“My faith trembled . . . . .”
Editor’s Note: During a recent session of our Sunday morning Bible study class, a frustrated participant commented to the effect: “Why is it that WE don’t feel or hear God calling US anymore like they did in Bible times?” As I had the privilege of hearing Pedro share his story, he both feels AND hears God calling him and provides and celebrates the exact dates and times. It is just uncanny how some of the events in his life so closely resemble biblical stories.
Pedro’s honesty is overwhelming as he shares his transformation after God touches his life. His response is to live out a life of service within his Christian-based community, which despite having taken many ups and downs, he maintains an unwavering conviction to be a leader within his faith-based group.
June is a very special month in my life. My parents had a little boy named Pedro, but he died and was buried on June 29. My mom was unable to go to the cemetery to help bury him. However, I was born on June 29 (1947), the day after San Pedro Day, and my parents also named me Pedro.
The day I celebrate more than my birthday is June 7, 1974. That is the day I gave up alcohol and cigarettes – now 37 years ago. It was at 11 AM on that date that my life changed, and I give thanks to God for June 7, 1974. Originally I am from the north, in the Chalatenango department.
When I was young, I began to drink and soon became an alcoholic. That caused me to have many problems relating to my family and friends. No one respected me because of my behavior and lack of control. People reacted to me by running away from me because they knew I would approach them for money or mistreat them using bad language. Some people tried to convince me to go to AA meetings, but I refused.
However, that particular day – June 7 at 11 AM – I felt something strange permeate my body. I can only describe it as an unusual warmth encompassing my entire body. At the same time I felt this, I also had an overwhelming desire to do something about my personal situation. We were out working in agriculture when this occurred, and I was married with a new son who was born on February 20. I told my friend I had to go to the AA meeting and told my wife to prepare some food for me before I left. She did not believe my motive and assumed I was lying as usual and planned to go to a party. My friend told me we could eat along the way to the school two kilometers away in the village where the meeting was being held. We attended the worship service and then went to the group called Santo Thomas. The group’s only requirement for joining was to stop drinking. The people there were so happy I came that they had a party for me and made tamales in my honor.
It took me four years to rehabilitate. My first job within the group was to help serve the tables for their functions. Later, as I became more of a trusted member of the group, I was elected to be their delegate to participate in the conference in San Salvador. I noticed that people started treating me differently. They no longer avoided me; rather, they began to treat me with respect. I knew that I wanted to be a Christian, which required my taking courses to be a member of the church. I lost my fear of talking in public during that time. Sometimes the person who was responsible to coordinate the AA meetings was absent, and I was asked to lead a reflection on the text. I was hesitant at first due to my lack of experience as well as having had no preparation, but the 20 members in the group agreed that I should make the effort.
That began my work leading Christian worship. This coincided with the tumultuous civil war in our country when there were many persecutions against religious leaders. I devoutly listened to the radio when Archbishop Romero was preaching morning homilies dealing with injustices against the poor people. He awakened in me a spirit of social consciousness. I shared his messages with people in my group during the afternoons. Some liked them and others did not. In fact, after some persons went to the local parish priest and reported what I was doing, the priest called me in and demanded that I stop immediately. I was surprised that he was in disagreement with the archbishop and asked his reasons. He told me that Romero was a communist/ subversive and a politician. My faith trembled when I heard that. I was so disappointed at a personal level. This disagreement among the clergy really rocked my faith. I discovered that five other community leaders besides myself were denounced during a worship service and called subversives. The priest instructed the people to avoid us. Many people became suspicious of us and were afraid to associate with us because the priests were considered to be the voice of God.
Our response to the threats and demands of the local priest was to form our own Christian-based community away from the hierarchy of the local priest. But there was an even more critical event that forced us to make that choice. The following is the chronology leading up to our decision.
Before I left the village I was from, we had a big party to celebrate its anniversary date. We somehow got news that Archbishop Romero would be at a nearby village commemorating the first anniversary of an assassinated catechist who had been unjustly accused of being a robber. The people in my village sent me to Romero to request him to help celebrate our service. Many people were lined up on chairs to ask for Romero’s personal help in finding a loved one who was disappeared or killed. I waited my turn and gave my request. He said it was impossible that day but invited any of us to come to the service for the assassinated catechist. He then counter-offered to come the following Saturday instead. I thought that was a very nice proposal.
When Romero came to preach at our church the following week, his message was blunt in denouncing the rape of the young girls in the church choir by the death squad which he had heard about. The priest was upset about this and blamed us for asking Romero to include that in his message, although we had nothing to do with the content of his message. He had heard about it from independent sources. Nonetheless, at 5 AM the next day strangers came looking for us, and we were warned to leave. I paid no attention during the day, although I did take precautions at night by sleeping up in the mountains. The entire village got a second threat about 10 AM which we took more seriously and organized the children and women to evacuate. At noon some young people arrived announcing the death squads were on their way and to run immediately. The man in front of me was shot and killed. I fell down on a stone while hearing the bullets buzzing over my head. The bullets missed me in my fall. When I looked back, I saw a man with a rifle aiming at me. Everyone scattered in different directions. I got to San Jose and reported what had happened and insisted we needed to return later to check on survivors. I spent the night in San Jose with my in-laws. The next morning my family and I left for a refugee center where they had already heard the news. We all stayed there for two years.
Later I lived at the Lutheran seminary in San Salvador, which served as a refuge for many people. I became its coordinator working with different priests. In 1979 when I was 32 years old, a group of us made a conscious decision.
A friend made me aware of a parcel of land that was for sale. A group of us asked the priest if we could obtain a loan to purchase this land for our Christian-based community but got no reply. However, a day later the priest called to inquire about the price. We responded that it was 550 colones. He gave us the money and instructed us to make the purchase. The friend told us to move there immediately. We then became affiliated with the Christian-based communities.
