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Commentary: A lot has changed, but hope can't be abandoned in El Salvador

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 25, 2009 - Emily Thenhaus is spending a semester at the University of Central America in El Salvador, where she is taking classes and -- as required -- is working with the poor. Thenhaus, who is from St. Louis, is a junior at DePaul University majoring in political science with a minor in peace, social justice and conflict resolution. The following is condensed from an essay she posted on her blog earlier this month.

In my class, Philosophy of Suffering and Solidarity, we spent the first part of our time talking about investing ourselves in the Salvadoran people, loving others and forming relationships of solidarity. We spoke often of our experiences at our community sites and life together. The class is now focused on how we reinvest in a world that breaks our hearts, that is filled with suffering; that even when we love so much and give ourselves to each other, we are disappointed, experience loss or suffering. This is what we are discussing in philosophy class. And the country has responded accordingly. 

I recently received word that I would not be able to go back to the area, Calle Real, where I was working in a community project. This change came completely out of the blue resulting from an act of violence at my site that happened over break. Gang violence has become a serious problem for the country. October was one of the most violent months in El Salvador for the past 10 years. The government has installed 2,500 members of the military in the streets for 150 days to combat the delinquency, though some contend that the numbers on violence have been distorted by the opposing political party to destabilize the current government. During this tense time, the violence has also touched Calle Real, with a number of men recently getting out of jail and returning to the community. For these reasons, Kati and I will not be going back to Calle Real for the rest of the semester. 

This has been a really difficult transition, not being able to spend time with or even see the people who I've grown to love in Calle Real: Antonia, Santos, my English students, Roxana. It's hard to come to terms with the fact that this community is being abandoned after all of the amazing organizing that was done by the directors. 

It brings up difficult emotions and sadness for a community that, in this hard time, has been left to fend for itself, left without the social programs, youth and women's groups, and help from the outside. It has brought me to question the consequences of organizing for these communities: Even when we find a great model to organize the youth and women and men for greater understanding and opportunity, it can be dismantled in a instant. 

Suffering has come at us here from every angle. From violence, to the recent rains (a result of Hurricane Ida) that have created mudslides, collapsed bridges and killed at least 120 people throughout El Salvador. Some of the communities on the San Salvador volcano have been destroyed by landslides; individuals are left without food and shelter. 

So what do we do? How do we make sense of this? 

We invest ourselves and work hard for the life we know exists. For the world as it should be. And sometimes we come up short. And sometimes the world doesn't respond. 

We throw ourselves into the heart of the Salvadorans and as that relationship of solidarity produces fruit and love and beauty, it also produces sorrow because we stand with them in that sorrow, in that suffering. We are touched by the suffering of others once we realize our interconnectedness. 

After many conversations with Fr. Mark, our philosophy professor and spiritual director, I've realized there are many avenues I can now take in El Salvador. 

I can disconnect. I can say "Well, my time at Calle Real is over. Basically, my time in El Salvador is over. Just going to finish out my classes, have some nice community moments and be on my way." I could keep walking through these days without being present to the reality of the country, disconnecting from those suffering from the deaths of loved ones. 

Or I can go on and keep walking through these days, not with a disconnect, but with a sense of hope. 

This is still difficult to do fully; but I now try to walk and keep moving and keep experiencing, by still being present to the suffering. I now try to see the beauty and love as I did before, and also try to be present to the suffering. 

I get out of bed recognizing that the day may come with trials and tribulations but continuing with hope that it will also have beauty. For if I have learned anything from being here, it is that things are messy and beautiful, imperfect and always changing. But we open ourselves to each day, to know the suffering, to carry it with us so that we may respond with kindness and solidarity. And we know the beauty. We carry beauty with us so that we may have hope to carry on through all. 

So I keep going. And we walk together. Now I start with a new community site at La Valencia, a small town on the top of San Salvador volcano that has probably experienced death, and landslides, and devastation. And we will keep going. We will continue to organize and fight. 

November is the month of remembering the dead in El Salvador. We celebrate Day of the Dead, the 20th anniversary of the assassination of the Jesuit priests and their companeras Elba and Celina, the anniversary of the killing of the four churchwomen: Men and Women who were faithful to themselves, to their calling, to God, to the people, the Salvadorans. Who experienced suffering and did not turn back. Who stood in community in the fire and did not turn back. 

We mourn but we also celebrate these lives for it is only the hope of the martyrs that can sustain us now on our journey. As I prepare for my new times in La Valencia, I remember Calle Real, Antonia and Santos. Tomorrow I will hike the volcano to la Valencia bringing the spirit of all those working for justice who have passed before us, and will continue on, will keep going ... with hope. 


Just a note:The situation for us students here, even with the difficult situation in the country, is above and beyond safe. From the rains, mudslides, violence, everything. I know in this blog I wrote a lot about the difficult times we are facing and know this could also ignite a little panic but please know that our program has taken every precaution and our situation here is very secure.