Finally the villagers decided they had to flee. For weeks the fighting between the guerrillas and government soldiers had been drawing closer to their homes in El Salvador’s northern Chalatenango Province. It was too dangerous to work any longer in the surrounding coffee and sugar plantations. They packed up their few possessions and headed for the Sumpul River 30 miles away, intending to cross into neighboring Honduras and safety.
Among them was a dark-haired, dark-eyed boy of 12 named José Careoza. José had never known his father. He clung closely to his mother during the trek and again when the group paused on the bank of the Sumpul On the other shore they would be safe. The group waded into the river. Suddenly the foliage of the far bank erupted in small-arms fire. Honduran soldiers had been waiting in ambush. The villagers panicked. Bodies fell. José’s mother was shot and slipped below the surface. The boy scrambled to shore. The survivors fled the way they’d come. The Salvadoran Army held them for a while, then church workers trucked them to the capital, San Salvador, where they were taken to a squalid refugee camp. A few days later a tall, chain-smoking gringo ambled into the camp. He was Ken Myers, a Catholic priest from Cleveland who had been working in the country for six years. As he chatted with a group of women, they told him about the boy whose mother had been killed on the border. Myers asked José whether he wanted to live in his parish in Zaragoza. The boy said yes. There would be hundreds to follow him, but on that day in 1980 José became the first member of the Communidad Oscar A. Romero (COAR)….
“Have you brought a bottle of booze and the New York Times?” Father Myers asks. The visitor has not. Myers points into the distance toward the airport and says with mock sternness, “Go back!” But three years after he took in José, it’s hard to imagine Ken Myers, 42, turning anyone away. The priest, a cigarette dangling from his lips, is now standing in the same refugee camp where he found José. He visits the camp and others like it weekly, though it’s less a camp than a shantytown of surpassing misery.
Some 500 refugees from the countryside live here in the teeming downtown of San Salvador in tin shacks slapped together, jammed against each other around the perimeter of what once was a soccer field. There is no sanitation, and the smell of human feces is overpowering. Small children, some of them naked and all of them filthy, scamper around, oblivious to their surroundings. Old men and women sit dejectedly in front of their shacks, staring across the ruined field. The whole compound crouches in the shadow of an abandoned seminary, whose bullet-pocked walls speak of the violence that brought the people to the camp.
Myers, towering over the gaggle of refugees who follow him everywhere, learns there are no orphans for him today. After a few more cigarettes and conversation with the kids in Spanish, he climbs into his yellow Toyota pickup truck, fumbling on the dashboard for his cigarette lighter while backing slowly into the heavy traffic on the road to Zaragoza. When Myers first arrived in the country, his soft-spoken manner and air of unhurried calm earned him the nickname Padre Lento—Father Slow—and it fits.
“Most of these people are from up north where the fighting is going on,” he says. “Their homes have been burned. They’ve lost their husbands and their land. Without papers, if they walk the streets, they’ll be put in jail. The church provides food. I find a lot of my kids in camps like that.”
He accelerates into the flow of jammed buses and empty cabs for the 30-minute drive to the orphanage. The city falls quickly behind, replaced by lush jungle and an occasional cornfield hacked into the side of a mountain. Some 10 minutes into the trip he slows for a crowd gathered in the roadway. The people are staring dumbly at a young girl of 7 or 8 years lying on her side at the edge of the road. Blood has run from her mouth and dried. “She’s dead,” Myers says flatly. “Hit by a car. stopped for her on the way up to the camp, but it was too late.” Then he adds, “Ambulance service around here is not the greatest.”
Indeed, the death of one more child goes unnoticed in a country now in its fourth year of savage civil war. Since October 1979 an estimated 36,000 Salvadoran civilians have been killed in the fighting between leftist guerrillas and the shaky, U.S.-backed government. About the time the girl in the road had died, in fact, the leftists were claiming that more than 100 of their noncombatant sympathizers, including women and children, had been massacred by government troops in three small towns in northern El Salvador. A long list of such atrocities has marked the fighting, which intensified after the murder of the man for whom Myers’ orphanage is named. Oscar A. Romero was the Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador, an outspoken man who sympathized with the nation’s desperate poor. As he raised the chalice of Communion wine during a memorial Mass in March 1980, Romero was shot to death by a gunman in a small chapel in San Salvador.
