Thirty years ago yesterday, December 2, 1980, four U.S. missionaries–Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan–were driving a van in El Salvador when they were stopped, raped, and executed. In this, they were not unique. For several years this had been the fate of “subversives” who advocated for the Salvadoran poor.
But now, having killed white North Americans, the death squads were suddenly news. The martyred women helped inspire a movement of solidarity with the poor, and opposition to militarism, that endures.
It is strange to talk about them. I feel like a poseur, having never been to El Salvador or even taken a Spanish class. But I want to tell you what little I know, how I was introduced to the martyrs through a back door.
In college, I was a sheltered, conservative kid who, through a series of accidents, ended up spending all of my time with the social justice crowd. I somehow decided that what mattered to them was what was going to matter to me. When people went on immersions in places like El Salvador and came back speaking of what they learned, I shut up and listened.
For three years, I rode down with my new peeps to protest the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. The SOA trained many death squad members. On a November Sunday morning, we would march to the fence with white crosses, painted with the names and ages of the murdered and disappeared, and stick them into the chain-link. A cantor sang the names and ages, and we responded “Presente” (“here I am”), acting as proxies for those who could no longer say it except through us.
This was out of character for me. Yet it also felt like where I should be, even with army helicopters right above us, the cops glaring, and Fort Benning loudspeakers constantly puncturing our reverie by insisting the military does not take political positions.
And so the martyrs seeped in. I learned to measure things that were called Christian, their relative truth and falsehood, against them. To be Christian was to have a love for which you could die, while trusting that if you did, then that love would not permit your final immolation. But it remained superhuman.
For a while after college, I kept my distance from all this. But then, in late 2007, I was visiting Portland, and while traipsing through the “City of Books” at Powell’s on Burnside, I found a copy of Salvador Witness: The Life and Calling of Jean Donovan by Ana Carrigan. I sensed I was supposed to buy it, and I read it on the plane home.
Jean was twenty-seven when she died, the age I am now. I found her hauntingly relatable. While at the Maryknoll missionary school in Ossining, New York, she kept asking a question I always ask: “Do you think God’s really calling me? Why? Why me? Doesn’t he know what kind of person I am?”
Daughter of a well-to-do family, quintessentially suburban, Jean had made preserving that lifestyle her goal and became a highly-paid accountant. Shy, insecure, never certain if she trusted her friends, she competed with them and often withdrew if they succeeded where she had not. If anybody seemed less like a missionary, it was hard to see how. (And, except for her brash streak and corporate office, she sounded like me.)
But, as Carrigan wrote, “her membership in the Catholic Church provided the means whereby she was able to open the door to ideas and concepts that extended beyond the social and professional norms by which her family and friends lived.” So, when the good life became hollow, ordinary Jean stepped gingerly toward the extraordinary.
She joined a diocesan mission team to El Salvador, and while ministering among the marginalized she slipped from competing into trusting. She grew, albeit fitfully and not in a straight line, toward the love for which she died. By December 2, 1980, Jean was the branch, and Salvador the vine; she the river, and Christ the sea.
My reading left me defenseless. Sainthood, I now knew, was not exclusive to haloed forms in stained glass. I need not plagiarize Jean’s life; that wasn’t the point. But, as Mark Twain said, while history may not repeat itself, it does rhyme. Rhyming, by becoming a possibility, became also an obligation.
I remain ordinary, and Latin America remains distant. But my own desire to “rhyme,” while it owes much to an array of people, certainly owes something to the four women and particularly Jean Donovan. They hover at the edge of my consciousness, like Easter candles flickering against the night.