Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Trip to El Salvador was ‘transformative’ for Spokane visitors

by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff

(From the Feb. 2, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

From left: Dr. Robert Clark, Rita Amberg Waldref, George Waldref, and Tom Corley. (IR photo from George Waldref)

On Nov. 25, 2005, four people from Spokane were among a group of 15 to visit El Salvador, primarily to help provide medical care for the people there.

Tom Corley (President of Holy Family Hospital), George Waldref (a nurse on the staff at Holy Family), and George’s spouse, Rita Amberg Waldref (coordinator of liturgical ministries and social ministry at Spokane’s St. Aloysius Parish) flew from Spokane to Seattle to Houston to El Salvador. Dr. Robert Clark, a neurologist at Holy Family, caught up with the El Salvador group at Houston’s airport.

There they joined 11 people from Portland, Ore., and Seattle, and then flew to San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador. The trip was sponsored and organized by Providence International Missions, which, according to the organization’s brochure, “directs efforts on behalf of Providence Health System to meaningfully collaborate with health professionals and organizations in economically developing countries.” This was the fifth consecutive year that a group connected with Providence Health System Hospitals has traveled to El Salvador under the auspices of Providence International Missions (PIM).

Upon arrival in San Salvador, the PIM group met with Providence Sister Fran Stacey at Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Parish in the rural Bajo Lempa region, where she worked in ministry for more than 10 years before her recent return to Spokane.

Each member of the Spokane contingent on this mission of mercy reported on what the group did while in El Salvador and the effect the experience had on him or her.

Dr. Robert Clark first heard about the work of (PIM) a couple of years ago. “The most memorable thing about the trip,” he says, “was the coming together of the delegation and the willingness of all to give and contribute without question under relatively primitive conditions compared to our daily lives in the U.S.A.”

Dr. Clark says he was particularly affected by the faith of those living and working in El Salvador on a long-term basis. “I was touched by the devotion and faith of Sister Fran Stacey to the people in her parish in rural El Salvador, which was returned by the Christian base community in the Baja Lempa, which is now self-sustaining as a result of the efforts of Sister Fran and her team. We learned about the incredible tragedy of the civil war and the devastating impact on the poor, particularly women and children.”

Dr. Clark said that he was “sickened” by accounts of the brutal slayings of Archbishop Oscar Romero, in 1980; the Mary-knoll missionaries lay missionary Jean Donovan, Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, and Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, also in 1980; and the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter, who were assassinated at the Central American University in 1989.

“The trip changed my thinking,” said Dr. Clark. “I have greater respect for the struggle of the poor living day to day against formidable odds. The church gives them hope and support. I will try harder to serve the poor in our community. I have a greater sense of the often misguided intentions of U.S. foreign policy that often has the (I hope unintended) effect of supporting the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor and powerless. I will try to be more vigilant and speak out against injustice and abuse of power.”

Tom Corley first heard about the opportunity to go to El Salvador from others who had made the trip in earlier years. “I saw the invitation as an extraordinary opportunity to connect in a personal way with a very different and vital facet of the ministries of the Sisters of Providence,” he said. “The visit to El Salvador was first and foremost a spiritually transformative experience. The entire visit was designed to permit us to personally experience the Salvadoran culture. We didn’t just observe the culture, we got to live it. Visiting with the people, witnessing their material poverty and experiencing the depth and breadth of their spirituality, generosity, humor, and dignity were deeply moving experiences.”

As with the other members of the group from the Pacific Northwest, Corley found himself changed by the experience. “I believe,” he said, “the trip to El Salvador has helped me develop a much deeper respect for the poor and an appreciation for the shallow and corrosive nature of materialism. It has also helped me better understand the far reaching impact of our nation’s foreign policy. It certainly has opened my eyes to the complex nature of issues such as Free Trade, immigration and foreign aid.

“The material poverty of the Salvadoran people was wrenching, but their magnificent spirit was uplifting to us all,” he said.

George Waldref said that he wore two hats as he went to El Salvador, “as a registered nurse and as a person with a profound interest in justice issues.” He said that what “haunts me upon my return is the image of the gaunt and weary woman our team met on our last morning of home visits. The 39-year-old said she and her husband had 10 children. With the assistance of a translator, we gently questioned and examined her for about 15 minutes before she revealed (that) she had had epilepsy since the age of 16. She could not afford medication and had suffered a seizure only a day or two earlier. Lacking any medications that would benefit her, we recommended an inexpensive medicine for her to obtain as soon as possible, perhaps through the aid of the Emergency Fund. I was touched by the patience and compassion of Dr. Bob Clark during this intervention.”

Waldref said that he feels fortunate that his wife, Rita Amberg Waldref, was with him on the trip to El Salvador. “It makes the ‘reimmersion’ to the relative opulence of the U.S. a bit easier in that we can frequently reassure each other that our experiences in El Salvador weren’t a dream.”

Rita Amberg Waldref became a member of the group that went to El Salvador, even though she isn’t a health care professional, because she wants to help establish a sister-parish relationship between Spokane’s St. Aloysius Parish, where she works, and Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Parish. Waldref talked with Sister Fran, who “thought the trip would be an excellent opportunity for me to connect with their pastoral team and meet parishioners,” she said.

Rita found herself “deeply touched” by the hospitality extended to her and the other members of the group while they were in El Salvador. “Each morning,” she says, “three medical teams, each with a doctor, nurse, (and) a translator (if the doctor could not speak Spanish) visited homes of those who were sick.Family members greeted us with warm smiles and immediately pulled out their only chairs, a plastic lawn chair or two and maybe a stump. The homes are humble: most have dirt floors and are built with scraps of metal and parts of trees. Usually a mom or daughter would be making tortillas or hand washing the laundry at the pila (large cement sink).”

“Although the poverty is overwhelming, I found the Salvadoran people rich in hospitality and kindness,” she said.

“I was humbled to be at the site in San Pedro Nonhualco,” she said – the place where the Maryknoll martyrs were first buried by their murderers. “We were indeed walking on holy ground. This was one of many celebrations to remember them. These were women of faith who deeply loved the people of El Salvador. The service included stories by Salvadorans who knew and worked with the four women.”

Because she was in El Salvador as a parish lay minister, Rita found the Christian Base Communities (CBCs) there of particular interest.

“The Bajo Lempa region has very developed CBCs, thanks to the eight-member pastoral team of Nuestra Señor de Guadalupe Parish. The parish is comprised of more than 50 towns and villages, 600 to 700 families each.”

A Christian Base Community is a small faith community within the parish and, Waldref explains, “every CBC is meant to include every aspect of Christian life: community, service, mission, formation, proclamation, celebration. There are hundreds of adult and youth leaders, called ‘animators,’ in the parish. The pastoral team provides faith formation and supports the animators in their ministries.”

“We were in El Salvador in late November and early December. I was amazed at all the butterflies, in all sizes and colors. The butterfly symbolizes my Salvadoran experience. ‘Butterflies in November’ speaks of my transformation, growth and new vision. I believe the butterfly also symbolizes the Salvadorans’ experience as they struggle for a new life of freedom, freedom from oppression and poverty. Before (Archbishop) Oscar Romero was martyred, he prophesied (that) he would arise in the Salvadoran people in their quest for peace and dignity. His spirit is everywhere in El Salvador. So is the butterfly.”

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