“After that, things got pretty tense in terms of people traveling and going out at night,” says Myers. “I had a meeting with the Sisters and we decided our work was changing. In the mid-1970s we tried to recruit and instruct lay people to know the Bible and religious doctrine,” Myers continues. “They were to pick up the slack where we didn’t have enough clergy to go around.”
At that time Myers was working out of a rectory in Zaragoza that was about the size of a two-car garage. He had just gotten permission from the church to build a three-room school, which he intended to use for night adult-education classes. But, Myers says, “The refugee centers were growing. I came up with the idea of using the school to house kids, since a lot of them weren’t being cared for.” As the number of orphans grew, COAR needed more space. In 1982 Myers bought 15 acres from a Belgian couple who belonged to his parish. On the land, a 10-minute walk into the hills outside Zaragoza, he started building.
As Myers’ pickup truck bumps into the driveway leading to the orphanage, he stubs out another Delta Suave filter cigarette. The lane is lined with coffee plants and plantain trees. To one side is a long, low chicken coop housing 500 hens. The chickens provide an egg a day for each of COAR’s 180 children, and the rest are sold. At the end of the driveway, nestled between steep hills, is the community clinic, a wooden building with a large cement porch. On one hill perches the Casa Grande, an old mansion that now contains a small store, the community’s kitchen and the living quarters of the three nuns who help Myers run the orphanage. On the other hill behind the clinic rise the 15 cement buildings where the kids bunk, up to 20 in each house, according to age and gender. Siblings are kept together. Each house has a supervisor—an older child or a widow. There is no insulation or carpeting on the cement floors—just rows of bunk beds, a large communal table for meals and the kids’ nightly homework, and a bathroom. The electricity works most of the time, and there is running water. Fourteen of the spartan buildings are occupied now, while another serves as an office.
Just beyond the houses a larger building is going up: Myers wants to use it as a high school. Nearby, a former chicken coop has been turned into a wood-working shop where the boys are taught carpentry.
Under the tropical sun, Myers parks the truck and walks into the clinic, the domain of Sister Stanislaus Mackey, 67, a wiry nun of boundless energy. Like her colleagues—Sister Audrey Walsh, 62, who is quiet and commanding, and Sister Mary Pat O’Driscoll, 34, who is gentle—she is a registered nurse. All come from Ireland, where they joined the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, and all have been at COAR since last January. Sister Mary Pat takes care of the babies and the house for toddlers under 4. Sister Audrey supervises the whole community.
Father Myers finds Sister Stan treating an ailing old man from Zaragoza. “When we first got here so many of the little children were malnourished, and they all had lice and worms,” she says. “Once they begin to eat a balanced diet, their minds become sharper. They get a sense of importance when people stop commenting on their illnesses.” The children bear little resemblance to those in the refugee camps. They are clean, healthy and full of life, but Sister Stan says it’s a big job teaching them good habits. Most had never seen an eating utensil, much less a toothbrush, and must be repeatedly dissuaded from eating dirt.
Their mental health also gets care. “It’s the saddest thing in the world to see someone so young whose nerves are shot,” says Sister Stan. “Little Nelson had awful fear when he got here. He got very emotional whenever anyone would say anything about his parents’ murder. But as time goes on he has begun to see that he’s part of a community that loves him here at COAR. We can never replace his parents, but he begins to feel that the loss is at least bearable.
“What moves me most,” Sister Stan continues, “is their longing for love. They miss their parents so much that they cling to you. The other thing that strikes me is their gentleness. I think when God took their parents, He gave them something very special.”
