Learning From El Salvador's Poor: An interview with Dean Brackley

How did you happen to go to the University of Central America?
I had just started teaching at Fordham University in New York when the murder of the six Jesuits and their two lay helpers took place, on Nov. 16, 1989. The two were the cook for the Jesuit seminarians and her 16-year-old daughter. I knew the administration of the University of Central America, in El Salvador, would have to reach outside the Central American Province of the Jesuits to replace the six Jesuits who had been killed at the UCA. When we take into account how the United States was painfully involved in El Salvador during the war, I felt they might accept a gringo like me. So I began to ask myself what qualifications would be required in order to respond to that need: good health, a working grasp of Spanish, knowledge of Central America and the ability to teach at the university levelall of which I had. I imagined a fastball coming across the plate. I could just let the pitch whizz by, of course, but I had no reason not to swing, so I asked to come here.

When I arrived, I often felt alone and inadequate to the task. But time spent previously in poor sections of the Bronx as well as on the Lower East Side of Manhattan turned out to be helpful in confronting the hardship and powerlessness I experienced in El Salvador that first year. The war was still under way. There were threats against those who spoke out against the abuses taking place. At the poor parish where I was ministering on Sundays, I was indirectly warned that the military commander of the area had patted his gun and said of me, We’re watching him. Then as now, I was living in a small Jesuit community not far from the UCA campus, where government troops had forced their way into the Jesuits’ residence and shot five of the Jesuits and the two women with M-16 rifles. Ironically, the women were spending the night on campus because it was considered safer for them there. The sixth Jesuit was killed with an AK-47 to throw suspicion on the guerillas.


In your book The Call to Discernment, you speak of poor people as our professors in the school of gratitude. What did you mean?

My experience is that poor people are frequently grateful for life itself. In El Salvador every grandmother teaches her grandchild that you have to give thanks to God when you get out of bed in the morning, otherwise you’re un ingrato, an ingrate. In our middle-class, consumer society, we often take our gifts for grantedhealth, good food and amenities in general. But for poor people these can’t be taken for granted, not even life itself. One of the best descriptions of poverty is that poor people are permanently threatened by death, and out of that situation there frequently comes a deep gratitude for life. This is one of the things we have to learn from them.

What did you mean in your book by the phrase, despoilment of the poor as the most obvious and massive sin?

My encounters with poor people both here in El Salvador and in the United States have helped me to understand sin better. Here I see grandmothers going hungry so that their grandchildren can eat. Don’t you think that’s more important? one grandmother said to me. If we pull the string that unravels the tapestry of structural evil, we see why such people are poor.

To avoid trivializing sin today, we have to emphasize that the pillaging of the poor and the weak is the most obvious and graphic sin. In the United States and elsewhere, structural injustice and inequality produce massive death. They kill millions directly and generate wars around the world as the powerful seek to defend their privileges. It helps to consider personal sin from this perspective: how do we participate in this great plundering, and how can we work against it?

Poor people go hungry, but the contempt they suffer is often more painful than physical hunger or the lack of other necessities. What they most need from us who are not poor is to be recognized, to have their stories listened to. Frequently that’s all they have. Listening to their stories helps to center those of us who are prone to forgetting what’s important in life. One of the stories I tell in the book is about a friend named Marta. She and her family had been driven from their hamlet years before by the Salvadoran army, and now the family is very poor. She stopped by one day and stayed for lunch. We had chicken, and when I urged her to have a second helping, she said no. When I asked her again, she said with a smile that she didn’t want to get accustomed to what she couldn’t ordinarily have. Engaging people like Marta helps to bring us home, so to speak, to center us. They can become for us sacrament, a place where we encounter forgiveness and a sense of vocation and direction in life.

The idea of vocation is crucial in my book. Consumer society would box us into a vocation of getting and spending, which robs us of our dignity. People who are in real need awaken in us our true vocation to love and serve.

Could you also expand on your reference to the spirituality of persecution.

Anyone who takes this vocation seriously by speaking the truth about the great sin of the world will suffer for it. It’s like that cynical adage, no good deed goes unpunished. In the Gospels Jesus is constantly in conflict for telling the truth and inviting people to recognize it and respond to it with integrity. When we do that, we come into conflict. We need to return to this important theme in Scripture, namely that anyone who follows Jesus and tries to live a life of integrity will suffer for it. We can also take advantage of persecution to build more community and deepen our solidarity and commitment.

The good news today is that this movement of solidarity, which is international, is growing by leaps and bounds. I can see it. International civil society and the work of over 1,000 nongovernmental organizations were able to pressure the most powerful governments in the world in 2005 to grant debt relief to a number of very impoverished countries. And in 1996 the antipersonnel mine treaty was signed.

