A Jesuit priest who took the place of one of the six Jesuits assassinated in El Salvador finds more hope in that country than he did in his previous work as a community organizer in the South Bronx.
In El Salvador, where 75,000 people died in a 12-year civil war that recently ended, says the Rev. Dean Brackley, a traditional society of extended family has sustained people, even in the midst of poverty and war.
"They have no access to health care in El Salvador but they have land and they have the extended family," Father Brackley said. "Poverty has not killed hope."
But in the South Bronx in New York, poverty has killed hope, Father Brackley said, referring to the collapse of families and communities there and random criminal violence.
"What we discovered in the South Bronx is there are no more neighborhoods," he said. "We used to have to introduce tenants to each other before organizing them."
Father Brackley spoke last night to a group of about 40 people at Viva House in southwest Baltimore, part of the Catholic Worker movement of people who serve the poor while living among them. He is in this country visiting his parents, who live in Ellicott City.
He teaches ethics and theology at the Central American University in El Salvador where six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter were murdered in 1989. Two high-ranking Salvadoran military officers were convicted and then given 30-year sentences for ordering the executions and three junior officers received three-year sentences for trying to cover it up.
Many in the audience had also visited El Salvador and witnessed the vitality among the poor there that Father Brackley was describing.
The priest said that restoring people to life in a community was the important work of the Christian church today. "I don't think we can live with the gospel in the future unless it speaks of the liberation of the poor," he said, speaking from a perspective of "liberation theology" that identifies religious redemption with the struggles of poor people for freedom.
"The challenge for us non-poor is to allow these folks to break our heart," he said, as people from comfortable, middle-class American backgrounds look for ways to take the side of poor people in their struggles. "Unless we have the capacity to allow that pain of the world to touch us, we are going to be without hope."
Since arriving in El Salvador in July 1990, Father Brackley said, he had received at least one indirect death threat when he took over the parish in a small rural town where one of the murdered priests had been pastor.
Townspeople had watched the local army commander tap his holster and say of the newly arrived priest, "I've got his life right here."
Father Brackley said that when he and others confronted the commander, he disavowed the comment. And they persuaded him to deny it publicly in the church.
Father Brackley was bursting with hope about the January peace agreement that has ended the war and begun reforms in El Salvador. "People will be able to organize in the streets relatively free of terror," he said.