Reflections from El Salvador

Over the past year, the Immigrant Justice Team has used the small group ministry model introduced by Rev. Beth—reflecting on an experience of accompaniment at the start of each meeting. Sharing such an experience, in a space of love and support, provides an opportunity to reflect, learn and grow, and deepen connections between our social justice work and spiritual practice.

At a recent meeting, Kendall Guthrie shared reflections from her trip to El Salvador. Kendall’s reflections offer a window into her experience, and the importance of getting proximate.

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“When Trump announced his family separation policy last year, I felt compelled to get involved. While most people focused on the conditions at the U.S.-Mexico Border, I gravitated towards the root causes. Last spring, I flew into the epicenter of the Central American refugeet crisis—El Salvador—for a week of human rights boot camp at Cristosal Global School.

This week-long seminar brings North and Central American leaders from different backgrounds to San Salvador for experiential, cohort-based learning on their human rights-based community development. Cristosal is one of the leading organizations in the Northern Triangle of Central America. They support people displaced through violence to relocate within their own country. They also work to reduce the violence through community organizing, research, and strategic litigation to hold the government accountable for reducing violence.

The Global School program embodied many of the pedagogical best practices I’d learned about—experiential, contextualized, and cohort-based learning. Our mornings involved lectures paired with interactive exercises. In the afternoon, we headed into San Salvador’s neighborhoods to see Cristosal’s strategies in action. We met youth workers and police officers partnering to reclaim their community from the gangs. We learned about a network of safe houses that provide families fleeing violence with housing and psycho-social supports to resettle in a new community. In the evenings, our cohort debriefed over dinner, exploring parallels to the rise of corruption and verbal violence in the U.S.

Here are a few lessons that are sticking with me:
1) The violence is much deeper than the street gangs. A wicked combination of gangs, police corruption, machismo, weak political institution, and a highly-inequitable economy creates a deep culture of physical and psychological violence. Any solution needs to address these multiple sources.
2) The U.S. and El Salvador are more deeply interconnected than most people realize. U.S. policy fueled the proliferation of street gangs. After the civil war ended in the early 1990s, the U.S. deported thousands of Salvadoran young gang members from U.S. prisons back to El Salvador.
3) Empowerment-based community development gives people tools to organize against violence. I met many skilled community activists who were choosing to stay rather than migrate. They maintain hope for a better future in spite of the conditions, and they are dedicated to strengthening their country’s civil and democratic institutions. I was especially impressed by Cristosal’s work in training marginalized groups, such as imprisoned gang members and mothers with limited education, to become researchers. They collect data on community conditions and then use it to design solutions and advocate for their right to resources.
4) El Salvador’s political climate felt uncomfortably similar to the U.S. Like a “this could be your future” exercise, daily life in San Salvador gave me a taste of the disempowerment one could feel if Trump behaviors become fully-accepted—that powerful people are above the law, graft is normal, and psychological and physical violence to achieve political ends are acceptable. It increased my commitment to combat them at home.” Cristosal is parternering with the UU College of Social Justice to offer a week-long seminar in January for UU congregants and religious leaders.