In the interest of furthering the conversation among Women In Theology, Women In Ministry, and Women In the Pews (see Bridget’s earlier post on this), I invited my friend Sofia Barbato, M.Div, to share a personal reflection on Dean Brackley, S.J. and the effect he and the people of El Salvador* have had on her work as a minister and on her understanding of what it means to live the Christian life.

Sofia met Dean Brackley in the summer of 2008, when she spent 8 weeks in El Salvador leading groups of volunteers with the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart through their Project Fiat International in the cantón of Las Delicias. 

Sofia is currently a case manager for Foundation Communities, a non-profit that provides permanent supportive housing for individuals that are low-income or were previously homeless.  Sofia’s reflection begins below:

Ruined For Life

On October 16, 2011 Fr. Dean Brackley, S.J. died in the country that he loved, El Salvador.  Brackley had volunteered to go to El Salvador to replace one of his martyred Jesuit brothers after the 1989 massacre of the 6 Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter at the University of Central America (UCA).

While working at the UCA, Brackley often volunteered to speak with groups of pilgrims who were visiting El Salvador from the United States.  He offered remarks similar to these to the many groups who met with him

“I invite you to discover your vocation in downward mobility.  It’s a scary request…  The world is obsessed with wealth and security and upward mobility and prestige.  But let us teach solidarity, walking with the victims, serving and loving.  I offer this for you to consider – downward mobility.  And I would say in this enterprise there is a great deal of hope.

Have the courage to lose control.
Have the courage to feel useless.
Have the courage to listen.
Have the courage to receive.
Have the courage to let your heart be broken.
Have the courage to feel.
Have the courage to fall in love.
Have the courage to get ruined for life.
Have the courage to make a friend.”

Brackley modeled courage and downward mobility in his life and work in El Salvador.   He faced the violence, the death and the suffering that were pervasive in every city and town during the time of the civil war and that sadly continue to engulf the country to this day.

I had the opportunity to spend the summer of 2008 working in El Salvador, and it was during this time period that I had was blessed with meeting Dean Brackley.  I was immediately struck by his sense of humor and how much he genuinely cared for others.  He took time out his busy schedule to talk to me offered this piece of advice, “Open your eyes and see la realidad and to allow it break your heart.  It will change your life.”

La realidad of El Salvador did break my heart that summer.  The suffering that I witnessed, the abject poverty, the abuse, the hunger and the lack of basic necessities brought me to my knees and wrenched my very core.  But it was the people, the individuals that I formed relationships with that summer that really changed my life.

I often say that I learned how to love that summer.  I fell in love with Wilbur, Wendy, Milton and Elba; not the abstract notion of the Salvadoran people, but those individuals.  I had studied statistics about poverty and hunger, but when ten year old Wendy was standing in front of me and hadn’t eaten for days, I understood hunger in a different way.  I had read books about the Salvadoran Civil War and those who had been “disappeared,” but when Elba confided in me that she still prayed daily for the return of her disappeared brother, those facts and figures took on a whole new meaning.

It was in those individuals that I encountered God.  For it is there with the poor that God dwells.  Is not Christ himself in that tin shack holding her belly because she is starving?  Learning to love and encountering God in a suffering people really does ruin one as Brackley warns us.  For not only does it urge us to love and serve others as we would Christ, it also calls us to ask the difficult questions about why people are in those situations.

Fr. John Sobrino, S.J., friend and coworker of Dean Brackley wrote, “When we look face to face at the Suffering Servant, at the crucified people of God today, we must ask ourselves: “How are we responsible for their suffering?”[1]

It was this part of la realidad that I did not want to see.  Did learning about my own country’s involvement in the Salvadoran Civil War somehow make me share in the culpability of it?  I was non-voting, non-tax paying child when the US was training assassins at the School of the Americas and funding the massacre and disappearance of thousands of people.   But the US still plays a role in the oppression of the poor Salvadoran people through import and export laws (e.g. supporting CAFTA), immigration policies, and gang-related deportations.  Am I doing anything to stop these things or I am actually supporting them through my tax dollars?

