Twenty years after the killings at the Jesuit University in El Salvador we pause to reflect on the meaning of those horrific events, personally and collectively. The ideals of peace and dignity espoused by those who died in this tragedy remain largely elusive today and we wonder if their untimely death has made a difference in the way we go about business in Jesuit education.
Do these happenings inform in any way our teaching, scholarship, and learning at Santa Clara? Have we come closer to sharing in the legacy of commitment to the poor by strengthening the tradition of Jesuit liberal arts education within the context of global and concerned citizenship?
One of the ways by which we have appropriated this remarkable story and its meaning has been through faculty/staff immersions. Through yearly visits to El Salvador we have learned that this tragic loss signaled a crucial moment in contemporary Jesuit history when we painfully grasped the far-reaching consequences of teaching and learning about the truth. This massacre, many have said, was a cowardly attempt to silence the truth about the root causes of endemic poverty and oppression. The attempt did not succeed. The legacy left by those who were murdered in San Salvador on the fateful night of November 16, 1989, lives on in the minds and hearts of many throughout the globe. It calls us into a deeper understanding of why such things happen and thus into the unmasking of falsehood.
As faculty and staff, we are keenly aware that our role on campus goes far beyond our job descriptions and disciplinary interests. We are role models whose thoughts and actions deeply influence how our students learn, not only academically but also in the school of life. This is why providing faculty and staff with meaningful opportunities to learn about the history and character of Jesuit education, such as immersion experiences, is an investment that returns a hundredfold. Immersions in El Salvador have been privileged moments when we are exposed to the harshness of socio-economic issues in poor nations as well as to the tradition of the Society of Jesus in the contemporary world. The trips provide participants with an opportunity to grow in global social awareness, world citizenship, and—to those that so choose—spiritual grounding.
After nearly 20 years of faculty/staff immersions, Santa Clara boasts a strong record of support for these educational opportunities. It is estimated that close to 200 individuals have participated in these trips—not counting student immersions which have a dynamic of their own. Through the years, we have been able to “graduate” a number of returnees who have increasingly played a leadership role in many facets of University life. Wherever they are, they continue to be mindful of the voices they have heard in their encounters with the poor. They are also keenly aware of the ultimate commitment made by those who died at Universidad Centroamericana so that others may experience fuller life.
As participants return from these trips, they typically express being both emotionally shaken and profoundly grateful for the experience. They realize that this opportunity is exceptionally formative and feel grateful for working at an institution that both values academic rigor and promotes solidarity with a suffering world. Participant evaluations indicate that individuals are challenged to reflect upon their personal and professional lives and vocation in unanticipated ways. They often define their journey to the developing world as one of inner transformation where they experience a call for greater reflection in their own lives and a desire to share this call with others—particularly their loved ones. Those who share a particular religious tradition often express a re-awakening of their faith and a desire to go deeper into the practice of their tradition.
|As one follow-up to her own faculty/staff immersion trip to El Salvador, Law Professor Cynthia Mertens designed and led a one-unit course for law school students to study human rights and social justice in El Salvador with a legal emphasis. Students posed here with Florentín Meléndez (center, standing, with Mertens behind and to his left), a member of the Salvadoran legal community, who has since been named to the Salvadoran Supreme Court. Courtesy of Cynthia Mertens|
Beyond these changes, participants mention being challenged to a lifestyle of greater simplicity, one that is reflected in values and attitudes. People realize how much they have taken for granted their lives of security and privilege, and they express confusion and shock in coming to see how a large portion of the world’s population has to confront material adversity and deprivation. Having spent time among good people who live a life of misery, they cannot forget what they have seen and heard. Some highlight their desire to rearrange life priorities, to curb compulsive consumerism, to be better guided in their choice of friends and leisure activities. They discover that Salvadorans, in their poverty, can have a richer life of faith and perhaps of human relationships. They want their own lives to express solidarity with the poor—as the lives of the martyrs did—and they want others to be part of their journey, at home and in their workplace.
Confronted with stories of a brutal war, misguided U.S. policies, and the courage of many who gave their lives for others— immersion members feel profoundly moved, and sometimes overwhelmed and disoriented. In their trip evaluations, they report asking why they have remained passive and ignorant, or perhaps apathetic, in the face of such massive adversity. Some even report a sense of complicity in murder, of having done little to gain information and be moved to action. People recognize that their lives have often become driven by routine, and their way of life has gone un-examined. They come to see that the demands of the academy have often forced them to walk in pursuit of recognition and that— inadvertently—they have created false idols. After their return from El Salvador, participants want to be more proactive and co-responsible in the affairs of this world. They are challenged to greater civic engagement.
High on the list of positive professional immersion outcomes is the bonding experience that takes place among colleagues. Participants report that they regard the discovery of each other, in collegial friendship and concern, to be an unusual occurrence in their academic careers—particularly when people barely knew each other before the trip. They talk about discovering the shared humanity in each person of the group as they individually grapple with the harsh realities of war, poverty, and suffering. They mention that they could not have faced such powerful experiences on their own— without the guidance of leaders and the support
The impact of immersion trips is manifested in multiple ways. For example, instructors come up with socially sensitive and creative manners of designing a class, selecting readings that speak of structural injustice, taking on a more participatory and leading role on environmental and peace-oriented campus programs. Others envision playing a more direct role in advocacy such as working for national comprehensive immigration reform. They see a connection between their role as staff or faculty in directing the University toward a place of greater competence, conscience, and compassion.
of others. At the end, they express gratitude for being part of a university that places great value in direct contact with the poor of the world. They also feel inspired by their newly found friends and colleagues with whom they hope to explore opportunities in campus life.
Respondents indicate that there is a direct correlation between the trip and discovering the mission of the Society of Jesus in higher education today. Some indicate that they had some theoretical knowledge about the Jesuits before this trip, and that they now have a better sense of the values of Jesuit education. It has been a crash course in contemporary Jesuit history, some say. The “service of faith and promotion of justice” takes on a new meaning that makes it possible for them to understand the Society of Jesus today. They feel inspired by the example of Archbishop Romero and the UCA martyrs, and they want to appropriate a legacy that belongs to all Jesuit institutions working to create a more just world.
Back on campus, the impact of immersion trips is manifested in multiple ways. For example, instructors come up with socially sensitive and creative manners of designing a class, selecting readings that speak of structural injustice, taking on a more participatory and leading role on environmental and peace- oriented campus programs. Others envision playing a more direct role in advocacy such as working for national comprehensive immigration reform. They see a connection between their role as staff or faculty in directing the University toward a place of greater competence, conscience, and compassion—and they regard these opportunities with enthusiasm.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Santa Clara has been able to develop a strong new Core Curriculum which reflects both the tradition of Jesuit liberal arts education and the vision of educating for justice. This curriculum evolved out of many years of effort that entailed much consultation and dialogue in the school community. While the curriculum has multiple components, it clearly reflects a concern for exploring the world the students have inherited—one marked by great disparities. Architects of the new Core include individuals who have come to understand the world today in part through immersion trips, and thus to possess a lived experience of the mission of the Jesuits. They are part of a campus culture that is keenly concerned about promoting academic solidarity and global awareness.
There is no question that Santa Clara has moved to the UCA martyrs’ legacy of teaching about the truth and educating students to become leaders in a globalized world. As we commemorate the events of November 16, 1989, we honor those who died at the Jesuit University in El Salvador. Those simple white crosses placed in front of the Mission Church will continue to remind us that the task of educating for a faith that does justice is far from finished, and that each of us has a role to play.