From Guatemala to Gaza


It was Ash Wednesday 1983.  In a darkened sanctuary with some lighted candles, an unfamiliar Catholic priest and several other people entered the sanctuary and sat in the front row.  The people wearing bandanas were refugees from El Salvador who had fled from the death squads and chaos of their country.  In his sermon, the priest planted the seed of an idea: Our community could offer public Sanctuary to such people as our guests.  We eventually did offer such shelter and protection to a Salvadoran family, in defiance of the INS ruling that they had no right to be in the U.S.

In my middle twenties in Louisville, I and many other people became a very small part of a movement of solidarity with the peoples of Central America. A few people I know gave their lives over to it, as they relocated for long stretches in Nicaragua; others made frequent visits to and maintained strong connections with grass-roots movements in Guatemala. Many of us participated in peace delegations, put pressure on Congress, wrote scores of op-eds and letters to the editor, and joined in civil disobedience against aid to the contra terrorists attacking Nicaragua.

In Like Grains of Wheat: A Spirituality of Solidarity, Margaret Swedish and Marie Dennis draw on both their long experience in this movement as well as that of scores of participants whom they interviewed. The book is an account of how largely middle-class people of privilege became connected and devoted to the people of Central America, who were struggling for a dignified life in the midst of excruciating oppression.

As I read the book, I thought of many people I’ve gotten to know over the last several years, secular, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, American, Israeli who have worked in the growing solidarity movement with the Palestinian people. I’d like to share a few passages from Like Grains of Wheat that may be relevant to those of us doing work here, or planning to do work in Palestine…


Many U.S. Americans were not prepared to deal with the scale of the evil they discovered—an evil expressed in the violent deaths of the poor, in the often brutal deaths of those who took their side in the struggle for liberation. It was needless, preventable death. [92]

[The path of solidarity] began often with a small gesture of accompaniment. A decision to walk, for however short a time, with a people, a community, whether in a  war zone, a refugee camp, a town under siege, or a village of displaced persons or refugees seeking safety in the United States…. A journey far different from anything that had been anticipated, a journey into themselves within that world, a journey into faith that for many had become cut off and isolated, detached from the conditions of real human beings. [21]

The praxis of solidarity was not a scheme or project thought up all at once. There was no preconceived plan or method of operation. There were few models from which to draw. The movement grew out of the actions that shaped it. It was imbued with creative energy and charged with a sense of urgency about the need to alter a violent, unjust reality and a fervent, palpable hope that this work would constitute a vital contribution to social transformation in the region. [105]

Knowing people who had lived with the effects of injustice and oppression on a scale previously unimaginable—and who were struggling day after day for liberation and life—changed people in profound ways. [24]

Many people were invited into relationships as equals with some of the most courageous and amazing people they had ever met. Rather than “being for” and “doing for,” they become one with their partners, moving beyond “us” and “them.”  [35]

As people of privilege in a hungry world, they struggled with their own complicity in the suffering of that world—the knowledge that they were a part of a system that was perpetuating injustice, benefiting from that system even as they tried to change it. [xxiii]

They lived under military dictatorships, in war zones, and in refugee camps. They accompanied refugees and displaced communities on their journeys home. They joined delegations to learn about the local reality and to be “witnesses of peace.”  [xx]

The reaction of people was energizing because people who were our age or younger would say, “Wow, you did that? And if you were able to do something like that—and you know, you’re sort of normal suburban people—if you could do that, maybe I might have the courage to do that too.” [10-11]

It’s not just learning Spanish, because in the process of learning a language, you learn the people, you learn their way of seeing the world.  [206]

The work has gone on, re-creating itself over and over again. It finds expression in concrete projects of protest, witness, and accompaniment. [129]

The poor of Central America had taught them: Be a healing presence in this world. Counter all the death and hatred, demonization and greed, intolerance, and rage with solidarity—across races, cultures, languages, and histories riddled with injustice. Live as if each person really were created in God’s image. [xxvi]

Rather than avoiding pain, those in the solidarity community go right to the pain, right into the pain at the heart of the world, in the heart of this human being, the wounded one on the side of the road. Like the Good Samaritan, they don’t walk around the wounded, they don’t anesthetize or excuse themselves, they don’t fail to identify with them, they don’t pretend that it has nothing to do with them, they don’t distract themselves. [147]

They cared for the wounded, fed the hungry, comforted those in sorrow, buried the dead—in Central America and for Central Americans in the United States. They lost friends and loved ones, met the tortured and imprisoned, knew the disappeared and the massacred. Some survived torture themselves. Some gave their lives. [xx]


The real victims of “America’s agony” are millions of suffering and tormented people throughout much of the ThirdWorld.  Our highly refined ideological institutions protect us from seeing their plight and our role in maintaining it, except sporadically.  If we had the honesty and moral courage, we would not let a day pass without hearing the cries of the victims. We would turn on the radio in the morning and listen to the voices of the people who escaped the massacres in Quiché province and the Guazapa mountains, and the daily press would carry front-page pictures of children dying of malnutrition and disease in the countries where order reigns and crops and beef are exported to the American market, with an explanation of why this is so.  We would listen to the extensive and detailed record of terror and torture in our dependencies compiled by Amnesty International, Americas Watch, Survival International, and other human rights organizations.  But we successfully insulate ourselves from this grim reality.  By so doing, we sink to a level of moral depravity that has few counterparts in the modern world….

–Noam Chomsky, 1985

Ellacuría  used [the term “crucified people”] to give a name to great majorities. Thus the language of “people” and “peoples” is laced with death, not natural but historical death, which takes the form of crucifixion, assassination, the active historical deprivation of life, whether slowly or quickly. That death, caused by injustice, is accompanied by cruelty, contempt and concealment. I usually add that the crucified people are also denied a chance to speak, and even to be called by name, which means they are denied their own existence. The crucified people “are not,” and the affluent world prohibits or inhibits then from “becoming.” The affluent word can thus ignore what happens to them, without any pangs of conscience.

–Job Sobrino, 2005

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