Yesterday we bid extremely fond farewells to Br Edgardo – his humour, compassion and sense of fun were gifts to us – and made our way to El Salvador. As we crossed the border, we noticed that while the Guatemalan officials wrote out our passport details by hand, the El Salvadoran migration officials had computers. The border crossing also brought us better roads and thus our first impression of this place, new to us, was that it seems to have much better infrastructure than its neighbour. After lunching at a Marist school in Santa Ana (the second largest city in this densely populated country), we then visited a shopping mall and a petrol station – El Salvador was starting to look a great deal more like a place that we could recognize…
When we entered San Salvador the reality of the living conditions of the poorer classes was much more evident. The housing closely resembled that which we had seen in Guatemala, and the sense of structure that we had garnered on the way into town was immediately challenged. Perhaps the guard with the machine gun in the petrol station should have been a tip off…
L’Hermitas, the Marist Retreat Centre where we are now staying, has opened its arms to us, as well as its machine gun-guarded gate. The warmth of Br Cesir has furthered the hospitality that we have continually experienced courtesy of the Marists, Brothers and lay, whom we have met throughout this Pilgrimage. After a group meeting and dinner, we were invited into the Brothers’ home to meet the members of this community and share some stories. The Brothers that live here work both in the adjacent Marist school and in youth ministry in the local area. Their insights into the home lives of many of the youth with whom they work formed a poignant backdrop to our school visits today.
At this point we have visited seven schools: they all have pictures of Marcellin and / or Mary in the classrooms, they all have gospel values proclaimed on their walls, Marist artwork and slogans around the school grounds, sports grounds (of various standards), dedicated staff and smiling kids – what strikes me most is the similarity between these Marist schools and our Marists schools at home. The heart-wrenching difference is what so many of these young people leave each morning and return to in the afternoon.
The school that adjoins the Retreat Centre here in San Salvador is called San Alfonso in the mornings – this is when the school functions as a fee-paying school. Classes begin at 7.00am and students leave at 12.30pm. At 1.00pm, the school becomes C.E.C. Maristas and provides education for students whose families cannot afford to pay fees. This school is staffed by volunteers who finish teaching classes at 6.00pm. The call to minister to the poor has never seemed far away here in Central America. We must all be asking ourselves the question – how are we ministering to the poor in our schools at home?
Three of the five recognized `top schools’ in El Salvador are Marist, and there is a genuine sense of pride that the students and their families derive from being a part of a Marist school. We have met a number of Marist graduates that have returned to work in various Marist enterprises here – Cesir calls Marists `a plague’ as there are nine Marist schools in El Salvador, and thus many, many young people and families who are being touched by Marist charism. Many of these students are from comparatively privileged families; some of them may not have much of an avenue for further education or even employment, but the smiling faces on the hundreds of young people that we have met assure us that these schools are providing joy, hope, compassion and the love that Marcellin calls all Marists to share with others – God’s love. One of the Hermanitas Sisters said to us in Guatemala that wherever children need to know that Jesus loves them, that’s where Marists should be. Perhaps that’s part of the answer to our questioning of our schools at home.