We were very systematic in establishing our communities. The first step in organizing was to focus on the needs of the community itself. Next we taught the Bible. Then we taught the people their own reality. The fourth step was to organize a pastoral group within the community to take over the liturgy, diacony, and process. My responsibilities revolved around teaching. In coordination with the existing Catholic social program, Caritas, we worked together in agricultural work raising crops such as beans, rice, and crops to produce oil. My wife and six children (2 boys and 4 girls) were constant companions with me during these years. We supported one another by putting our faith in action.
Our experiences with the priests always varied depending on their personal bias toward the “option for the poor,” with some being very helpful and willing to work with us while others totally denounced our existence. The priest of the Santa Tecla parish gave us formation for six months like a missionary. With that blessing we soon began celebrating marriages and baptisms. The local parish priest did not support us and accused us of being guerrillas, but we continued our work. We went into rural communities and had a wonderful experience. We enjoyed using music during our worship. Another priest from Spain taught us how to work in a team using liturgy and prophecy together. I was fortunate to travel to Costa Rica for additional training as well as attend meetings throughout the Latin American countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.
From 1982 to 1984 I worked in rural communities where the mentality of the priest was an endorsement closer to Romero’s views. In 1985 I had the opportunity to study in Columbia dramatic religious theater such as using the power of the Passion play during Lent/Easter.
People showed interest in building a chapel, which was completed in 1995. Presently my title within the community is pastoral agent. I distribute the Sacrament of Holy Communion within our community of believers. There are forty families in our community at this time. While we work in community, many of us also have individual jobs outside the community. For example, I work in an NGO in the field of education but still have time to dedicate to my own community, as well as relate to other Christian-based communities. We are composed of several different groups that work together for the whole. The purpose of the prophecy group is formation for teaching and faith, not works. The diaconal group gives scholarships. One of my sons coordinates the scholarships. My wife is active in a women’s group that has twenty women who sell bread, care for the elderly, and have been evaluated to run a bakery. They learn skills for making natural medicines, soap and shampoo making. The youth group performs theater and dance. Some of the physically and mentally challenged persons go to special places designed for them while others remain within the community.
My first four children attended school through high school. One is graduating law school to be a judge. The youngest is studying at the National University in the field of ecology. My oldest son is 38 and helps me in my work.
Our community is blessed to be sistered with a church in Cincinnati, Ohio, that helps us achieve many of our goals which we would otherwise be unable to do. They helped us build a pastoral house which serves as a community center but which also serves as a guesthouse for delegations that come visit here. Our youth can play soccer out of that location, giving them some constructive physical activity. One of our dreams is to build a workshop to make and sell our wares.
The advantages of living and working in a Christian-based community are numerous. Foremost we are all equal and united in Jesus Christ, resulting in solidarity and sisterhood among us. We can resolve our problems together. A few days ago someone broke his leg and needed an operation; another person had gall stones. The community worked together to cover the finances required to cover their medical expenses. Our goal is to live out our spirituality through our actions. We can share with other religions, such as Lutherans, and enjoy receiving delegations from other parts of the world; a pastor from Sweden recently performed a very nice service for us. We value other churches’ history and appreciate their own martyrs. It is nice to learn each others’ cultures through exchanging experiences. We also believe by living in a small Christian-based community there is less chance for gang infiltration than in other areas because we are very careful to discourage our youth from those interactions. This is a challenge since the balance is hard to maintain because of the family disintegration when parents leave the country and the children are left in the care of a family member whom they may not respect. We know a life in the gangs often results in these youth turning to drugs and prostitution. Our dream is to create jobs within the community, such as the bakery and the workshops (carpentry, welding), to give our youth skills to keep them within the community. We try to recognize the talents we see in our youth — musical talents, baking skills, or whatever they have – highlight them, and bring them together.
The disadvantages of living within a Christian-based community are that we sometimes come into conflict with the hierarchy of the organized church such as the priests and bishops. Right now we have a local priest who understands what we are about and trusts us.
In my spare time I enjoy visiting families in other communities. I like to meet persons in other Christian-based communities at annual meetings. Last year we met in Honduras. This week we are meeting in the Morazan department of our country. The Salvadoran bishop does not want to be involved in our organization, so we are left on our own to coordinate ourselves without his support.
There are three great disappointments in my life. The first is how long it took me to recognize that I was an alcoholic and how much of my life I had wasted. My wife, Maria, could have left me. The second is that in my work I see many priests who do not support our work out in the rural communities because they view it as compromising and threatening their own work. Last, having lived through our country’s civil war and witnessing all the suffering and violence, I am disappointed that they did not end when the war ended. We continue to live in the resulting insecurity even now.
I want people to know that God has helped me witness to others. I am diabetic and once was near death. I was given the opportunity to remain alive and serve, and I am happy for that opportunity to share the testimony because of God’s mercy. I often share this story with those who show interest in hearing it.
While cleaning the chapel one day, I suddenly felt blind. I saw only shadows. I spent eight days blinded. I asked Bishop Romero to ask God to take away this feeling. At 5 PM on Thursday on the eighth day, I began feeling something move across my face and suddenly I could see again. I believe it was a miracle of God with the help of the bishop.
Sharing this experience with others has made me more of a spiritual companion in the community, one of koinia. It constantly reminds us that Jesus has to be the center of the community around which we focus ourselves and our work must revolve.
Editor’s Note: Despite the three- digit temperatures soaring, my body is overcome with chills hearing this soft-spoken man share his life. After he told the story of his blindness miracle, I asked him if he also felt that the warmth soaring through his body out in the fields that June 7th day urging him to the AA meeting was God speaking to him. Without a second of hesitation, he smiled and responded, “Of course it was!