souls, we are all part of one greater whole. The worn roads of El Salvador may be walked by different feet, different hands may pull and plant the soil, but the same soul weeps for bread, and the same soul rejoices with freedom from poverty.

Shabbat Shalom.