Even with its limitations, the church is the most powerful instrument we have for actualizing the potential of this solidarity, creating a forum for people to respond to issues like violations of human rights, the degradation of the environment and the need for fair trade to help poor nations. The church has slowly been awakening to the massive nature of poverty and inequality and its structural aspects, and awakening to its prophetic vocation to speak out on behalf of human dignity. Luís Espinal, a Jesuit who was murdered in Bolivia in 1980, said that if you don’t have the courage to speak up for human beings, you don’t have the right to speak up for God. Churches and church people are starting to respond to that vocation, insisting that another world is both possible and necessary, a world of solidarity and peace, different from the way it is today.

The fact that people are working for that other world is one of the signs of hope; and not just church leaders and church people, but many others too are coming to see that we have a common vocation to love and serve. Especially those of us who are U.S. citizens have a great responsibility to address some of the structural dimensions of poverty in the world. It’s a tall order. More people in the United States need to discover their vocation by participating in this movement of international solidarity.

When Americans visit El Salvador, what is their reaction to what they see?

When they see the effects of injustice on poor people, they almost always ask, What can I do? Where is there hope? I tell them, I see hope in your visit. These are people who are part of this growing movement of worldwide solidarity. In the United States, there’s an increasing number of parishes, schools and universities in which we experience this movement of people connecting in ways that are very important, both North and South, often through microinitiatives they themselves begin. The solution has to come from the bottom up. But there are no more purely local solutions to poverty. Since the problems are international, solutions now require international effort.

Is that what you meant by downward mobility?

I use downward mobility as a countercultural symbol that questions the American dream of upward mobility. For me, downward mobility is a good translation of the Gospels and the message of Jesus, who invites us to live close to people who are poor and considered unimportant.

Over the years, poor people have helped me to learn important lessons in finding my own way, especially during an earlier time when I was confused about what I should be doing with my life. But even then, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius were at my side, and Ignatius himself was a great teacher who helped me find my way. In my book, I am really sharing what I learned in the process.

What do you mean by your way?

I mean not just discovering the truth, but above all discovering our vocations and learning how to make wise choices. We are invited to live lives of creative generosity. Love is creative, an outpouring of the Spirit. As Pope John Paul II said in his 1993 encyclical, The Splendor of Truth, love has a minimum, a clear floor below which it cannot go. But there is no ceiling to love; it’s an open sky. His exact words were, The commandment of love of God and neighbor does not have in its dynamic any higher limit, but does have a lower limit, beneath which the commandment is broken (No. 52). We’re called to live not by law or abstract ideals, but by the Spirit that creates liberty and engenders creativity in our lives.

In this context, Ignatius stresses the importance of discretion. We cannot respond to every need. Ignatius wrote to many zealous apostles, urging them to steward their health and energy and thereby maximize their ability to serve. If I mistreat myself through overwork, then I am abusing God’s instrument and limiting my ability to respond to the world. A sense of humor, being able to laugh at ourselves, is also indispensable to a life of service.

What about the students in your theology and ethics classes at the University of Central America?

One of the advantages of teaching here in Central America is that the issue of poverty and structural inequality is an inescapable backdrop to our teaching and learning. It’s there in front of our eyes day by day. As a result, unlike the classroom work I’ve done in the United States, there are many things in El Salvador that don’t need to be explained to students. Many of them live in poor or working-class communities, so it’s not difficult to talk about the Gospels in the light of life and death issues of poverty and injustice. They respond with understanding. Most of the students, in fact, live much closer to poverty than I do.

How do you combine your various ministries?

On Sundays, I celebrate Mass in a poor parish, Las Palmas, where I also visit the sick and just listen to people. Besides this parish involvement and teaching at the university, I also write. Call to Discernment is my fourth book. I used to find much enjoyment in writing, but I was always putting it aside for things that seemed more important. During my retreats, though, I found myself often thinking about writing, and initially it seemed like a distraction from the retreat itself. When I brought this to the attention of my retreat director over a period of two years, she pointed out that in her opinion it did not seem like a distraction at all, but rather a way of prompting me to assume my vocation as a writer. That discovery led me to a hard decision, namely, to put aside quantities of time for writing. Out of that decision came the various books I’ve written, with Call to Discernment the most recent one. It took a long time to write, seven years.

What do you foresee for your work in El Salvador in the years ahead?

Probably more of the same. I feel privileged to be where I am and to do what I do to help educate future ministers of the Gospel and also to help North Americans understand better what is going on south of the border.

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