Ana Beatriz Landaverde
“I hope that the truth will be clear for all. Only then will we have reconciliation and harmony.”
Editor’s Note: Without a bit of background on another person, Sister Silvia Maribel Arriola, one cannot appreciate Ana’s story. Ana was highly influenced by and modeled her life after Sister Silvia.
Brief bio on Silvia Maribel Arriola: Born on March 20, 1951, Silvia felt a religious call and entered a convent in Mexico where she also studied nursing. This was all against her parents’ wishes. She took her vows and returned to El Salvador with another sister who studied sociology. Together they decided to serve the poor in a “Little Community,” which is one of the Christian-based communities formed as a result of Vatican II stressing “options for the poor.” She worked in ministry for five years within the small community where she was a popular source of encouragement. From 1977 until his death in 1980, Silvia served as Archbishop Romero’s secretary during the day while working in the communities in the evenings.
Silvia’s nursing skills were put to good use when she joined the FMLN guerrilla camp in Santa Ana during the country’s civil war. On January 17, 1981, Silvia was killed at that camp. The bodies were doused with gasoline and burned to destroy evidence of a civilian massacre, one of 200 documented in the war. She was 29 years old.
This beloved heroine is one of three images painted on a mural at the House of CEBES, Perquin, El Salvador, at the insistence of Belgian priest Rogelio Ponseele, who served in the Morazan department during the war. The other two persons whose images are honored in the mural are Archbishop Romero and Father Octavio Ortiz Luna, the priest assassinated in 1979 serving in his parish in the Mejicanos area of San Salvador.
Ana’s story: My parents grew up in the country where they were both orphaned when they were very young. Jobs brought them here to San Salvador. I was born on January 11, 1961, and had three siblings.
When I was fourteen, my mom taught my older sister and me to do embroidery work. I didn’t really enjoy it then. My sister took more of a liking to it and began a handicraft workshop where she made clothing and did embroidery. When she died of cancer sixteen years ago at age 45, she left all her raw materials behind. When I became active within a Christian-based community, I discovered many of the women were already doing that kind of work to sustain and support themselves. I began to participate and enjoy it more using my sister’s fabrics and thread. [Note the lovely work in the shirt she wears in the photo.]
Christian-based communities were established to provide just lives for people living in the country. I was given the opportunity to participate in an open church to provide skills to its members. It gave incentives for its members to learn the alphabet and read. I met a religious person, a nun, Sister Silvia Arriola, who taught the people religion based on their reality. She believed in the “option for the poor” and consecrated her life to that cause by working with several communities. Sister Silvia supported the poor by living what she professed. Her values were high, and her spirit was contagious. She was active in supporting and motivating our youth group.
The government confused the purpose of religion, especially the views of liberation theology, with politics and saw it as a threat. Many clergy, including priests, nuns, evangelists, and catechists, were persecuted and killed during the civil war. Belgian priest, Father Rogelio Ponseele was one who accompanied the people regardless of where it took him including into the hills in the Morazan area with the guerrilla fighters where he continued to baptize, marry, and celebrate Mass. Ana remembers him well. The first priest was killed in 1977, and the killing continued until 1991. The Christian-based communities were also under suspicion and threat. When Sister Silvia was killed at age 29, the people in my community felt that I was the most likely one to continue her work. [Tears fill Ana’s eyes when she recalls the life of her heroine — a devoted young nun plucked away so brutally.]
Sister Silvia was my inspiration as well as to many other people. At age eighteen I was very interested in the framework of this religious work. I, too, wanted to be a religious person and so chose to emulate and follow in Sister Silvia’s footsteps in the role as a nun in the order called “Missioner of the Little Communities.” We are a group of sisters who live together in community giving credence to the belief of the “option of the poor” which includes empowering the laity to be active in its Christian formation.
Everyone associated with Christian-based communities was considered a threat because the military viewed us as guerrillas or sympathizers with them. When I left my family to join the community, my mom and my younger sister were praying. The military came and took everything my mom had in the house and hit my mother, leaving her for dead. When my brother and father returned from school and the hills and found this, they knew they had to leave because, if the military returned and found anyone alive, they would kill them.
At that time during the war, our work was similar to social workers. It involved tasks such as organizing ourselves to find bodies of missing persons from our communities, going to jails to search for familiar persons, moving families to safe locations, such as exiled families from the countryside to the city. We had a refugee house for adults and children. Those times changed the way we evangelized to people because we couldn’t go to communities where we may be suspected and cause danger to ourselves. We lost members who did cross the line to join the guerrillas because they felt they had no options. Sometimes we had to campaign to accompany people in the conflict areas and help people who came from the front and children who lost their parents try to find them. Another job was to get people out of the country safely. There were times the community itself had to relocate.