At noon the kids run back to their houses for a meal. Myers explains that in the afternoon the older children will replace the younger ones at the school’s desks. All the kids have chores. The older boys learn masonry on the construction projects and teach the younger ones. The girls work in the laundry and kitchen—no small task in a community that consumes 400 tortillas a day, not to mention beans, rice, cheese and milk. The daily schedule is structured but not rigid, and there’s always time for soccer or guitar lessons given by Sister Mary Pat. “COAR is based on the theory that the kids are bound together by the service that they give to each other, not by the institution,” says Myers.
The priest seems bound by both. Born in Norwalk, Ohio, the eldest of three children of a gas-company employee and a housewife, he entered Borromeo College in Cleveland in 1960. Four years later he went on to St. Mary Seminary, where he was drawn to missionary work.
After his ordination Myers was required to get experience in Cleveland parishes for five years before beginning his mission. “I can see the wisdom of that now,” he says. “My biggest supporters have always been the people of St. Pat’s in West Park and St. Mary’s in Olmsted Falls.” Myers finds the dollar-per-child-per-day budget of the orphanage in various ways. Some of the money comes from the Cleveland Diocese, some from the Catholic Relief Services, some from other churches and charities. A Catholic parish in Florida sends $100 each week. “You just have to have faith the support will come,” says Myers. The money so far has helped some 1,000 children who have passed through COAR. Whenever possible, the staff places children with surviving relatives, keeping at COAR only those who have no one else.
That evening the community grows even more. Four young brothers, all wearing oversize baseball caps, show up at the door. Their parents had been arrested the night before. Myers introduces the boys to the community and assigns them a house. Shaken, the boys, ranging in age from 5 to 10, reappear, afraid to stay in the strange house. Myers reassures the youngsters, and Sister Audrey walks them back to their new home. “That’s common,” says Father Myers. “They’re still not sure about who we are and what we’re doing.”
Father Myers and the nuns have no such doubts. As night falls the priest puts on his robes and says Mass for the community. Afterward the children head to their houses. Myers helps serve the evening meal to the kids whose house he supervises. Then he. joins the sisters in the Casa Grande for dinner and the usual discussion of the day’s events. Lupita isn’t urinating, one says, could she be ill? Jaime didn’t go to school today. What’s for Sunday dinner; should we kill some chickens?
Later they discuss an American Jesuit who had just been found dead in the hills of Honduras. All of the nuns had volunteered for the hazardous work, and Sister Stan and Sister Audrey had previously seen dangers in Guatemala. “There,” Sister Audrey says, “the government began by introducing one restriction after another. Pretty soon there’s a curfew and certain places you can’t go. You’re not constantly thinking about your life being in danger. You do what you can.”
Four of COAR’s houses are named for the three American nuns and one lay worker who were raped, murdered and thrown in shallow graves in El Salvador nine months after Archbishop Romero’s assassination. Members of El Salvador’s National Guard have been accused of the crime. Father Myers knew and worked with two of the slain women, and all the COAR staffers know that they could be the targets of such madness as well.
Sister Stan, however, says that her fear has lessened since coming to El Salvador. “I feel that God is always with me,” she says. “I feel that I should put my life at stake for something as important as the lives of these children. If they shoot my head off tomorrow, I don’t mind. I feel I’ve done my best,” she continues. “I love these children. We sow our destiny here. We won’t walk this way again, and very few are walking it now. I’m sure all the Sisters feel privileged that the Lord has called us here.”
After dinner Father Myers strolls onto the porch. He’s working on the day’s 10th cup of coffee and umpteenth Delta Suave. “The whole operation may seem haphazard,” he says, looking over the village, “but the key is to adapt to changing situations. We’re not just building houses. We’re taking care of children. You can’t lose sight of that.” He glances at his watch. “We don’t despair here,” he says, rubbing his eyes. “I wouldn’t even say we get discouraged. We just get very, very tired.” Then he heads up the path to the simple house he shares with the children. And, if anyone should, he sleeps the sleep of the just.