As cities around the world begin to peak in Coronavirus infections, many Christians are looking forward to returning to the religious activities and worship that were suspended amid social distancing advisories. Of course, church services are not the only aspect of Christian life that has been impacted by the virus, nor should these be the only areas where believers are eager to resume their Christian life. For one group of Catholics in San Salvador, El Salvador, however, love of neighbor compelled them to make a difficult decision.
With a population of approximately six and a half million people, El Salvador had only had 125 confirmed Coronavirus cases and six deaths as of Easter Sunday (as opposed to 59 Salvadorans outside the country who had died of the disease). Despite the relatively low numbers, the Salvadoran government implemented several drastic measures, including strict shelter-at-home orders. These regulations include a policy stating that no one may leave their house except for one designated “purchaser” per household, who can go buy essential items (food, medicine and gasoline). The government also issued a moratorium on entries (with an airport and border shutdown), mandatory quarantines for those who enter the country without authorization, and mandatory detention for violators. In contrast to the low infection and fatality numbers, there were 4,116 people in quarantine “containment” centers and 1,716 Salvadorans arrested for violating the restrictive measures before Easter.
On Holy Thursday, a rag-tag band of volunteers ignored these measures, defying the suspension of constitutional guaranties and threats to personal health and safety, to deliver meals to the homeless in the city center. They packed bags with nearly 200 meals they had prepared: egg, bean, and cheese sandwiches on French rolls; water, juice, and hot coffee; and even local Holy Week treats called torrejas that resemble French toast. They piled into two cars and a motorcycle and headed for gritty downtown San Salvador—the area surrounding the old main square, cathedral and environs. They walked approximately 3 to 4 miles, handing out food within in a large circular perimeter, targeting the places where they knew the homeless were. Under the dilapidated colonnade facing Parque Libertad, they encountered indigents taking shelter beneath the arches and began handing out the goodies. Their gifts were eagerly accepted by the beneficiaries, amidst friendly banter and hoots of “Viva Monseñor Romero!”
The quarantine-breakers were all followers of St. Oscar Romero and members of a loosely affiliated lay group called Cultura Romeriana (“Romerian Culture”), which seeks to practice Romero’s well-known concern for the poor and marginalized. “Good works, Christian hearts, true justice, charity; these are the things God looks for in religion,” Romero preached. “A religion of Sunday Mass but of unjust weeks does not please the Lord.” (December 4, 1977 Homily.) Cultura Romeriana seeks to fulfill Romero’s command to live the faith beyond “Sunday Mass,” looking at the weekday lives and practices of its adherents, both with other Catholics and with those in the secular sphere: the arts, social charity, even politics.
“The objective of the mission,” says Paulita Pike, the group’s de facto leader and the organizer of the sortie, “was to feed the hungry on the streets and to let our police and patrolling soldiers know how much we appreciate their work in trying to keep the pandemic from spreading, by giving them snacks and sodas to cool them off from the hot tropical sun.”
According to Pike, the group draws their inspiration from Romero. “While Romero was a holy man who believed deeply in the power of prayer,” she says, “he was also a doer. He would have never been content to sit out any kind of social struggle, and indeed, he never did, inserting himself into the problems of social injustice facing the country, knowing full well this would and did cost him his life.”
Cultura’s work is also in simpatico with Pope Francis’s call for Christians to tend to the existential outskirts of modern life. “Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out,” the Pontiff wrote in the exhortation some have called the blueprint of his pontificate, “but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the peripheries in need of the light of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium, 20).
Saint Romero argued that the Church must reach out beyond denominational confines. “Our Church is conscious of the fact that protecting and providing charity to those who suffer is one of our principal obligations,” he said. “We carry out this obligation without giving any consideration to the individual’s beliefs, politics, or way of thinking” (March 23, 1980 Homily). It is enough, Romero believed, for the Church to know that someone is in need. Five of the ten volunteers who took part in the risky distribution run, Pike says, are Evangelicals, “but they love to accompany us because they love Monseñor Romero.”
Cultura’s members routinely go outside their comfort zones. Paulita Pike is a psychologist by training, the daughter of a British father and a Salvadoran mother who was once Miss El Salvador. Christian Guevara, who helped Pike organize the run, is a digital marketing entrepreneur who believes Saint Romero saved his young son from cancer. Pike and Guevara packed and inspected the food items before distributing them, ensuring that there was enough to offer complete meal packages to everyone they would encounter. “If we take into account the entire time this process took,” Pike notes, “Christian’s wife started shopping at 9:00 a.m. Then came the cooking and packing the meals.”
Pike and her troupe knew that their activities violated the government’s strict COVID-19 measures, but they were hopeful that the authorities would be sympathetic. “The police who were patrolling the area let us park within a restricted zone when they understood what we were up to,” Pike explained. They defied the restrictions, she said, “because there are hungry people right under our noses and, if they were hungry before the Coronavirus, there had to be more hungry people on the streets today.”
To Pike and her associates, Coronavirus laid bare the age-old gap between rich and poor: “We all wore masks and gloves as part of the government ordered protective measures, but most of the homeless had nothing,” she said. Her words are reminiscent of Romero’s words when he declined armed bodyguards: “The shepherd does not want security while his flock has none” (July 22, 1979 Homily).
Photos provided by Paulita Pike. Used with Permission.