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Baptism by the People

by Kevin Breen, JVC Recruitment Manger, Yakima, WA 14. Loyola University Maryland 14. 

Originally posted on the Ignatian Solidarity Network’s Voices for Justice blog.

Anton Chekhov famously posited this literary principle: Everything in storytelling should be essential. Once a gun is introduced to a story, it must be fired. Does solidarity fit this mold, too? Moments of authentic alignment have a way of boomeranging back to their owners in the same way a rifle in Act One finds itself nestled into the crook of an actor’s neck before a play’s conclusion.

My own Chekhovian moment of solidarity came to me this past weekend, at the DisOrientation retreat for Jesuit Volunteers. This end-of-the-year retreat focuses on grief, gratitude, and transition.

Unfortunately, staffing a retreat doesn’t have the same restorative allure that it does for the retreatants. I stand distractedly in our dinner queue at Stony Point retreat center, planning out the myriad of tasks left on my agenda. I have an auditorium to set up before the evening session, a Jesuit Volunteer (JV) to check in with, and a closing prayer to coordinate with my co-workers. A JV catches my attention, and introduces me to a short, older man. A handful of other organizations are on retreat as well, and Chencho Alas introduces himself by telling me about the Peacemakers in Action group that he is with for the week. We approach the baked chicken at the buffet and Chencho points to my black shirt with the letters “Romero” stacked in two columns. On the back, a section of Oscar Romero’s November 18, 1978, homily runs in crisp green lines from shoulder blade to shoulder blade.

“That is my friend,” says Chencho, his eyes smiling from behind thick glasses. Chencho tells me about his peace-justice work, his sixteen years as a priest in Suchitoto, El Salvador, and his relationship to Monsignor. He says that he misses celebrating the Eucharist and preaching. I imagine he doesn’t miss being called a communist. I ask him if he has any funny stories about Oscar Romero. “Yes, there is one,” he laughs, picking his head up. “Just one.” Chencho looks back down to his pasta, forks a bite into his mouth and swallows it, along with the story he nearly told me.

In the spring of 2013, I studied abroad in El Salvador through the Casa de la Solidaridad program. As a writer, the words “solidarity” and “praxis” became so semantically important to me. My teachers were Yovani and his mother Deysi, housed in a sleepy rural community just up the hill from La Javia. My peers were men like Jaime, who led us in Romero chants as we processed to the National Cathedral on March 24th. My bibliographic sources were people like Jon Sobrino, S.J., who visited our history class to share their experiences with the Salvadoran Civil War. To hear such profound vulnerability from strangers humbled me in a way I had previously never experienced, especially as a white man growing up in the United States. This was a new vulnerability for me—a vulnerability offered with shoulders back, chin level, and voice firm.

I am reminded of this when Chencho offers to speak with the JVs. My to-do list and packed evening session evaporate as I eagerly accept his generosity. Following dinner, a talent show had been planned, so when Chencho walks to the front of the auditorium, he is backlit by white Christmas lights. Before Chencho talks about Romero’s upbringing, before he talks about their work together in the seminary, before he recalls his own displeasure when the conservative Romero was named archbishop, and before he describes the counsel he gave Romero the night before the single mass in honor of Rutilio Grande, Chencho gives a brief preface.

chencho jesuit volunteers (2)

He tells the JVs that their work as young people excites him, and that the whole world needs a bit more solidarity. “Solidarity,” he repeats.

Since my time in El Salvador, that semester-long lesson in solidarity continues to boomerang back to me. It comes to me in a tiny pasta bar in Baltimore, when the cook Santo tells me he’s from El Salvador. We discuss Salvadoran slang, and before I know it, most of the patrons in the hallway-sized restaurant are speaking Spanish. This experience returns to me in Yakima as a JV, when a child at the afterschool activities flashes me a smile. It is not a mischievous smile or a teasing-me-for-my-Spanish-accent smile but a smile that says, “I’m glad you’re here.”

Chekhov’s principle of guns and solidarity hits me with unparalleled force this time. I drive back home to Baltimore the next day, and one of the first things I do is open my favorite book on Oscar Romero, Memories in Mosaic. José Inocencio “Chencho” Alas is quoted nearly a dozen times; some of the most poignant pieces of the biography come from him. This isn’t just serendipitous—it’s providential.

If there has been a better week for Chekhovian solidarity, I don’t know it. The week that Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police. The week that innocent police officers were, in a way, also killed by police brutality and structural racism. The week that marks one month since members of the LGBTQ community were killed at Pulse Nightclub.

Before Chencho shook my hand in the dinner line, I felt exhausted and clouded. I felt numb to the violence in our country. I thank God for the reminder that true solidarity matters and requires my active investment. I am reminded how much this world, this country, this city need solidarity. I feel both grateful for my empathic boomerang and guilty that I needed it at all.

Chekhov’s literary theory has now become literal law: when a gun appears it will be fired. But Chencho also has a law of sorts. In Memories in Mosaic he says that “there is baptism by water, and there is baptism by blood. But there is also baptism by the people.” I think to my time in El Salvador, and I reflect on the killings of black and brown bodies in our country this past week. For myself, I hope I can be baptized by the people. The stories they share, the vulnerability and anger they pragmatically practice, and the allies who support their voices. I fear how many more blood baptisms will take place before our country is baptized by its people.