The architecture of Resurrection Lutheran Church in San Salvador hardly conjures up the image of a cathedral. But the bright and airy building lives up to its official status because of its resident bishop, Medardo Gomez. Like his childhood pastor, Oscar Romero, Medardo Gomez was an outspoken advocate for the poor majority in the late 1970s. Unlike his mentor, Gomez survived arrest and torture to outlive the civil war that followed. Under Gomez’ leadership, the Lutheran Church in El Salvador grew during the late ‘70s and throughout the war years because of its commitment to the poor. Known for its clinics and schools, and later refugee camps, today the church is also known for the higher education it provides through Lutheran University, a small institution founded by Bishop Gomez that prepares candidates who have little formal education to serve as leaders in a variety of ministries.
Medardo Gomez & the Subversive Cross
Resurrection Lutheran - San Salvador
Bishop Medardo Gomez
Bishop Gomez with Rev. Dan Dale
Like so many buildings in El Salvador, the Church of the Resurrection has lots of windows and big doors that are open to let in air and light in the hot climate. Traffic streams by, but inside, it truly feels like we’re in a sanctuary, the bright blue and green walls an oasis from the urban noise and pollution outside. I’m visiting on this Sunday morning with a fellow American pastor, Dan Dale, who served this church during the war. Several Americans like
Dan came to El Salvador to accompany Bishop Gomez in the late 1980s to try to protect him from death squads. Many Americans participated in such ministries during the war, literally accompanying people wherever they went day and night, acting as human shields for those who were thought to be targets by death squads. They did this in hopes that a highly visible American presence would discourage assassination attempts. When it became clear that Gomez was in such danger that he had to flee to the United States in 1989, Dan stayed at Resurrection and helped administer the synod until the war ended and Gomez could return to El Salvador.
As soon as we’re seated, Dan points to a large cardboard cross mounted on the wall in the front of the church. “We made that while I was here,” he tells me. I wonder briefly why the church hasn’t found something else more interesting to put on their wall in fifteen years when Gomez comes in and Dan brings me to meet him. “You must come and assist me at the altar,” he says. This seems like an unlikely prospect to me, since I don’t speak Spanish, but Igo to his office with him and put on the alb, the stole and the cross that he offers. I find I’m not alone. Two pastors from Milwaukee are also robbing. The Salvadoran Lutheran Church has always had a close relationship with churches in Wisconsin, since the first Lutheran missionaries in El Salvador were from that state. Now, El Salvador sends missionaries in the opposite direction – one of my colleagues in the Chicago suburbs, John Dumke, is here with Jaime, a Salvadoran pastor who’s working with him as an outreach pastor to Latinos at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in West Chicago.
We sit behind the bishop on the dias as he leads worship. From my vantage point, I can look down on the half dozen musicians who are leading the singing on a variety of string and percussion instruments I can’t name. A couple play tiny, strummed cousins of the banjo and guitar. One man plays a large, thin instrument with a bow. There are lots of interesting things that shake and buzz. Jaime whispers a translation of the sermon to us. When it’s time for everyone to come forward for communion, the bishop hands me a plate of bread, and motions for me to follow him to the head of the aisle. “El cuarpo y el sangre del Dio,” I say over and over, hoping that the parishioners won’t be too distracted by my sad attempts to commune them in Spanish.
After the final blessing, the bishop’s wife, Alvencia, an ordained pastor, leads about twenty children of the parish in presenting small wooden crosses to every American visitor. Since there are about fifty Americans visiting this morning with various delegations, this takes a long time. I amuse myself with the antics of little boys who are not my own. I stop two youngsters from erasing the hymn board while a father with a toddler in the front row struggles unsuccessfully to keep his two older sons from running up and down the aisle. They calmly go around my hands as they inch along the front railing. No one frowns or clucks in disapproval. When it’s my turn, I get a cross and a hug from one of the little boys.
After the service, we all adjourn to the shady stone courtyard for coffee and doughnuts. I wonder back into the church after a while, and find the bishop talking with some of the other Americans about the cardboard cross. I see now that it’s in a glass case, with a plaque by it. It’s known as the Subversive Cross, Gomez explains, because this was what it was called by the military, who took it with them when they finally occupied the church in 1989. A few weeks earlier, the bishop had led parishioners in an exercise, asking them to write on the cross what sins they thought were being nailed to that cross with Jesus.
The Subversive Cross
When Lutheran clergy and parishioners were arrested and questioned, and sometimes tortured, they reported that the subversive cross was in the interrogation room with them. What does this mean? their interrogators wanted to know. This is how Communists talk, this is subversive, they were told. After Bishop Gomez returned to El Salvador, he made an official inquiry about the cross. Eventually, he was contacted by the U.S. embassy. They had the cross and wanted to return it to the church. There’s a photo on the wall by the cross, a picture of Bishop Gomez officially receiving the Cross.
The Subversive Cross is an artifact from the past, but current events confirm that violent persecution is an ongoing reality for Christians in El Salvador. In January of 2005, a guard at Lutheran University, Manuel Jesús Martinez, was tortured and killed, his bound body hung from a tree. The killers stole thirty computers and many documents, audio equipment, cash and an official vehicle. Bishop Gomez was quoted by many media sources after the killings saying that he believes that the killing was not just armed robbery, but retaliation for his outspoken criticism of El Salvador’s leadership. Although many groups in El Salvador and the United States have called for an investigation, there are still no suspects in the case.