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Sister church connects people with suffering, faithfulness

by Virginia de Leon

During her first trip to El Salvador in 2005, Rita Amberg Waldref said, a young man greeted her at an outdoor market and asked her to visit his family’s shop nearby.

There she met his mother and other family members.  The mother gave her a simple white cloth with “El Salvador” embroidered at the center.

“No money,” she said, when Rita offered to pay for the gift. “We are so happy you are in our country. When you go home, please share what you’ve learned about El Salvador.

“Please tell our stories.”

Rita Waldref and center
Rita Waldref, center, with Mino and Transito from Nuestra Senora Guadelupe

That moment changed Rita’s life.

Struck by the family’s generosity and their desire to have others learn about El Salvador, she made a commitment to go home and spread the word, to tell their stories.

Today, members of St. Aloysius Catholic Church’s delegations to visit El Salvador share stories regularly at the church, where Rita has worked in social ministry for the last decade. Photos from Salvadoran families and delegation members grace a bulletin board in the parish office.

In solidarity with Salvadorans, the parish remembers the anniversary of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero, who spoke out on behalf of the poor and was assassinated in 1980. They pray for the people, learn about El Salvador and support fair trade.

Now St. Aloysius is in a sister parish relationship with Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, a parish with dozens of Christian base communities in the Bajo Lempa region of El Salvador.

“We are brothers and sisters in solidarity,” Rita said.

While her experience in the family’s shop reinforced her commitment to El Salvador, the idea of establishing a sister parish started several years before with St. Aloysius’ first JustFaith group. 

JustFaith is a process to expand people’s commitment to social ministry in light of the scriptures and Catholic social teaching. Participants meet for 30 weeks for prayer, discussion, videos and speakers. They read books on social justice, learn about poverty and participate in four immersion experiences with the poor and marginalized. The experience transforms their lives, Rita said. 

The 2003 JustFaith group wanted to establish a relationship with another parish in another country to live out their faith and deepen their understanding of the world.

Several graduates were interested in seeking a connection with the people of El Salvador, an impoverished Central American country that continues to suffer after a 12-year civil war that killed more than 75,000 people.

In addition, since the 1992 signing of the Peace Accords, parts of the country have been ravaged by hurricanes, earthquakes and droughts that resulted in famine.

Members of St. Aloysius, a Jesuit parish, also were drawn to El Salvador because of Archbishop Romero. Other Catholics—including four U.S. church women in 1981, and six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter—were killed in 1989 during El Salvador’s violent history.

Rita started communicating with Sister Fran Stacey, a member of the Sisters of Providence who had served in the Spokane diocese before moving to El Salvador in 1995 to minister to the poor.

In 2005, when George Waldref, Rita’s husband and a nurse at Holy Family Hospital, joined the annual group of Providence Health doctors and medical personnel on a trip to El Salvador, Rita asked to go along.

The visit was eye-opening.  She had never traveled to a developing nation. She was shocked by the lack of clean water, health care and other resources. Despite their poverty, the people were generous with the little they had and welcomed Rita with open arms.

“I fell in love with the people and the country,” she said. “I was amazed by their warmth and hospitality.”

When she returned to Spokane, she asked the St. Aloysius pastoral council to consider the possibility of a sister parish in El Salvador.

In October 2006, she and nine other parishioners traveled to El Salvador to meet with people of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, two hours from the capital of San Salvador. In the spring of 2007, the parishes made their sister parish relationship official with a vision statement detailing what it means to be in solidarity.

“The relationship is rooted in the gospel and the mandate to love one another,” says the vision statement. “We recognize and appreciate that, with both our similarities and our differences, we are all members of the Body of Christ. We believe that this relationship will enrich our faith communities as we share our Christian walk. In the spirit of solidarity, we commit ourselves to work for the common good of each community.”

To be in solidarity, members of St. Aloysius listen with humility to the Salvadoran’s stories, share their stories with others in the United States, and are a “voice for the voiceless” by advocating on behalf of Salvadorans on issues that affect them.

Besides praying for them and celebrating their holy days, St. Aloysius also provides school supplies and books, and sends a small delegation from Spokane each year for a week with the base communities of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe.

In the same spirit, members of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe have promised to pray for members of St. Aloysius and are committed to sharing their perspectives of church and community by engaging the North Americans in conversations about injustice and poverty in the developing world.

In their parish center in Tierra Blanca, parishioners have created a small space that includes pictures of St. Aloysius Church and people who have visited, and a banner from St. Aloysius Catholic School.

 “It’s about being, not about doing,” Rita explained. “It’s about building friendships.”

Since her first trip, she has returned to El Salvador three times with members of St. Aloysius and a few students from Gonzaga Preparatory School.

Before each trip, delegations watch several movies, including “Romero” and “Enemies of War,” and read books about El Salvador.  They meet five times for orientation and community building.

Church life at Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe revolves around the dozens of Christian base communities, groups that are similar to gatherings of the apostles in the early church, Rita said. 

Parishioners meet at people’s homes to study Scripture and discuss how it applies to their life in the developing world.  Most do not have access to a car or cannot afford the bus fare to attend Sunday services.

“The church is the people,” she said.

Accompanied by an interpreter as well as Sister Elena Jaramillo, pastoral staff member, and Sister Fran, members of St. Aloysius travel throughout the parish and participate in discussions and Scripture studies.

They join about 24 members of each base community, studying Scripture and Salvadoran life.

They also immerse themselves in the people’s daily lives.

Delegation members spend time at the parish’s farm and with shrimp cooperative members. 

They make tortillas and tamales from freshly ground corn.

They visit primary schools and spend time with families in their homes.

On her third trip, Rita and others were invited to La Quesera, the site of a 1981 civil war massacre of about 700 women, children and elderly people—part of the government’s Scorched Earth policy.  Survivors told of their experiences as part of healing and remembering in order to prevent future massacres. 

They first spoke about it publicly for a 2006 radio broadcast, she said.  Again, she heard the same plea that the mother of the young man at the market asked of her: “Please tell our stories.”

When they finished, family members of those who had died in the massacre gave Rita and others small bags with soil from La Quesera. The soil is a symbol of the holy ground, where the blood of martyrs had been mixed with the earth.

“The injustice is so great there. The only way for the injustice to be known outside their country is for us to tell the story,” Rita said.

After learning about the plight of Salvadorans from delegation members, St. Aloysius parishioners have shared their resources with the people of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe.

One year, they collected 300 pairs of black shoes so children in the parish could attend school.  Earlier this year, members of the parish collected $7,050 for an emergency medical fund that gives families access to health care.

Since she first visited El Salvador, Rita has grown close to many families, especially Mino and Transito, a middle-aged couple who are the leaders of a base community.

“They have challenged me to step out of my comfort zone and to work for justice and peace,” said Rita, who conversed with the couple through an interpreter.

Mino and Transito told her of their tradition of making bread with their children on Christmas Eve and distributing it to the poor before going to Mass.

Rita was humbled by their graciousness and generosity, given that their family earns less than $4 a day.

“I go to El Salvador to deepen my faith,” she said. “The people there have so much faith and so much hope despite their suffering. They are crucified people, but they also know resurrection.”

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