Currently there is a big difference in how we serve people. We promote peace through rallies in parades through non-violent means. Although we may not see visible results of our efforts, it is a way to share our history. The thrust now is to share our history as part of God’s history. We work together in sisterhood for solidarity. There is more freedom to share. Bringing young people to our communities is a way to share our history.
How the local priest relates to our community always sets the tone in terms of cooperation with the formal, more traditional structure of the church. From 1990-2000 we had a priest from Illinois who energized us. He performed counseling for our members and helped us raise funds to build a church in the round, which the people loved. It was like a party every time we gathered together. The priest promoted women and lay workers. In 2000 there was a big change in leadership. The contract for the Maryknoll Sisters in the country ended. Appointed was a Salvadoran priest whose attitude was one of an authority figure, ego, and power. He had no regard for working with the people. He gave no credence for all the previous programs that had been developed. He removed all social programs, educational programs, recreation, and health care. He removed the library, English programs, and classes to teach people cooking to help them find jobs in local restaurants. All liturgy groups including liturgical dance were taken away as well as any of the hymns that spoke of the poor. He made the people pay for any of his services, including funerals. People were instructed to attend church and make reverence directly to HIM only. Disgruntled people stopped attending services. I stayed because I wanted to see what he wanted. He abused peoples’ time by calling an early meeting and kept them there until midnight. There was a group who wanted to talk with the archbishop, but he was a general of the Opus Dei and did not want to get involved. The priest accused that group of conspiracy against him. That is what made our decision to form our own Christian-based community to work on behalf of our own needs. We later discovered that this priest had raped a boy and other boys in a previous parish. He had been found guilty but the statute of limitations had passed and he was not forced to pay damages. The bishop removed him from the parish. The attitude of the new priest assigned, whom we were hoping to work closely with is,“I don’t want to know anything about Christian-based communities.”
Our present community, Bordados de San Ramon, is ten years old with about fifty persons residing in it. It is one of three communities that work separately but which come together on different projects. We have a place of worship to reflect and meditate on the Bible. All members of the community are seen as equal and take part in sharing the Holy Communion, for example, rather than only the priest distributing the elements. We do recognize individual gifts as being different, however. Some are musicians and some read the scripture, for example. A benefit to living in a community such as ours is that we all work for the needs of everyone within the community. The reality of life in El Salvador is that after age 35, it is difficult to find employment. Therefore, a community can give security. Many of the people are employed; others are self-employed. In 1997 we began doing crafts together to help subsidize our programs such as education and health care. Our dream is to have the basic necessities to live. Both my father who died two years ago, and my mother, who is still living, have been part of the community.
It is much more fulfilling to be addressing our own needs together as a community. Much of the power of the Christian-based communities was removed by the traditional church. We are not welcomed to be part of the larger church. This has been hurtful to our ministry. This is harder than going through the war itself when we should be working for the common people. Participation in the traditional Catholic Church is declining.
In the past these communities were large and flourishing. I’m not sure how many such communities currently exist. However, three years ago at a meeting there were 800 Christian-based communities represented at that time.
We may be small in number, but we share, conserve, and maintain the memories of our country’s victims and celebrate the victories. The living God continues to accompany us and makes us strong even during disappointments.
The same issues such as unemployment and lack of health care, that caused the civil war, still exist today. We need better solutions to deal with them. I draw strength from my community which gives me the spirit to continue. The reason I am doing this is because of the sacrifice of those who died during the war. I feel those people who lost their lives within me – their ideas of a better life. It is important to learn from the past in order to go forward.
My dream for El Salvador is for more employment. Also, I wish to see a clean earth. I hope that the truth will be clear for all. Only then will we have reconciliation and harmony. A community along a volcano, Las Nubes, “the clouds,” is getting water tanks thanks to the generous support of gifts from a group in Maine. We are excited for them.
I also believe the new system of democratic government is making a difference in young people’s attitudes.
My niece is a joy in my life, as is my nephew. Their parents left during the war.
Although there is still much to work for, I have many joys in my life. My greatest joys have been supporting the communities and seeing the social consciousness raising new hopes among the people.
Editor’s Note: It is amazing listening to Ana, how connected she remains in spirit to the young woman who made such a profound impression on her as a teenager, influencing her to a life committed as a religious person. Now thirty-two years later, (living as Sister Silvia’s protégé), it will be curious if she will be affecting other young persons to follow the same life in their futures.
Editor’s Note: This is part 2 of someone we named Ana Landaverde in our previous story, based on an interview five years ago. What a delightful surprise to find she is one in the same person AND to meet her on her own turf! She was and remains totally committed to her Christian-based community in the San Ramon neighborhood in San Salvador. This is an update on her community.
Today we meet in the lovely worship area itself, shop in its artisan sales room, and observe interactions of staff and community members.
Tell us about this space
Every eight days members of our Christian-based community gather here to celebrate and reflect on the Word of God and discuss how it affects our reality so we are equipped with ways to help sisters and brothers in our community.
