A letter from Kristi Van Nostran serving in El Salvador
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Twenty-three years after the signing of the Peace Accords that marked the official end of 12 years of armed conflict that claimed more than 75,000 Salvadoran lives, there is yet another war being fought on the streets of El Salvador, and it has become increasingly difficult to identify the “good guys” from the “bad.” And the worst part about it is that innocent families, and particularly young men, are caught in the crossfire both literally and figuratively every day. While I return each evening to a comfortable home in a secure and quiet San Salvador neighborhood, many of our Salvadoran partners live in fear, under conditions of a voluntary (and sometimes gang-imposed) curfew that they haven’t experienced since the civil war. Others tell us that not even during the height of the violence in the 1980s did their communities feel so dangerous!
The family of my colleague, Doris, lives in a barrio of Cuscatancingo, a municipality just outside the San Salvador city limits—less than five miles from where I live. Theirs is an example of a community that has ping-ponged between gang and National Civil Police (PNC) control over the last year. We used to visit on Sundays and join Niña Angela for an afternoon treat of chilate (a simple corn-based hot drink flavored with allspice) and nuegados (fried yucca dumplings in sugar cane syrup), but I haven’t been to visit Doris’ mother at her home in over a year because of the situation of insecurity.
Doris tells me that she never knows who she will encounter posteado (posted on the corners); some days it’s armed teenagers keeping watch for the gang, some days it’s plain clothes police monitoring the area, and other days it’s armed and uniformed (complete with ski masks) PNC officers making their presence felt. Shoot-outs between the police and gang members happen frequently in Cusca and more often than not end with a body (or bodies) on the pavement. Not what one looks forward to coming home to.
In these first months of 2015 the National Civil Police have taken a stance of “shoot first, ask questions later,” a posture that appears to have the support of government leaders. This is frustrating to say the least since both the PNC and the Salvadoran government continue to tout the Community Policing program that was launched last fall as an alternative to failed mano dura, iron-fisted, hard-on-crime, repressive policies and practices. The Community Policing program focuses on incorporating police as participants in communities, sharing in the day-to-day of residents and trying to work together through prevention measures as well as addressing specific areas of insecurity.
The two positions are fundamentally at odds. Our Salvadoran partners tell us that to hear elected officials promote one and condone the other is like listening to them speak out of both sides of their mouths.
A coalition of churches of various denominations—Catholic, Evangelical and historic Protestant, with which our Reformed Calvinist, Lutheran and Anglican Church partners participate—is the only space still daring to promote dialogue. This Pastoral Initiative for Peace and Life, IPAZ, is certainly one of the last spaces willing to sit down with people on all sides, including those involved in the gang culture and lifestyle. Rev. Santiago Flores of the Reformed Calvinist Church often says, “If we truly believe in a God of life and love, a God of transformation, a God for whom nothing is impossible…how could we NOT continue to work for transformation with both victims and victimizers?”
This, I believe, is where we are called as the Church of Jesus Christ to stand with our sisters and brothers—even if from a distance—believing, and preaching, and living in hope, trusting in the One who has called us as co-workers to, with God, make all things new. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Please continue to pray for our Salvadoran partners, especially for the youth and families that have suffered so much conflict and bloodshed, and for the people and leaders of El Salvador, this wounded and weary country that bears the name of our Savior and Lord. Please pray also for the United States and our leaders, that rather than intervene with aid for further militarization in El Salvador and the region, “adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars,” our policies might contribute to the ongoing peacebuilding efforts that can be the light that drives out the darkness, to God’s glory.
My heartfelt thanks for your generous and continued financial support, which makes the Joining Hands ministry of accompaniment and transformation possible. Thank you, too, for your prayers and correspondence that help to sustain me on the mission field. I love to hear from you! As we seek to come alongside our Salvadoran sisters and brothers during this troublesome time, please email me (email@example.com) your prayers for El Salvador and I would be honored to share them with our partners.
The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 69
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