Dean Brackley and the Casa de la Solidaridad

The Casa de la Solidaridad ( is a semester-long, Santa Clara University-sponsored study abroad program in El Salvador. The following is an edited version of a reflection given by Katie Dorner, of Gonzaga University, at the farewell Mass for the fall semester. The “praxis sites” she refers to are the field placements for the students in the program; many people from those communities attended the Mass. In her talk, Dorner refers to Dean Brackley, S.J., co-founder of the Casa program. He was one of the six Jesuits who moved to El Salvador to help replace the six who were murdered in 1989. Brackley died of pancreatic cancer in October.  His death was noted here and here on In All Things.

Thanks to our friend Gene Palumbo for sending Katie's reflection:


Last Wednesday was our final praxis day in Las Nubes, a community that has been like a home to me for the past four months. I am so blessed that some of my family in Las Nubes is here with us today. My praxis partners Allison and Katherine and I brought a bag of assorted art supplies for the kids in Las Nubes on Wednesday. Doing that was a leap of faith: the kids are so active – always playing soccer and mica and flying kites – that we didn’t know if they’d be interested in doing art. But they were. Of course, not everything went as planned. When Jamie tried to pass a packet of glitter to his brother Isaiah, the wind got a hold of it and we all ended up covered with glitter – this, to the resounding laughter of the kids. 

Our idea was for them to make whatever they wanted; it was never for them to make things for us. Yet we left that day laden with cards and drawings.  This has been a theme throughout my time in El Salvador: receiving so much more than I could ever give. I left Las Nubes with arms full of art projects, and I will leave this country with a heart full of the most incredible love I have ever known.

In the first reading today (Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11), Isaiah says the Lord has anointed him to bring good tidings to the afflicted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to grant to those who mourn the oil of gladness. I think that when we North Americans go to another country, sometimes our idea is to use our privilege to help the supposedly “lowly.” But when we got to El Salvador, we Casa students came to see that we, too, are the afflicted, the captives, the mourning. When we realized that we all carry pain and that we are all broken, we were better able to see how connected we were to other people.

To know God’s love we have to humble our hearts. Each time I found myself in Las Nubes, it was as if I were receiving an invitation to this love. When a plastic chair was pulled out for me as I entered another’s home, it was as if God were asking me to sit down and to admit that my humanity is just as fragile as that of the person in front of me. But this was always an invitation; it was always a choice. 

In the second reading (1 Thes 5:16-24), we hear that the One who calls us is faithful, is trustworthy. Confianza (trust) is what our new Salvadoran friends freely gave us from the beginning – whether those friends were the people at our praxis sites welcoming us into their homes, or the dear cooks in our residences, who loved us as if we were their own, or the Salvadoran scholarship students in a sister project, the Romero program.

After the death of Father Dean Brackley, I remember walking into the kitchen at our residence and hugging Lidia, our cook, who knew Dean well; and I remember her saying, with calmness and courage, “but we have each other.” Whether they are saying this or showing it through actions, this is what my Salvadoran friends keep bringing me back to: no matter what has happened or will happen to us, we have each other, and this is a love that is strong enough to endure. 

Each year, Casa students have the privilege of spending a week in the countryside. This semester, I was blessed to stay with an incredible family in Nueva Trinidad. There were many moments of grace with them, but one in particular I will never forget.  One of the brothers, Robi, had been telling me all week about a place they often visit where you can see Honduras.  On the last night of the week, we walked up to this sacred place. As we went to sit down, Robi picked an old bullet off the ground and told me that some were still there from the war. Earlier that week he had asked me what my favorite part of being in El Salvador was, and I told him it was that the people here love with their whole hearts. He said he thought that this might be so because, having experienced a terrible war and having known that pain, they never want anyone else to hurt like that, and so their response is love.  Maybe a love that never wants to hurt is exactly what grace is, exactly how God loves us. 

As I sat down, there was a slight breeze and all I could see was green: the mountains near and distant, all of the trees, and even little green birds. It was astounding to think that this beautiful place had known the violence of the war, and that people could have been so violent in such a sacred place. 

The second reading also says, “May the God of peace make you perfect in holiness.” During my time in El Salvador I have often thought about why violence and injustice are part of the country, or part of any country for that matter. Maybe it is because we doubt our capacity to be holy people, and the power of peace that is our God. If we believed ourselves to be fully capable of goodness, maybe our sacred lands would stay sacred and we would feel our own holiness.

In today’s Gospel (John 1:6-8, 19-28), John acknowledges that he himself is not the light. Like John, we are not the light but we can be light in our own ways, fragments of the one Light shining together to reveal a world loved by God and a people walking with Christ. Like John, we are messengers of a greater love. We are grateful to have known so many of you whose light shines onto this path of greater love. I have had glimpses of this light in Anita, who has dedicated her life to the faith community of El Pueblo de Dios en Camino (The People of God on the Journey); in Hector, in the way he accompanied us; in William, in the guidance he offered us; and in the cooks, who have given us so much love. I know that I could name so many more and the other students could also name many who have illuminated their paths. Father Dean Brackley was right when he said that our hearts would be broken in El Salvador. Our hearts have been broken open to knowing a love that brings us closer to one another, and to knowing the grace of God. You will all be so missed, but today let us celebrate the memories and life we have shared together in the past few months.  