Remind us; you are all lay members, correct? How is Holy Communion and Baptism handled?
Yes; we are a group of about 30 members who come together to worship and then divide ourselves into different groups to work within the community. We share a bread in our own Communion but there is no priest. We prepare members for Holy Baptism which must take place in the formal church where they can be registered.
Does the new pope, Pope Francis, accept Christian-based communities better than the previous pope?
In general terms we are happy with him and it is a blessing to have him. We study the documents he provides and agree with how he does things although there is no direct communication between us.
This is in contrast to the Salvadoran Roman Catholic Church which is a very vertical church – one of power in which the people of faith do not participate. It is based on giving the sacraments rather than going out and helping the people. The Salvadoran Catholic Church prefers members come to it.
Would you consider your group to be more of a lateral church?
Yes, all decisions we make are based on the needs of the people. We include as many members of the community in the decisions as possible and we include neighboring communities as well.
Can you share some of the outreach projects your group focuses on?
First we establish relationships with the people. In order to do that we visit the poor families. Knowing the family structure helps us. Perhaps it is a single mother or a grandmother living alone. Once the families trust us, they will share their concerns and needs. Perhaps they have health issues, or inadequate food. By entering in honest conversations, we may discover the family is living with a leaky roof, for example.
Based on common needs, we try to address them. If a number of families have no water and live in close proximity, we try to obtain water for them. In the last five years we had three large water tanks donated on the side of the volcano for them.
Who funds these efforts?
In that particular case we had a sister relationship with a group in Maine who donated a water tank. The community worked together to build and maintain it and each family contributes $5 per truckload of water once a week to fill it.
Another service we do on a very limited scale is short-term (6-8 month) individual microloans to those we know we can trust to pay us back. None are larger than $200. They go to people wishing to sell pupusas, clothing, firewood, and tortillas out of their homes. The person tells us how much he or she can pay and we write a contract. Banks charge up to 20% interest a month on loans and these people can never pay those prices. We charge only 5% interest for every $100 which is more of a symbolic charge. We aren’t interested in making money as much as helping people earn a respectable and dignified living. We use confidentiality because of the area in which we live and don’t want our loan recipients to pay extortion to gangs.
Do you promote advocacy for all the needs you see?
We prefer to encourage the people to organize themselves. In an area without electricity, for example, the group joined forces with another area and presented their plight to the authorities. We then accompanied them.
What are your latest projects?
We discovered there are 34 families living without proper roofs and when it rains several months a year, it creates havoc. We are working to see that they get proper roofs. In another case we are working with a group to obtain septic tanks to promote the health of the families.
Another group of women wish to work but need TVs to show videos of many topics to show them the techniques they need to use for the crafts they make in their homes. Right now we need to rent a projector or ask people to lend us their equipment.
Do you see this group being self-sustaining on a long-term basis?
We reflect on that question and believe the children are very important to the group’s continuation. We hope by their participating, the children will see their involvement as vital, and each generation will address the realities in which they live.
What are the most positive changes you have seen in the past several years since we first met you?
We have survived in the margins of the formal Catholic Church, which is huge. Our smaller community is positive, friendly, and faithful to its historical memory.
What is the glue that holds Christian-based communities together?
We are the church of Romero, and our martyrs of faith are important. We are a church of service and participation. Not everyone can relate to this style but it motivates us.
How has your membership changed? Or has it remained solid in number?
We have lost members of our community for a variety of reasons: employment outside the area, migration, other interests. Some people form communities in other areas which may include salaries which we are unable to offer.
Others need a leader; we have no leader. We all work together equally. Some feel a community is optimal when led by a male and even better if he is a foreigner so we have had situations when a charismatic foreign man who could paraphrase Biblical scripture and appeared smart pulled a segment of people to his group.
Our group reflects on the question, “Who should we follow as a role model?” and at the end of the day it’s always Jesus. We don’t want to belong to someone; we want to be an extension of Christian faith.
What is your heaviest moment?
The formal church at large in this country does not accept us which hurts; it wants to erase our history which saddens us and makes us feel hopeless.
What is driving that?
People who protect higher interests refuse to look at the needs of the poor. Our formal church is very comfortable and doesn’t want to get involved in complicated things. Five months ago we lost the Belgian priest who founded the Christian-based communities. Thanks to him we got to know about these experiences. It is the 47th anniversary of this movement. His wish was when he died that his ashes be divided and distributed among the 40 Christian-based communities among our parish. That corner is where his remains lie. (She points to a table with a photo and box of his remains.)
What is your definition of liberation theology? How do you relate to it?
God walks and identifies himself with the poorest. His face is in these families. These communities are the experience of God walking with the people. I’m confident other people will come after me to continue the experience and hopefully renovate the church with different visions.
We have little here but what we have we share.
Editor’s Note: Ana has donated this lovely property she inherited from her father to the Christian-based community in which she serves.