“When you have knowledge, you can transform people’s thinking, and when you transform their thinking, they will act. “
Editor’s Note: While many of our storytellers were adults or older children who fought in the mountains during the civil war, Miguel was the youngest in his family and spent most of his childhood sheltered in the city after his parents fled from harm. He was only three years old when the war began. Therefore, his memories, experiences, and perceptions of what was happening around him come from a child’s viewpoint, offering us a fresh perspective on war.
After the war Miguel transformed from an eager and inquisitive student himself to now imbuing those same qualities into the minds of his students at the university where he serves as a professor. This sincere and bright young man with a family of his own is discerning his call to discipleship in terms of what that call ultimately means for his long term career and service to God.
Originally I lived in San Vicente where I was the youngest of seven children, five girls and two boys. My seventeen-year-old sister who was with the guerrillas, was already among the disappeared. We never found her. When the military began killing in the villages in our area, our family fled to San Salvador, taking absolutely nothing with us. Another sister and my dad joined the guerrillas and went to the mountains.
The rest of our family, including my mother and siblings, remained in San Salvador with host families and frequently moved from one guerrilla safe house to another. Conditions within the safe houses were actually better than we had at home. Rather than having to work so hard to grow and prepare it, people brought us food. The boss took care of us and we felt a sense of security. Sometimes meetings took place in those houses, and someone ushered all us children away to another room to avoid our seeing the faces or hearing the voices of guerrilla leaders; thus if interrogated later, we truthfully could not identify them. It was all very secretive. I do remember one woman commander who always brought us children something to eat. She later stepped on a land mine and died. When I grew older and reflected about her. I was sad thinking that if she had she lived, she might have been helpful in developing the peace process.
My mother’s role as an urbano guerrilla was to secretly be a courier of messages between those on the firing line and the political prisoners to encourage them to keep their spirits and morale up. Messages would remind them that “we are fighting for you” and also inform them what was happening in the field. These messages had to be smuggled to them, sometimes hidden in pants or even in powdered milk.
Parents often assumed responsibility for the care of other children whose parents were fighting or disappeared, and my mom took in a six-month-old little girl whose parents were both guerrilla fighters. She became like a little sister to us. At age seven when her biological parents were both killed, we became her only family.
As a young child in the war, I did not have much awareness of what was happening. I didn’t know the ideology behind the issues involved. I could only observe. What I did witness was the instability. We would be playing with my cousins one day, and the next day one of them was dead. It was difficult to understand the whole picture. My mom came and went as her tasks required her to do. My older sibs were very resentful of this and demanded to know why our parents gave us no time and attention during our childhood. Being the youngest, I still received the attention from my older siblings and didn’t feel so resentful. Still it was an unpredictable time for all of us when no two consecutive days were the same.
Discrepancies continued for me when I was about seventeen in high school. I was studying the history of our country and discovered two distinctly different histories: the official one and the unofficial one. In the official version in our school books, the government leaders were the heroes. President Cristiano was portrayed as responsible for negotiating the entire peace process. That was very different from what I read in other sources and heard at home.
During high school I read theology books for intellectual curiosity, which raised an awakening within me. I decided to pursue further studies in theology in university. People asked me what I would live on because theology pays no money and it is difficult to find a job that pays in that field. I responded that my hope and faith in God would help me in some way.
Because I had no financial resources, I wanted to continue to advance my studies at the university level by studying theology at a university of the Assembly of God Church where they had scholarships available. However, the financial aid personnel told me I could not obtain access to scholarship funds unless my father was a pastor of that church. I was very sad. Then I discovered that families of the former FMLN fighters could get some aid at Lutherano University because some members of its Board of Directors were involved in the guerrilla movement. Even if you didn’t have your high school degree, you could take intensive courses to earn it. I applied and received a half scholarship. That was a great opportunity.
Entering the university, I still felt this same intellectual curiosity that I felt in high school, but also I began feeling something on behalf of the people in terms of righteousness and justice. When you have knowledge, you can transform people’s thinking, and when you transform their thinking, they will act. I’m also convinced that the better you are prepared in things of God, the more you can serve in God’s kingdom.
