At a time when our awareness of the need for global solidarity continues to grow, Margaret Swedish and Marie Dennis have done us a great favor by bringing together the stories and experiences of US Americans who accompanied persons and communities in Central America from the late 1970s through the 1990s. While tens of thousands of US citizens traveled there to participate in both long-term and short-term accompaniment projects, the authors focus on approximately 220 persons "who had engaged in some significant fashion in the work of faith-based solidarity over the past 25 years." The book grew out of their reflections during three retreats beginning in 1998 (Cleveland, Ohio, Oakland, California, and Dallas, Texas), as well as a number of small group reflections and interviews. The book is, in fact, "a gift back to that community," the solidarity community, as the authors choose to call it—and certainly a gift to the readers.
Readers familiar with the history of Central America during the second half of the twentieth century will recognize the context for this important story. It was a time of increased US church commitment to Latin America, with dioceses responding to a 1960 call from Pope John XXIII to send ten percent of their priest and religious personnel to Latin America. Organizations such as PAVLA (Papal Volunteers for Latin America) and CIASP (Conference on Inter-American Student Projects) gave lay persons an opportunity to work in Latin America. Many of these early efforts at involvement and "helping" came under deserved criticism from observers such as Ivan Illich. But this was also the time of increased government and military repression in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua—in too many cases supported and financed by the US government. Those who responded to calls for solidarity and accompaniment beginning in the late 1970s had learned from the hard lessons of earlier church workers. "They learned quickly about the pastoral task of accompaniment, the task of walking with impoverished and oppressed people without solutions or answers." "The poor of Central America had taught them: Be a healing presence in this world."
The stories shared here bring out the reality of this healing presence and the ways in which it continues today. They are stories of conversion, of risk-taking, letting go, vulnerability. "From the experience of being opened, of letting go of possessions, power, and control, of making new connections with suffering people, we are discovering who we really are, who we are meant to be." Sr. Mary Ellen Foley tells us that during Mass the night before she left to join a Witness for Peace delegation to a war zone in Nicaragua, she was "shaking the whole time—I was just terrified about going." But still she went. Scott Wright speaks of his experiences accompanying refugees first in Honduras, then crossing into the war zone in El Salvador. In these refugee camps he listens to the stories of the people, "part of the healing, part of the grieving, part of the rebuilding of their families and their community." Having lived and worked in Central America with the Mennonite Central Committee, Susan Classen describes her life "on the edge" of society and her experience of "learning from those who are poor, disabled, dying, rejected," especially during Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Fr. Jim Barnett learns "Se cuesta...it costs, faith costs." And so go the many stories woven throughout this book. From the stories we begin to understand what shapes a spirituality of solidarity, and how this spirituality can speak to a post-9/11 world.
The authors themselves have been integral parts of this larger story. Margaret Swedish is founder and former director of the Religious Task Force on Central America and Mexico, begun in 1980 several weeks before the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero to stand in solidarity with the people of Mexico and Central America. It was the RTFCAM that organized the Solidaridad Project to bring together this broad solidarity community to share their stories. Marie Dennis is director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns. Her experience accompanying a refugee community in El Salvador has shaped her spirituality, especially her understanding of eucharist and reconciliation. Remembering a simple meal with that community she tells us "how often as I participate in Eucharist now do I recall that community of life on its way to El Barillo and that evening in Aguacayo when we were nourished by the ones we were accompanying." This book also nourishes the reader, offering challenges and insights about an engaged spirituality—one that stands in solidarity with the poor and marginalized of our world.