“He was an American,” my friend Faustina said to me as I stood in front of the spot where the heart of Father Stanley Francis Rother was buried at La Iglesia de Santiago Atitlan. I could not have imagined what she had in store for me when she had said “Hannah, ¿Te gusta caminar en la Iglesia?” Just another church, I thought, for I’d been in dozens, since I arrived in Guatemala. But this one was different.
As I read the plaque on the wall, my face changed rapidly as I understood the importance of where I stood. In 1981, it informed me, a year before I had been born, Father Rother had been assassinated in the rectory by armed men. Decades of violence had plagued the area during its 30 year civil, and Father Rother had been trying to protect his flock, sheltering families in the church at night.
A wave of emotions washed over me. I remembered the first time I had seen the life sized photograph of a priest being shot and falling into a mass grave when I was at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. That was the first time I had experienced this emotion – the weight, and responsibility, and danger of my calling. The first real awareness that my life is not my own, and its length is not guaranteed. The first time I had realized that sometimes the only thing a priest has left to do is to die with their people. It was then that I realized that if the church is a ship, then we are the ones with the responsibility to go down with if it.
I thought of Sowetto, where I had entered the Cathedral there and seen the bullet holes in the walls and the cracks in the altar, bearing witness to the screams of children that had filled that place. The bullet holes in the cement had not been able to heal as holes in flesh do; they were wounds left untended in order speak in silence. They bore witness to the fact that governments do not always respect the church, and that our role of offering sanctuary to the afflicted is not always guaranteed. On June 16, 1976, five years before Rother’s death, the children of Sowetto had marched against their Afrikaaner Apartheid rulers. They had tried to force the children to speak Afrikaans, their dutch-derived language, in their school, and the children refused, led by the high schoolers. As the children marched, soldiers came and opened fire on them. The children ran into the Catholic Cathedral, Regina Mundi, for sanctuary. And it was there that the soldiers followed them and opened fire again. Official reports leave the casualties at around 170, but some put it as high as 700 children.
Lastly, of course, as I stood before the image of Padre Rother, I thought of Archbishop Oscar Romero. I am thinking of him often. The friend of El Salvador who pleaded, during the time of the disappearances, with the Christian soldiers of his country to stop killing their brothers and sisters in Christ. I thought of how he was assassinated during the celebration of communion, his blood spilling across the altar and mingling with that of Christ.
Now I stood, with no prior warning or preparation, in a place where much the same kind of courage had been lived, and much the same death had been the result. As unexpected for me as it was for Faustina, big wet tears began to pour down my face.
There was a feeling of overwhelming sadness that in all those situations, people looked to the church for protection. They needed the sanctuary to be a sanctuary. Yet, we could not protect them. Sometimes we cannot protect them. All we can do is serve them, and love them. All we can do is give them our hearts, and our minds, and our words. All we can do is fight for them by speaking truth to power, and then die with them if that is what is what is required.
At the bottom of the plaque, was the verse in Spanish, “No hay amor mas grande que este: dar la vida por sus amigos” (There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for their friends).
After I pulled myself together, we went to get lunch and I tried to use my limited Spanish to explain to Faustina what I was feeling. We talked about the importance of the church as sanctuary, and the responsibility of pastors. I told her the story of how several pastors and Bishops had been arrested the month before in front of the White House in order to be in solidarity with the suffering.
She told me that I needed to talk to Vincente.
Vincente runs Casa Rosario, the small Spanish school on the shore of Lake Atitlan where I study. The next day, I found Vincente in the garden and I asked him to tell me his story.
During the time of the great violence in that region, he told me in Spanish, men like Vincente were offering help to the community just as Father Rother was doing. The impact of the Red Scare was still being felt in the United States and so, as a result, the United States government was supporting the military that was committing great acts of ethnic violence against the Mayans in the area around Lake Atitlan. It was a time of great suffering, and Vincente began to be noticed by the military for helping and advocating for the poor. Because he helped the poor and talked to them about advocating for themselves, he was put down on the list as a communist trouble maker.
