By Ruth Sawin, a letter to Daniel Berrigan (right)
Monday, November 10, 2014
Dear Fr. Dan,
Having just finished your book, “The Steadfastness of the Saints,” on the flight home from El Salvador, I want to tell you of the gift that reading it on this journey has been, for me.
I must first, of course, mention the twist in the gut that comes with reading about the work of Central American Jesuits, written five years before the martyrdom of six of them at the University of Central America, and more, since. You could not have known that would come, although I think you and all who worked in mission in Central America then knew that it was always a possibility.
Also, during this trip we got the electrifying news that Fr. Jon Sobrino had announced that Rome announced on Tuesday (the day after we visited his tomb) that Monseñor Romero would be beatified in 2015… news which was contradicted in the edition of “La Prensa” I saw on the trip home. It seems fitting, given all the confusion that surrounded him in life, that news (or rumors) of the official recognition of the sainthood long recognized by the people, would come in confusing fits and starts. It really doesn’t matter; I still hear God whispering, “Adelante!”
I do not know your opinion of women priests, but I am one. My priesthood has long been recognized and supported – in preparation, and after – by our mutual friend, George.
Since my ordination in 2010 by the Roman Catholic Womenpriests, I have found various ways to serve. Obviously our ordinations, being beyond the pale of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, do not come with an assignment. It’s up to us to find our ministries (that could be find, or fund. Both true). I tell my parishioners that I’m a priest like Msgr. Romero is a saint: the reality is there whether Rome sees it, or not. Also that they are undocumented in the US, and I in the church.
I am the pastor of a small community of migrant farm workers, almost all of whom walked across the desert to get here. We deal with court dates, long working hours, bedbugs, cockroaches and other indignities of migrant dwellings, as well as several deportations. For three summers we met at their houses, and celebrated Mass standing up outside or in the salas of their houses; this year I asked a farmer to let us use an empty house for a church, so at last we have a building to use. There is always the risk that the Border Patrol could find where we are and decide to drop by (they’ve taken people in churches before) so we keep the curtains drawn and advertise only by word of mouth… so the church is small.
I work several part-time jobs – nursing home and hospital chaplain – part of the community at the local Catholic Worker – and have a little English-speaking church that meets in the dining room, there. Also have a relationship with a small Baptist church in Santa Ana, El Salvador. This just-completed visit there was my 8th. I go back every year or two since visiting with SHARE and a Divinity School class in 2005. On that trip I heard Dean Brackley say, “they come here – they fall in love – they get their hearts broken – they go back, ruined for life.” And later on that trip I met my friend Alex, who invited me to come back and work with some kids there. He mistook my hesitancy – I was thinking about how that could work logistically with my other responsibilities – for fear, and said, “Some North American people are afraid to come here. They are afraid they will die.” I told him, “Alex, I’m not afraid of dying. I’m only afraid of not doing the work I’m called to do.”
Since then I’ve been back but never did work with those kids. This trip was with a friend who wrote me into her sabbatical grant. We went to the UCA, the Divina Providencia hospital, Romero’s tomb. My little church is named after him, San Romero. At the Divina Providencia they’re already calling him San Romero, too.
A month before I was ordained I made a pilgrimage to the Romero holy places with my Salvadoran friends. This time, four years later, I was aware of how discouraged I’ve been lately. The church is so small. We’ve lost people to deportation, or distance. Some have gone to Florida to stay – apparently the Border Patrol is not so active there. Also they like the weather. I do a lot of driving on lonely country roads in the dark. The church is an hour’s drive from my house, and we meet late in the evening after they’re done with work, rarely starting before 8:30 pm. Over time, 9 or 10 people from the church have been picked up by the Border Patrol after being stopped by the police, usually for “driving while brown” – or in one woman’s case, for talking on the phone too long in Burger King. So now, there’s a lot of helping people navigate the legal system, calling their deportation officer so they don’t go back to detention when they miss their monthly phone call because their always-precarious phone wasn’t working – accompanying people to court – and on and on.
I went to El Salvador this time feeling ….. tired. And like a failure. My Protestant Divinity School friends have reached the point where they’re taking sabbaticals, and I struggle on. I tend to measure myself by the example of priests who began serving decades ago. Young people – people under 60 – are no longer waking up on Sunday morning and habitually going to church. The church I dreamed of – I don’t know that it will ever be – not the way I dreamed it – everyone on fire, loving being there.
And yet I have this call. “I’m not afraid of dying. I’m only afraid of not doing the work I’m called to do.” But it’s damn lonely out here, and I’m tired!
So I carried all that with me to El Salvador, along with your book. We were busy while we were there, but every morning as I did my Physical Therapy exercises – for the hip problem I developed from spending so much time in the car – 18,000 miles a year, I think, mostly for my ministry—as I did my exercises I read your book.
And along with your El Salvador story, there’s a back story – about alienation from the larger church and society that doesn’t see the point of civil disobedience (and you know, I commit civil disobedience all the time! by “harboring aliens”) – and watching your friends go to jail – I’ve tried to go back and find the bits that really spoke to me, but of course now I can’t – but they were comforting. Normalizing.
The work of a prophet is – living your truth and sometimes ending up in a well, like Jeremiah. [I’m doing a Bible Study on Jeremiah in the nursing home and used your Jeremiah book — looking for Isaiah and Ezekiel on line I found The Steadfastness of the Saints].
And reading about all those missionaries – well, I’m a missionary in my own country. I have a mission church. And mission churches are by nature lonely outposts. And mission work is hard and lonely and discouraging. By the end of my trip I realized that the work I’m called to do is hard – and I’m okay with it being hard – I just needed to know that it’s alright! – because no one else I know has that kind of reality.
On this trip I heard God saying, “Adelante!” Keep on going. Yup, it’s hard. But I’m doing the work I’m called to do, and that’s what I need to know – the rest is up to God. Adelante.
Your book helped me come to that peace.
It’s funny – how many missionaries in Central America have come home to the states for a rest, and gone back, knowing the work was hard, maybe renewed, determined to keep going. And here I go to El Salvador to get renewed, and come back to the States for my hard, lonely missionary work, determined to keep going. See how the giving goes both ways.
So – I thought you might like to know that a book you wrote 30 years ago was a blessing to someone today.
Much peace to you, and that you for your prophetic example through the years.