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Lutheran Church of El Salvador continues prophetic witness for justice

Twenty years have passed since November 1989: During a guerrilla offensive by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) of El Salvador, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter, were murdered by elements of the Salvadoran military at the Catholic University in San Salvador. During those days, the National Guard of El Salvador, notorious for its acts of brutality, torture, and massacres of civilian populations, rounded up dozens of Lutheran, Baptist, Episcopalian, Catholic, and other church staff who were providing humanitarian assistance to wounded combatants from both sides of the conflict.
Many church and civil society activists went into hiding; many had to flee from the country for fear of reprisals. Among those was Bishop Medardo Gómez of the Lutheran Church of El Salvador (LCES).
The events of those two weeks of intense military confrontation led to the acceleration of negotiations by a United Nations mediator for a “firm and lasting peace” for El Salvador. A peace agreement was signed finally in January 1992, in Mexico City. “The hopes and dreams of Salvadorans rested on that peace agreement, and upon the lives of some 75,000 civilian victims of the 12 year out-and-out conflict,” affirmed Gómez in recent comments to international ecumenical election observers.
Gómez, influenced by both Latin American liberation theology and the strong traditions of Lutheran social consciousness, espouses a “theology of life” — the desire that all God’s people, but especially the poor and the marginalized, should be favored in ministry and in public policy.
The Lutheran Church of El Salvador to this day witnesses through word and deed to that mission, being a “church of the poor” for and among the poor. With few financial resources, the LCES has congregations and mission outposts throughout the country. Though not strong in numbers (perhaps 1,000 active congregants per week, with up to 10,000 confirmed members), its witness is present in very poor communities with some 50 pastors, evangelists and catequistas, and active lay leadership.
This year many individuals within the LCES celebrated the election victory of Mauricio Funes, an FMLN party member, for the presidency. Though asserting non-partisan membership, most in the LCES unabashedly supported change from the 20-year domination of the ARENA party, which represents the wealthy entrepreneurial class of El Salvador, founded by Col. Roberto D’Abuisson, the accused intellectual assassin of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in 1980.
Many outside critics have accused Bishop Gómez and the LCES of having too close ties with a political party, the FMLN. Gómez responds to those charges saying that in this context there is no choice but to support movements of liberation and hope for the poor and oppressed. While that clearly rules out ARENA, many people of faith can readily identify with the FMLN’s reputation of raising its banner in support of the poor.
With the FMLN now in power in the Executive Branch, “the LCES remains critical and watchful,” according to the Rev. Rafael Menjívar, director of communications for the LCES. Menjívar was recently appointed to a Presidential Commission on Social and Economic Policy. For the LCES, the verdict is still out as to whether or not President Mauricio Funes and the FMLN party that brought him to power will fulfill the expectations of the poor and marginalized that hope for change on their behalf.
The LCES continues to receive international support from Global Mission of the ELCA; sister parishes like St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran in St. Paul; companion synods (Milwaukee and Washington, D.C.); and churches in Germany, Scandinavia, Brazil, and elsewhere. The Lutheran World Federation is coordinating an evaluation and discernment process with the LCES, together with related agencies and churches from around the world. An LCES-Church Cooperation gathering is taking place in El Salvador in November, with activities commemorating the martyrs of the war and celebrating the life of one of the world´s foremost models of an entire church dedicated to the mission of service to and among the poor. It is a remarkable story.
Many churches, congregations, pastors, and lay people from around the world mention having learned important lessons from this small, prophetic church. Its commitment to the poor and for justice challenges the rest of the church’s theology, mission, and practice.
The Violence of Love – writings of Archbishop Oscar Romero (edited by James Brockman, SJ), Orbis Press, 2004. Almost 30 years after his assassination, the memory of this martyred bishop is still a major force for peace and reconciliation in El Salvador.
Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador (Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics) by Elisabeth Jean Wood, 2003 – a scholarly study of the roots of the Salvadoran civil war.
Romero, starring Raul Julia (1989) and Innocent Voices (2004), both available on DVD, show two very different but complementary sides of the struggle of the poor for life and justice in El Salvador. Romero tells the story of a great church leader, the martyred archbishop, while Innocent Voices richly illuminates Salvadoran history and reality from the point of view of the poor themselves, particularly the children. Both films are dramatic and moving, but Innocent Voices is more realistic, probing deeply the everyday lives of the poor during a time of war. It is an especially strong indictment of the all too common practice throughout the world of forced recruitment of children to fight the wars of adults.
The Center for Global Education at Augsburg College ( regularly sponsors travel seminars and study abroad programs in El Salvador and other countries in the region. School of the Americas (SOA) Watch ( is dedicated to raising issues of human rights abuses by militaries throughout Latin America, and exposing the history of U.S. training of these soldiers. SOA Watch sponsors an annual November gathering at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, to coincide with the anniversary of the killing by Fort Benning-trained soldiers of the Jesuit priests in El Salvador. A sizable contingent from the Twin Cities has regularly attended the gathering, and will be traveling to Georgia once again for the November 20- 22, 2009, protest vigil. –Bill Dexheimer Pharris
Phil Anderson and Bill Dexheimer Pharris are both ELCA pastors. They were together in El Salvador in the latter half of the 1980s — Anderson was regional director for the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and Dexheimer Pharris was with the Lutheran Church of El Salvador under the auspices of ELCA Global Mission and the United Church Board for World Ministries (UCC). After a time spent in Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis as an interim pastor, Anderson is back in El Salvador with the LWF as Central America regional director. Dexheimer Pharris is a staff chaplain at University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview Minneapolis.