A Hope That Cannot be Killed in the Streets
Liberation Theology Alive in El Salvador
by Mark Koyama
“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. (Mark 10:14)
During the second week of Spring break 2015, eight students from Yale Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music traveled to the small Central American nation of El Salvador. The trip, orchestrated and led by the International Partners in Mission (IPM) was the culmination of a semester of reading and discussing the classics of Latin American liberation theology facilitated by IPM CEO Joe Cistone and YDS associate dean of academic affairs Jennifer Herdt. According to its mission, IPM “works across borders of faith, culture, and economic circumstance with children, women, and youth to create partnerships that build justice, peace, and hope.” Visits with IPM’s “Project Partners,” like the school described in the reflection below, peppered the itinerary of the trip, providing students dynamic contexts for experiencing a theology of liberation removed from the pages of academic tomes and brought into the realm of daily life.
To reach the school we climb a gravel track skirted on both sides by tropical undergrowth. Looping barbed wire and painted cinderblock mark the edges of people’s yards. A chicken scurries in the shadows of the palms. A group of boys follows our progress dispassionately with their eyes.
“Now they know we’re here,” Joe says to me. “Nothing happens around here that they don’t know about almost immediately.”
Before leaving the van Joe Cistone, the CEO of IPM and our guide during our ten days in El Salvador, had coached us to stay together and move with purpose. Though our obvious American-ness protects us from any immediate danger, it would be folly to underestimate the authority that gangs command in the barrios of San Salvador. Vying for territorial control of drug trade, using the threat (and reality) of violence to extort protection, gangs are part of the fabric of daily life here—in many ways the most present form of power. Indeed, many of the schoolchildren we are about to meet go home to parents and siblings who are involved in gang activities. The troubling implication cannot be denied – that, if no alternative is offered, the gangs present the dominant social reality these children face as they mature.
But these hard facts drop away when, for the next hour, we are treated to a pageant of preschoolers, sitting, standing, swinging, and singing—taking our hands and, in a moment, reducing us to our unprotected nursery-rhyme essences. We are eight students from Yale Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music on an “El Salvador Immersion trip” that culminates a semester of perusing and discussing the classics of liberation theology—and here we are clumsily singing “Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” in Spanish with tears of joy in our eyes. For a short time we are mercifully removed from the ironies of empire that implicate each of us. For a short time, in this circle of small hands, we are gloriously bewildered by our overflowing hearts.
It is opportunities like this – opportunities that, ironically, are made possible by many layers of privilege – that bring theological education to a new, and hitherto unknown level. Here, we are broken open to the tragic simultaneity of violence and hope that is the human condition in its most raw form. Here, the very real struggle between the immediate threat of violence and the possibility of love transforms resurrection—an idea we are accustomed to encounter in books or in worship—into a pressing social reality.
After the children file back to their classrooms, the teachers and administrators join us for lunch. We follow the precincts of the school as it climbs farther up the hill, the distances of the valley stretching away below us. The sun has crossed its noon zenith, and the day is growing hot as we gather around a long table to eat and converse. Two of the young women who teach in the school, we learn, live in constant danger. The gangs know (how could they not know?) that these women offer their children a different reality – a choice that does not inevitably resort to violence. The fact that these women are still alive may bespeak a germ of hope that resides even within those most invested in gang culture. The fact that these women come to work each day in spite of the present danger is evidence that the germ of hope, though small, is strong.
While one of the teachers tells us of these things, a child appears at her side. Without interrupting the flow of her words, she leans down and ties the child’s shoe. A moment later, Joe translates her words.
“The most vulnerable,” she said “are also our future.”
The most vulnerable are also our future.
She means the children of course. To these, the most vulnerable, she gives her life. But there is something else too – something that brought us to tears when we joined that circle of small hands. This is something that the children give and are given – something that could so easily be lost, and yet is not. This is the fine thread upon which the future of El Salvador – and the Reign of God – depends: the hope that cannot be killed in the streets: that love, in spite of all, will prevail.