Another important question quickly rose to the surface for me: If Salvadorans are the crucified Christ are not Iraqi civilians and soldiers as well?  This was personally important to me because I had recently spent four years in the Marine Corps including a deployment to Iraq.  I couldn’t deny my culpability in the death and the suffering of the Iraqi people.  I had believed that what I was doing what was right.  I had trusted the United States and the Catholic Chaplain that had blessed me before I deployed. I was convinced that I needed to stand on a wall with a weapon to bring peace and democracy, and to protect the world from evil.

But El Salvador made me question everything that I believed about war because I saw first-hand how war had ravaged the Salvadoran people.  Twenty years later, the wounds of war still linger and I believe that the terrible gangs and routine violence in cities and homes is a direct result of the violence that hundreds of thousands experienced during the war.  War kills, maims and scars forever people throughout a country, especially the poor and vulnerable.

The people of El Salvador showed me Christ in the faces of the poor and the suffering.  They taught me that Christ is not found only in the Eucharist, but in the flesh and blood of real people – Salvadorans and Iraqis alike.  And to say that I am for Christ means that I must always choose love over hate and life over death.  For if I am participating in the building of the Reign of God which Christ has already initiated, then I must commit myself to work against the things that are contrary to the Reign of God: poverty, oppression, and violence in all of its forms.

Dean Brackley will be missed.  He touched many lives through his teaching as he expanded the minds of the students of the UCA and the countless others who met him, read his writings, or heard his lectures.  To Dean I am forever grateful, for his invitation to downward mobility helped me to get to a place where I encountered Christ where he exists in la realidad – with his beloved “least”.  And that has “ruined me for life.”

[1] Scott Wright Promised Land (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994), xxii.

*If you want to know more about the Salvadoran Civil War and the United States’ role in it, Sofia recommends that you check out the following books and movie:

  1. Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq by S. Kinzer.
  2. The Same Fate As the Poor by J. Noone.

  3. Promised Land: Death and Life in El Salvador. S. Wright

  4. On the Line (School of the Americas Documentary). United States Hope Productions.

5. Brackley, S.J., D. (1999) “Remembering the UCA Martyrs: Ten Years Later,” Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education: Vol. 16, Article 3

8 thoughts

  1. I loved your beautiful and poignant portrait of a man, and others, who embraced the poor and served them as Jesus would have us do. However, the picture was somewhat stained by your political commentary. I’m glad to say nonetheless that the picture outshines the stain.

    1. Mike,
      You are missing the point: 1. serving the poor as Jesus would have us IS political. 2. Dean Brackley was political–so how would one write a tribute to his life without including a political critique? 3. the gospel was political. So I guess in your mind that means the gospel is also “stained.”

      Now, if you would like to add some substance to your comment and explain what exactly you think is inaccurate about Sofia’s account of the political forces that contribute to the suffering of the poor, you are more than welcome to do so.

      To quote Dom Helder Camera: “when I feed the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

  2. Thanks, Sofia. From another who has been deeply affected by the Salvadoran realidad and Dean’s life work, thank you for your reflections and insight.. he was truly an amazing man who will be missed and remembered for his courage and compassion.

    I lived in El Salvador during 2003 through the Casa de la Solidaridad program, and understanding the truth of the US’ involvement in the widespread violence of this – and many other ideological and physical wars – is something that was critical in my own personal and faith formation at the time. I’ll never forget the day I was at El Mozote walking through the ghost town left behind by a devastating massacre only to see the words “Made in El Paso, TX” staring back at me, etched in an old helicopter blade. Discovering the integral role the United States played in the destruction of the Salvadoran people became a fiercely motivating catalyst, converting my anger to action. And yes, often this means political action. Living amidst the post‐war shadow of a country deeply scarred due to our foreign “investment”, a country of brothers’ lost and personal devastation, but also deep communal pain and systemic oppression, not only urges – but requires – a political response. This was without a doubt the most disturbing and unnerving period of my life, but one that also gave me hope for how communities and countries can, in fact, rebuild. They continue to be a country, and a people, that fuel me today.

    “When the church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.” Oscar Romero, 8/6/78

  3. Thank you Sofia. We miss you in el Salvador. Wendy is again living with her mom who has been rehabilitated or at least we hope she is. I promised to bring her and her siblings to the volunteer house one weekend so they can talk with you on the phone. However, I need your number and to set up a call.
    Sr. Gloria

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