A Forgiving Model

“What kinds of pastoral models were used in your own diocese back in Long Island?”  “Well,” I said hesitantly, “while people on Long Island gathered to reflect on the gospel in light of their own lived reality, the final word always belonged to the pastor.  The heirarchical model of church and pastoral practice is standard on Long Island, and I believe in the United States.”    “Well, ” Monsignor Urioste began, hand on chin and eyes downcast, “we have a  parish where more than 600 people from the Christian communities have been killed or disappeared over the past five years.  The name of the parish is Cristo Salvador.  It is within the northern boundaries of San Salvador.  There is much strife and dissension.”  He attempted to read my initial reaction.  “Have you heard of a place called Zacamil?”   “No,”  I answered honestly, suppressing a gulp.   “This is all new to me.”   

–William Schmidt (2006). Standing Tall: doing justice in a time of war.  Authorhouse: Bloomington, IN, pp. 58-59.


I was delighted to discover Bill Schmidt’s pastoral memoir this year.  I met “Padre Guillermo” in his parish in Zacamil in the late 1980’s.  Bill was a Maryknoll priest.  He and two Maryknoll colleagues had been invited by Archbishop Rivera y Damas to help the diocese by tending this community of God’s people that had not only lost more than 600 members but also four priests to the murderous violence of their government.  Salvadoran clergy had understandably become fearful of taking the post and living in Zacamil.  The Jesuits from the University had ministered to pastoral needs and participated in building the community.  In November 1989 they, like Archbishop Romero, would be murdered by the military.  Bill and his colleagues served  there from 1986 through 1989.  Today Bill Schmidt has a counseling practice in Humble, Texas, (just outside Houston) with a particular focus on trauma.

When I was a UCC Mission Partner with Baptist Association of El Salvador in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, Baptist leader and dear friend Mary Kalil had shepherded us to join in worship in the midst of the humble, spirited faith community at Zacamil.  This is what I wrote in my journal from the day I met Bill:

Several blocks from the shantytown at Comunidad Emmanuel, in a humble working class neighborhood, God’s heart beats.  Through an unadorned doorway on a residential street, one enters an expansive room  filled with folding chairs.  On this Sunday,  as every other, the room is packed for worship.  We are at the Base Christian Community at Zacamil. 

We sit quietly against the wall at the rear of the room. Behind us visages of several of the community’s martyrs look down upon the gathered multitude.  “Octavio, Silvia, Alfonso”–their familiar names appear in block letters next to lovingly crafted portraits of each.  Alongside them is the face of Monsenor Romero, smiling as his eyes look in their direction.  Another, smaller picture, has been added since we were last here–a recent victim.   

 The community has just celebrated its 20th birthday: an extraordinary existence in the climate where base communities are viewed as hotbeds of subversion.  Since our visit last year, there is something else that has been added:  a large mural has been hand-painted on the wall to the left of the worship area.  In it, the story of El Salvador unfolds.  It is vivid with imagery; its pastel colors catch the eye.  On one side of the mural are the common people of the land–working people, reading and sharing the gospel.  A woman approaches; on her head a basket full of God’s nourishment.  Simple, humble dwellings complete this part of the scene.  But above the rooftop, shadowy figures point forth a gun barrel:  the ever-present reality of death.  The barrel drips blood, falling onto a towel draped over a clothesline.  On the towel, the figure of Archbishop Romero.  The scene catches the breath. 

  It is only after these initial reactions that one becomes aware of another figure.  At the center of the mural is the unassuming figure of a young man, a Salvadoran, dressed in work clothes.  A sojourner, the campesino Christ.  A Christ that lives and sweats with the people.   

The mood of this place engulfs the visitor.  For me, a visiting North American, the pain is excruciating.  I feel like an open wound.    The young Maryknoll priest, also a North American, processes from the door as the community sings.  “Welcome, ” he says quietly, and gently grips my arm.  The voices of the people rise in joy and praise.  We belong.

A catechist, dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, enthusiastically leads the early portion of the service.  Parishioners read the first two lessons.  Participation as vocation.  

The priest rises to read the gospel lesson.  Finishing, he moves from the modest lectern and begins to dialogue with the congregation.  And what did Jesus do? What might he have meant?  How does he speak to us today?

