The campus of the University of Central America in San Salvador (la UCA) is like every college campus. Students mill around carrying too many books, wait for buses, read. Like many religious universities, la UCA has a chapel, the Parish of Jesus Christ Liberator, at its heart.
The chapel was commissioned by Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria, a Jesuit liberation theologian who lived and taught at la UCA. With five of his Jesuit brothers and two women who worked there, Ellacuria was killed in 1989 by a death squad in gardens by the chapel and their residences.
The first time I visited la UCA, I wasn’t prepared for its lasting call on my life.
It was Advent 2015, and I had just finished a week of learning and teaching with a group of Central American pastors in Western El Salvador, near the Guatemalan border. In August of that year, 30 people a day were murdered in this country with a population smaller than New York City. While I was there, a third man in six weeks was murdered in my North Carolina neighborhood.
Stories of violence surrounded us. Their darkness, like the darkening of the days, closed in on me.
The Salvadorans are a jubilant people. The times I’ve spent in the country have been filled with laughter and bright spirits. But this joy is not so much an individual characteristic as it is a general mood.
The joy stands in stark contrast to a brutal history of colonial violence, massacres of indigenous populations, civil war, economic pressures of globalization and gang violence. The people carry stories of the brutality; their laughter is a sign not of denial but of defiance.
In the chapel at la UCA, the sacred art above the altar is brightly colored. At first glance, you might miss the skull and bones, the guns, the crucifixion. Your eyes might see the more comfortable Noah’s ark, the four evangelists, the angels and the heavenly realms.
But the violence and its darkness are there, encased between two crumbling columns. They are crumbling because Jesus Christ -- the Liberator -- is above them, stomping on a serpent, crushing the power of our violent world. Jesus Christ the Liberator doesn’t deny the existence of our violent world but defies it.
This brightly defiant display faces another set of artwork. Fourteen charcoal drawings by Roberto Huezo hang on the back wall of the chapel. These drawings are called “Via Crucis de todo El Salvador sufriendo,” or “The Way of the Cross of the Suffering People of El Salvador.” They depict the torture and suffering common during the country’s civil war. To stand and preach or celebrate the Eucharist in the chapel is to stare the reality of violence in the face.
The first time I visited la UCA, as I passed the garden and the small bedrooms where the priests lived and were killed, I could see a priest breaking the bread in the chapel as a part of the Eucharistic prayer.
When I settled in a back pew, it became clear that this was not an ordinary mass but a mass being said in remembrance of a professor. I later learned that the professor had been gunned down by gang members for unknown reasons.
The suffering of the Salvadoran people is not a vaguely remembered history but a present and painful reality. The priest breaking Christ’s body in the face of the suffering people, in a place of torture, in a moment of pain, stands in defiance to the violence.
The call that the chapel of Jesucristo Liberador put on my life then remains with me today: following Christ means going where there is violence and defying it. It means exploring my own violence and overturning it. It means trusting that the violence I see is not the end of the story, that Jesucristo Liberador is smashing the serpent and crushing the columns of oppression and violence in El Salvador, the United States, the whole earth, the entire cosmos.
I recently attended the vigil of a man killed in my city. His murder is unsolved. As we stood on the street corner where he died, family members and friends shared stories about him. A young woman pled with the gathered to share any information we might have about his killers.
Afterward, I shared a meal and games with some friends who’d also attended the vigil. We laughed hard. We each needed that laughter for our own reasons, but it was good to deny violence a hold on our lives, even if for just a moment. There was no sacred ritual in our gathering, but our laughter represented a defiance that the Salvadoran people have taught me was sacred and Christlike.