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Krystal Wu
6 years 11 months ago
Thank you, Katie, for sharing your powerful testimony of all that you learned in El Salvador.  After attending the Casa in 2007, I returned to the country as a staff member from 2009 to 2010.  Now unsure as to when I will make the journey back to El Salvador (I hope sooner rather than later), I find myself thinking often of the faces of so many I love there, missing how it feels to dream in Spanish, and seeking meaningful connections with the world. My time at the Casa has informed my vocational and spiritual discernment, and I continue to think about what my Salvadoran colleagues and friends taught me every day.  
Claire Wild Crea
6 years 11 months ago
Such a beautiful message that is great to keep spreading around. Your words were so eloquently put and truly voice many of my own thoughts and feelings. So thank you.
Mike M.
6 years 11 months ago
Beautiful reflection Katie. I studied at the Casa in Spring of 2005 and your words brought back a lot of memories. Thanks for sharing.
sara dart
6 years 11 months ago
Really lovely, Katie.  My time at the Casa changed my life and I am grateful every day to have met such wonderful and giving people.  Thank you for so eloquently articulating the feelings of so many who have passed through the doors of the Casa.
Sullivan Oakley
6 years 11 months ago
Thank you, Katie, for your beautiful words. You are an amazing witness to the truth of suffering and beauty that exist in the world, and thank you for sharing the love and lessons you learned in your time in El Salvador. I too studied at the Casa and experienced the love and generosity of the Salvadoran people, while also learning the true meaning and mission of Jesuit education. I believe in the formational model of education that the Casa espouses, and I am still learning and growing to this day as a result of my experiences there. It has helped me on the way in trying to live a faith that seeks justice, in trying to be a woman for and with others. And for that, I am forever grateful to the program, to Dean Brackley, and to you Katie, for your eloquent reminder.
Michael Nuttall
6 years 11 months ago
Thanks Katie for your beautiful words. As a Casa grad (Spring '05) you allowed me to return to this formative experience for just a bit. Thinking of you and the other Casa folks upon your return, the new crew starting on their journey, and all the wonderful people working with the Casa.
Chrissy Lacy
6 years 11 months ago
Thank you, Katie, for allowing so many of us to remember through your words and reflections. My semester as a student with the Casa de la Solidaridad program remains one of the richest and most transformative experiences of my life. Four years later, my time with the Casa continues to teach me valuable lessons and inform my career/life choices.
Elizabeth Looney
6 years 11 months ago
Really beautiful, Katie - thank you for sharing.  I could just see you and Lydia standing in the kitchen after Dean's death, almost as if I could look into her eyes and hear her say the words myself.  Thanks for bringing us into those special moments with you, and reminding us of the love that's healed us all a little bit.  ~EL, Casa Fall '04
Jelena Radovic-Fanta
6 years 11 months ago
Thank you Katie for your beautiful reflection... I first went to El Salvador as a student in 2005, returned as a staff member, and visited various times since then.  Your words resonate with me, in El Salvador I learned that we can be light in our own ways, and that we are.  In the singing of songs, visits to the campo, weaving relationships with our praxis community and fellow students, and in sharing tortillas, laughter, tears, and hugs, we received light, and thus discovered it in ourselves to later give to others.  I remember being deeply moved with stories of war, violence, solidarity, and faith.  That bareness and rawness of existence brings people closer to life; and that was the biggest gift I received from salvadoreñ@s: life, love, and light.  Some of us returned to El Salvador with it; others of us took it with us to our homes and communities to work with migrant workers, women's and indigenous rights, labor organizing, in other countries and the U.S.  Thank you for sharing your words of light and solidarity, of love that is bestowed on us, and for the reminder of what is holy.
Colin Smith
6 years 11 months ago
Thanks for your thoughtful reflections, Katie. You touch on feelings and experiences that are shared by your fellow alums - but yet still so unique to your own special experience. Thanks for sharing (and for doing it so eloquently!). 
annie rovzar
6 years 10 months ago
Thank you for this deeply felt reflection on your experience at the Casa. As a Casa alum from the spring of 2007, I am so vividly brought back to my time in El Salvador as I read your words. Your reflection is a profound reminder of the invitation to continue to live out of the spirit of solidarity we encountered and shared with the Salvadoran people, and that offers itself to us wherever we now find ourselves months or years after our time in El Salvador. 
David Brookbank
6 years 9 months ago
Katie writes of Father Dean's certainty that her heart and that of other students would be broken by the experience of El Salvador. Upon reading that my eyes filled with tears. My first experiences in Central America were in Nicaragua in the 1980's and on subsequent trips there and to Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico and Cuba. Indeed my heart was brokent in part just as Katie says, ''broken open to knowing a love that brings us closer to one another, and to knowing the grace of God''. I recently returned from Nicaragua after another visit and find myself once again profoundly affected, heart broken open, and disoriented. That heart connection is deep and unending.


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