People rise in response. There is obvious respect for the contributions of each, a careful listening from all.  Here, one finds no impatient expectations that “answers” will be provided.

Following numerous contributions, the priest begins the homily.  I don’t understand it all, my meager Spanish failing me, but the communication transcends the barriers of language.  He talks about Rolando (a murdered medical student whose body had been dumped in the gutter), using his first name several times, a softly spoken but distinct passion in his voice.  He talks about the sacrifice of Christ, for us.  His gentle voice rises as he points out the doorway:  “Jesus Christ lies in the street!”  The power of his words is stunning.

The pouring out of the nefesh, the soul, so that all might live.  The sacramental union, the blood of Christ as gift.  An eternal meaning to the life of Rolando, to your life, to mine.

As he finishes, several people process to the lectern and give testimony to the work of God in their lives.  As the last person finishes, the bread and wine are prepared.  God’s loving touch is celebrated, the blessing of our vocation.  

The faithful bow their heads as the most unlawful words are spoken: “This is my body which is broken for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.”  

The words of God and of humanity provide a commonality that binds and heals.  No capitulation to death; instead a proclamation of life.

(Hutchinson, Living Scriptures)

Though three decades have passed, I am struck by how much relevance and learning remains from the Salvadoran experience for North American churches in the 21st century, during these times of profound challenge and potential transformation.  Back in the 1980’s we were working on a plan to have Salvadoran missionaries come and live among the churches of our Conference for a year.  The notion that we might benefit from fresh evangelization was a new idea to many.

Of the multitude of stories Bill Schmidt tells, the question he was asked upon his arrival about the pastoral models he was familiar with brought me back again and again to that page.   The collapsing institutional structure in the North American churches (stoked, I believe, by the Holy Spirit) is wedded to the pastor-centered, heirarchical model that Schmidt references. I have long been grateful for the congregational polity of the United Church of Christ, where our covenantal relationships are horizontal rather than vertical.  Nevertheless, local churches tend to be characterized by pastor-centered ministries, even in congregations where the pastors have worked faithfully to “equip the saints” for  ministry.   My critique of this is not intended to diminish pastoral authority but rather to locate it more clearly in the larger Spiritscape where the children of God are being called and empowered for gospel life and ministry together in the midst of empire.  And where the priority of the gospel is embraced in new, life giving manifestations.  No more pastoral roles as “your job” or people’s discipleship as “volunteering.”

When Bill responds  honestly,  “This is all new to me,” he is addressing even more than being called to a parish where hundreds of members have been murdered and where his own ministry, should he embrace the call, cannot and will not avoid encounters with the lethal forces of death.   What would be new also was  a model of ministry that encouraged the growth of base ecclesial communities,   It would be a model that theologically recognized the priority of the poor, the last and the least, in the ministry of Jesus.   Archbishop Romero proclaimed: “When we say, ‘for the poor,’ we do not take sides with one social class, please note.  What we do . . . is invite all social classes, rich and poor without distinction, saying to everyone, Let us take seriously the cause of the poor as though it were our own—indeed, as what it really is, the cause of Jesus Christ, who on the final judgment day will call to salvation those who treated the poor with faith in him: “Whatever you did to one of these poor ones–the neglected, blind, lame, deaf, mute–you did to me.”   It would be a model that illuminated the vocations of the people, recognizing the gifts and call of each. It had them gathering in smaller communities around the scriptures to interpret the Living Word in the midst of their lived realities, and bringing this revelation to the larger body of the church. The Sermon on the Mount would take on stunning incarnation. This is also where Jesus’ teaching about power would be taken quite seriously: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize  as their rulers lord if over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But it is not so among you.; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to become first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mk 10:42-45).”   The empowerment and inspiration of the people was publicly revealed in the worship services filled with their contributions,  honoring and lifting up their voices and powerful theological reflections, their lives as servants and prophets. It was a communal life in which the pastor was also educated and nourished and cared for covenantally in the daily work of community-building and incarnational ministry.  The faithful at Zacamil actively supported health promoters and medical clinics serving Comunidad Emanuel, a community of four thousand displaced people living in a two-square-block area crammed with houses of made of scrap wood, cardboard, and corrugated metal.  People whose lives were threatened by the “security forces” and death squads were offered support and solidarity.  On the day Padre Guillermo arrived,  a group of more than two dozen Co-Madres, mothers of the disappeared and murdered, were meeting for Bible Study in the common room, surrounded by children and grandchildren.  The church embraced what we in the UCC call “the cost and joy of discipleship.”

