Those women in sandals who died in El Salvador

What are their names? I asked, staring at the picture before me in my spiral-bound Catechism workbook. I don’t remember how old I was, but since that time, the image has seared into my brain. Through somewhat blurry sepia-tones, I could make out the bodies of two women – their sandaled feet protruding from under piles of leaves and dirt. The caption said that there had been four. Four nuns martyred a long time ago in a place far away called El Salvador. Next to them, was a picture of another martyr, Archbishop Oscar Romero.

I don’t remember, the teacher said, but they were Americans. I think at this point, the lesson moved on.

I have learned a few things since then: One, that was a particularly gruesome image to be featured in a book for children. You can still find the image online, but I have opted not to share it here. Also, 1980 wasn’t that long ago, and El Salvador isn’t that far away.

If you don’t know the story, here it is, in brief. From 1979-1992, the US Federal Government backed a military junta in El Salvador (at the sum of $1-2 million a day), that was deemed to be an ally in the Cold War. More than 75,000 people in the 12-year civil war, with an unknown number being disappeared. US-trained death squads terrorized the nation, murdering prominent officials in the Catholic Church who dared to resist, or, who had the audacity to defend and protect civilians. Archbishop Óscar Romero was assassinated while performing mass on March 24th, 1980, and then, on December 2nd of the same year, a death squad raped, tortured, and murdered those four nuns, and left them in a ditch. As the story goes, those who love them identified them, first by their sandals, as Sr. Maura Clarke, Sr. Ita Ford, Sr. Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan.

Turns out, those women had names.

Clarke, 49, was a Maryknoll sister, who had given her entire adult life to education and service. She’d spent almost 20 years accompanying the people of Nicaragua, and had been reluctant to leave Nicaragua for El Salvador. But, after the death of Sr. Carla Piette in a flash flood in El Salvador in September of 1980, felt that God was calling her to serve refugees in Piette’s place. Ford, a fellow Maryknoll, was a close companion of Clarke, and had been with Piette in the flood. She, too, had only come in El Salvador in early 1980, responding to Romero’s call to serve the poor there, and arriving shortly after his death.

Kazel, an Ursuline sister, arrived in El Salvador in 1974. She had written that it was a country writhing in pain. On the evening of December 2, she and Donovan had driven to the airport to pick up Clarke and Ford, who were returning from a regional gathering. Donovan, a layperson, was only 27. She’d had a promising future at an accounting firm when she felt a call to mission in El Salvador in 1979. She was inspired by Romero, and had assisted Kazel in starting an orphanage to care for wounded children, or those whose parents had been murdered by the junta.

In retrospect, I understand the omittance of their names as the most pervasive form of sexism. The failure to tell their stories, however, has an additional contributing factor; that being the strange, read: unhealthy, emphasis Christianity has placed upon death. (It’s baked right into the “Mystery of Faith”. We start with, Christ has died, as though he wasn’t born. As though he didn’t live. Jesus.) Clarke, Ford, Kazel, and Donovan are lumped together, because they died together. Their deaths, indeed, had great value, as news of their murders awoke opposition to the US funding of the El Salvadoran junta among North American church people. But while their deaths are what made them known, surely we cannot assume that the last (terrifying) hours of their lives are what made them notable.

They lived daily with an awareness of the danger they faced along side the Salvadoran people. As Ford said the night before her death, One who is committed to the poor must risk the same fate the poor.

Clarke wrote more explicitly, My fear of death is being challenged constantly as children, lovely young girls, old people are being (killed). One cries out: Lord how long? And then too what creeps into my mind is the little fear, or big, that when it touches me very personally, will I be faithful?

Memorial to Clarke, Ford, Kazel, and Donovan

Those women were not perfect. They were identified by their sandals, because most Salvadorans were so poor that they were barefoot. Certainly, there were other privileges those women did not see or understand. But their words, and the details of the separate paths that led to their fate, are a key for us to learn from their lives, rather than simply glorify their deaths. Clarke reminds us that even after years service, we are in good company if we are still afraid. Donovan demonstrates that even if a path of worldly success stretches out before us, we can always chose a life of service. Kazel shows us how to keep our eyes open to the suffering of the world, but to not be consumed by despair. And Ford asks us, Are we willing to suffer the same fate as those with whom we serve? That’s the only path to true solidarity. It’s the only way to preach the gospel.

In this season of waiting for God’s justice, perhaps we should start by saying their names. Then, maybe we’ll remember to celebrate their lives, as well as honor their deaths. And then, by God’s grace, perhaps we can live into such faithfulness.

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