Yet, he told me, he was not trying to be a Communist, he was trying to be like Jesus. However, acting like Jesus is not the best kind of protection during times like that, for Jesus too had been seen as a revolutionary trouble maker in his day. He was seen to be a Zealot by some of the leaders of his nation, who appealed to the empire of the day to kill him. Just as Father Rother and Vincente were seen to be Communists by the nation where they lived, and so that government appealed to the empire of the day – the United States – to offer aid in killing them.
He told me that one day troops came and broke down his door and demanded his family tell them where he was, but he was not at home. He never went home; knowing his time had come, he fled to Guatemala City and lived there with the poor, sleeping on cardboard in a tiny room with seven other people.
Eventually, after Father Rother was assassinated, and many more were killed, Vincente was able to return home. But while he gives thanks that God preserved his life, he has to go on knowing that many of his friends lost theirs. One friend was tortured, his body found slit from chin to chest, Vincente demonstrated for me. Another was one of the disappeared, and no one knew whether the body was in the mountains or at the bottom of the lake.
Father Rother, was a young priest from Oklahoma, who after being assigned to the region had learned the local Tz’tsuhil language and translated the Bible into the indigenous language of his people, as well as preaching in it. When he was told he would be killed, he went home to Oklahoma; not to escape, but to bring closure to his affairs and to his family. He asked for, and was given by his Bishop, permission to return and be with his flock. On the night that government operatives came into his room and shot him in the head, in the rectory of Santiago Atitlan, he was sleeping with his boots on.
Vincente told me that the United States did not investigate or hold accountable those that martyred Father Rother. The Guatemalan government, he said, simply informed the United States that they believed Father Rother to be a Communist, because he was helping and organizing and sheltering the poor. The story here is that seeing him as a traitor, and on the side of the Russians, the red-scared US government did not look into the death of the red-haired priest and US citizen.
Rother was only one of 10 priests murdered in Guatemala that year, 1981, and the deaths of locals continued for a decade. US military aid was not suspended until 1990 when the people of the Atitlan region had enough; thousands marched in peaceful protest after a shooting of a local teenager in Santiago by drunk soldiers. 13 more were shot dead when their peaceful protest reached the army base. The corresponding outrage, accompanied by concerns about the tourism industry around Lake Atitlan, profoundly important to the economy, finally led to the withdrawal of troops.
Some things change with time, and some things never will. Vincente still runs a small school on the edge of Lake Atitlan, and he still does everything he can to help the poor. The police, however, are a completely different group of people. Most were only children during the years of violence. The population does not fear them the way they once did the occupying forces. Rather, this Semana Santa, they were grateful for their profoundly visible presence during a time of gringo influx, fiestas cerca de playa and cerveza sold for only 3 quatzales (less than fifty cents).
It did my heart good to see a large group of police enter the garden just moments after Vincente finished telling me his story. He turned and crossed his arms behind his back in the handcuff position, joking with them that they caught him and could now take him away. Then they all shook hands and, for my sake, settled in for a good long chat about the safety of women in the community, and the importance of being vigilant about sexual exploitation – because sometimes, thank God, the government does listen.
This Holy Week, as we medidate on the death of Christ, may we remember to be vigilant to raise our voices and continue to force our governments to listen.
As for the sacerdotes (priests) among us, may we always remember and honor those who have paid the greatest cost of our calling, and remain mindful in our mahogany pulpits and glass cathedrals of what our calling truly is.
“There is no greater love than this, that one lay down their life for a friend.”
That is the calling.
May God give us the courage to speak, and governments that will listen. And when they will not, may we also have the courage to do the work of a shepherd whether it is a Russian Bear, or the American Bull that attacks our flock.
Lord, may our sanctuaries be places of safety, and our pulpits places of truth.