I have beloved colleagues here who would protest the idea that they as pastor have any kind of “final word” in their congregations.  Alone, that is a very good thing. But Jesus’ description of “gentile power” is quite alive in our church communities and many of those employing it are quite familiar with having the final word.   So these apocalyptic times we are living in, even in their struggle and costliness, herald the coming new life.  May the Spirit stoke us to imagine the church where the pastor and congregation are liberated from “keeping the church open;” being set free together to welcome the fuller of experience of the community of Jesus Christ, which can never be “closed” as long as the Risen One is among us.  Yes, this is a time when, like the rich young man, we are invited to loosen our grip and celebrate the transformation of that which we have held onto so tightly, so that a new economy can be celebrated among God’s people. We are being unshackled to follow Jesus, to evangelize and be evangelized, our pastoral and congregational care work close to the ground and relevant to the spiritual care and somatic needs of the people.  We must embrace the encounter with death and its dominion, so real and so close in the pandemics of coronavirus and racism, the rise of  political violence and intimidation, the inhumanity that has been allowed to characterize the everyday.  We will do so as a gospel people.

A “forgiving” model of pastoral and congregational care will image and be inspired by Jesus’ incarnational ministry, his capacity to make his home right where people live, to create sanctuary and space for deep listening and acknowledgement, for spiritual care and growth, for the celebration of gospel truth in environments of  temptation, deceit, and exploitation.   Newfound capacities to read and hear the scriptures from the underside will require us to prioritize the interpretive voices and testimonies of those who have previously been disempowered and kept on the outside.  This kind of growth will also require us to expand the boundaries of relationship, studying,  receiving, and discerning with people from other communities and social locations.  And, as I indicated before, to leave behind distorted notions of pastoral roles as “jobs” and discipleship as “volunteerism.”

I wonder, pastoral friends, what it is that you and I must release our grips on in order to welcome the ministry that God entrusts to our communities and to us?

In the life of my congregation, inspired by the COMPASS Healing Circle that tends to the soul wounds of war, we have increasingly engaged Circle Process to share life in community, to discuss challenges we face and call we receive, to create hospitality and spaces of trust where we develop capacities for deep listening, and to encourage testimony and careful discernment.   It has had a powerful impact on all who participate.  It remains threatening for folks who are afraid to  hear the stories of others or to let go of present power arrangements, but the needs of all our souls will eventually carry the day.

It was in the same decade as Guillermo’s ministry in El Salvador that Christians from the “two-thirds world,” including Salvadoran church leaders, released a pastoral letter entitled “The Road to Damascus” that spoke to beloved communities like those I have served as pastor.  It sounds as though written for today:

“At different times and in different ways, through the prophets and in Jesus, God has spoken to us and called us to conversion.  We have been called to choose between the idols of death and the God of life.  All Christians are still faced with the same challenge:  Reject your idols of corruption and death.  Choose God’s project of liberation that is revealed in the suffering and struggles of the poor.  There are Christians today who remain deaf to God’s call and persist in identifying with the ruling powers of death and destruction.  Blinded by the privileges they enjoy within the status quo, they interpret God’s call, spoken through the suffering and hope of the oppressed, as a a threat–both to the existing order and to Christianity as they understand it.  These Christians, like Saul, are hardened by a false sense of righteousness. Saul persecuted those who had been converted to the way of Jesus  because he saw them as a threat to the status quo.  He treated them like scapegoats. While on the Road to Damascus, Saul was struck to the ground.  He heard a voice crying out, “Saul, Saul. why do you persecute me?  “Who are you, Lord?”  “I am the one that you are persecuting (Acts 9:4-5).”  Jesus identifies himself in and with those who are being persecuted and oppressed (Matthew 25:35-40) .  Saul was blind to this reality and had to be shown the Way. We therefore call on those Christians who directly or indirectly exploit or persecute the people, and who condemn their fellow Christians who have taken the side of the poor:  Listen to Christ.  Hear the cry of the poor.  Be ready to take the Road to Damascus, your road to conversion.  Do not wait to be struck down.”