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Remembering Oscar Romero, continuing his human rights work

[Episcopal News Service] I came to El Salvador in 2005 as a recent college graduate on a vocational pilgrimage with an academic interest in foreign policy and a desire to gain experience in human rights work. In my personal quest to understand human rights in El Salvador, the palpable and ongoing witness of El Salvador's martyred archbishop, Oscar Romero, quickly captivated me.

During the period of social unrest and political violence of the 1970's, Romero preached that the church "defends the human rights of all citizens, and should maintain a special preference for the poor, the weak, and the marginalized; it should promote the development of all human beings and be the critical conscience of society." Romero was clear in his assertion that the "situation of institutionalized injustice and violence" was the cause of the political violence and upheaval that was engulfing Latin America at the time. He was equally clear that repression coupled with social and economic reforms would not solve problems that were, at base, structural and systemic. The core of Romero's human rights message was that nothing short of total conversion and liberation of human hearts and societies from institutionalized sin could bring real peace.

Romero was assassinated by gunman linked to right-wing paramilitary groups while celebrating the Eucharist in the Chapel of La Divina Providencia on March 24, 1980. This March, we commemorate the thirty-first anniversary of Romero's murder. His witness and writings continue to offer powerful social critique and a clear moral defense of universal human rights. Fragments of his homilies still permeate Salvadoran society; they are plastered on walls, tee shirts and posters, and referenced in public speeches, writings, and daily conversations. Their relevance speaks to the continuation of many of the same structural elements of poverty, inequality, and violence that Romero condemned three decades ago. Romero's message of conversion remains deeply unsettling in the face of the many indications that systemic causes of inequality, societal violence, and disenfranchisement continue unaddressed. The challenge of identifying ways in which injustice becomes entrenched, and the movement from critique to conversion, is as pressing now as it was in Romero's day.

After five years of living in El Salvador I was invited to become the executive director of Foundation Cristosal, an organization formed in 2000 to accompany the Episcopal/Anglican Church of El Salvador in a shared mission for reconciliation, justice, and peace. The cornerstones of our accompaniment have been the support of the human rights office, projects for community development, and support for the pastoral work of the Anglican Church in El Salvador. In our continued engagement with poor and marginalized communities we are mindful that genuine conversion requires so much more of us than charitable giving or developmental assistance.

Foundation Cristosal's programs take a rights-based approach to community development. We strive to empower our partners to carry out structural changes that will have lasting impact in the quality of life of their communities. The basis for this approach is established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that "the recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." Or in Romero's simpler phrase, "Peace is the fruit of justice."

A rights-based approach relies on capacity building, citizen formation, and organization in communities that suffer from poverty and social exclusion. Cristosal's Community Development Program works cooperatively with rural villages and urban neighborhoods to plan for the development and implementation of self-managed projects that address their most urgent needs. These efforts are complemented by legal advising from our Human Rights Office to equip communities with the knowledge and guidance necessary to surmount structural barriers and secure equal rights to resources and services from the state.

The experience Foundation Cristosal has gained in 10 years of accompaniment of the Salvadoran people has taught us that justice, equality, development, and quality of life are not things that anyone can give or receive; rather, they are part of an experience of conversion that must be simultaneously personal and societal. This process does require resources that are mostly unavailable to the poor, which is why we encourage individuals, parishes, and dioceses to come experience El Salvador first hand, build relationships, and to take seriously the total conversion and liberation of human hearts and societies.

Information about Oscar Romero and materials for commemoration of the 31st anniversary of his murder are available on the Cristosal website.

-- Noah Bullock is the executive director of Foundation Cristosal.

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