I have been working with Pentecostal churches for many years, and thank God I have had influence in their movement and feel they highly respect me. These groups tend to be very conservative, but I teach liberation theology. Even though they don’t like the concept, they still respect it. They also understand that we have to connect our academic studies with our Christian lives. They know the experiences I lived as a child have an influence on my belief system. The Pentecostals are a large group in this country. Their focus is on heaven and praising God. They don’t see the political or social problems of the country, whereas in liberation theology everything comes from those roots, and it tends to have a more functional focus. The writer Raymond Panikkar goes so far as to say everything originates from political roots disconnected from faith. He proposes liberation theology with a mystical aspect. We want to teach a healthy interpretation of the Bible courses at the university.
Working as a college professor at Lutherano University offers me the opportunity to interact with students of all faiths. We challenge one another. Those with conservative mindsets challenge those with liberal mindsets and compare one another’s thinking. It is perfectly acceptable to do this in a university setting.
In El Salvador people want to know more. There is a reawakening of knowledge here, particularly of the Bible. Because of this renewed interest I am proposing to the university that we add a two-year course in scientific studies of the Bible to the curriculum for the large group who show an interest in learning. This would be separate from the five-year seminary curriculum. If this gets started and the group of students taking it continues to show interest after two years, it could be extended to a third year of study. Perhaps it would even interest some students to transfer into the full seminary program.
Currently I teach part-time at the university two mornings a week. This schedule affords me plenty of time to spend with my family and be part of my young children’s lives as they grow up. My family does not have many material things, but we do spend good quality time together. We do make economic compromises since I am not employed full-time.
My family is supportive of my position, and they share my passion for ministry. They will continue to support whatever is in store for me. My family includes my wife, Ruth; our adopted child who was abandoned at age nine months and is now 20, Brian; as well as our biological children, Angel Levi and Sophia. At this point I am a member of the Presbyterian Church. If God calls me to serve in another church, I would have to make that decision. I am personally drawn to historical churches.
Besides part-time teaching I also present informal seminars to clergy for different churches on topics they request such as New Testament. This gives me an opportunity to share with pastors and church leaders around the country.
I enjoy pastoral work and some want to ordain me but I’m not ready for that. At this point I don’t see myself working in that capacity. It would seem a big compromise with God to be a full-time pastor. In this country that role includes administrative duties. I do not want to spend time sitting in an office handling those kinds of details; I do want to be out working with the people. As an example, I once had the opportunity to lead a group of 30 youth. They came from poor families, and I fed them. Later I was berated for spending too much money.
In terms of recognizing my gifts I see myself possessing the gift of teaching and the gift of serving. Working with the conservative mindset challenges me professionally, but I am definitely seeing the fruits of my labor already. Many of the conservatives are beginning to study and investigate more and recognize the reality in which they live rather than feeling religion is simply a mystical experience. The Pentecostal churches have traditionally been more machismo, but in recent years women are doing the majority of the pastoral work. There is far less conflict between the Pentecostal churches and mainline Protestants than there was ten years ago in this country. With continued guidance from the Spirit in matters of truth and justice, more positive changes like this can take place.
Like many others, I lost hope for the country during previous political administrations. The emphasis was that “the government” or “the president “would enact laws to improve conditions nationwide at a governmental level which would eventually make a positive difference down to a local level. People have become frustrated waiting and then seeing campaign promises go unfulfilled.
That is not how Jesus modeled transformation. He worked at a very grassroots local level, and I think that makes more sense. If we can involve and organize people within the communities to find alternatives and solutions to their problems by taking responsibility for them at a local level, transformations will take place all the way up to a higher level throughout the country. It’s a “bottom up” rather than “top down” solution to social issues. People may be more invested in the solution and tend to be hopeful if the results can be seen more quickly and when the outcome affects them directly.
I know the hardships that the people in our country face. Whereas politicians are driven by ideals of the state, I am driven by ideas of Jesus. Being in a position to transform the thinking of my students based on Biblical teaching, to watch them question themselves, to challenge their beliefs, and to be a positive influence in shaping their lives is a position I find humbling.
As Jesus said in the Gospel of John, the Spirit will guide us in truth and justice. I trust that Spirit continues to guide me.
Due to anticipated changes in re-focusing our Salvadoran ministry during the near future, we will be offering one story per month, rather than our customary two, alternating between a personal story of witness and a travel story.
We hope you will continue to read our website while we clarify our goals.
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