Oscar Romero and The Violence of Love

Oscar Romero is one of my heroes. His life and work influenced me to become a public school teacher and a street writer. 

I think of him each morning as I swing my legs off my bed and touch the floor barefooted, ready to make my way up and out of my house to my poor, little elementary school on the west side of Greenville, South Carolina. 

And I think of him each evening as I sit by candlelight in front of an olive wood carving of St. Francis at my writing desk. There, I try to put the stories I have seen and heard into words as I look closely and listen carefully to life around me. Romero helps me see and hear the world, walk within it with dusty feet and touch it with calloused hands.

Oscar Romero was the Archbishop of San Salvador from 1977-1980. It was a time of upheaval where a civil war would scorch that beautiful earth and destroy so many beautiful people for a decade.

A right-wing assassin shot and killed him as he was celebrating mass at a small chapel beside his sparse room at Hospital de la Divine Providencia. He had just finished his sermon and taken a few steps to stand at the center of the altar. 

The bullet struck him in the heart.

He was assassinated because he stood beside the impoverished in his country and gave voice to their humanity. 

A compilation of some of his sermons and writings is titled “The Violence of Love.” These words seem strange, don’t they? How can “violence” and “love” go together?

Romero knew that the brutal civil war that was killing his people and destroying his country could only be overcome with love. 

Love is the only power that can confront violence and overcome it by converting violent people into people of goodwill and peace. It is the only power that can turn an enemy into a friend and transform arrogant control into humble service.

In a radio address on March 14, 1977, Romero said we need “to organize life according to the heart of God.” Aren’t these beautiful words for the Easter season, when we look and listen for the light of God and learn that life is more powerful than death? 

Yet they are also challenging words. How can we organize life according to the heart of God? I think the answer may be found in the account of the Easter story from John’s gospel.

As Mary Magdalene stood at the tomb before sunrise, she “saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus…She supposed him to be the gardener” (John 20:14-15).  

There is the answer to the question. How do we organize life according to God’s heart? 

We look for him in the people and places where we least expect to find him. We bump into him and realize he is the gardener, one of the world’s smallest and most forgotten people.

We stand side-by-side with this gardener, the mother and child on the border of Matamoros, Mexico and Brownsville, Texas; the innocent Black man on death row; the traumatized child in public housing; and the trans kid with no access to health care or a welcoming and affirming place to be who God made them to be.

We stand with them and remind the world, “These are our neighbors, our siblings, Jesus walking the earth with bare feet and an open heart looking and listening for someone, anyone to say, ‘Here he is! He is risen!’” 

Maria was a second-grade student at the elementary school where I teach. Her parents fled the effects of the civil war in El Salvador and found a new life on the farms and fields of South Carolina. 

I had seen her hold the hand of a frightened kindergartner in the cafeteria during the early morning breakfast hour and offer her shoulder to a crying friend who scraped her knee on the blacktop during recess. She was a beautiful child.

I can still see her smile all the way down the end of the hall from the front office. Sometimes, I can still hear her steps from there, too.

On special days, she wore tiny high-heeled shoes with her flowery dresses. I can still hear the click, click, click as she made her way over the tiled floor.

One day, I realized I had forgotten to mail my money to the water company to pay my bill. I stopped by the office after school to make my payment in person.

Apparently, three-fourths of the residents of Greenville County forgot to pay their water bills, too, because the office was packed with people standing in the doorway, meandering to the payment counter.

In the middle of all that humanity, I heard a click, click, click.

I looked behind, around and in front of me and there, coming around a desk, was Maria. She was pushing a stroller with a tiny baby inside and I could barely see her over the stroller’s handles.

She was leading her mother, who was holding a toddler in her arms. She saw me and her face lit up with a sunrise, a Maria smile.

She let go of the stroller, wrapped her arms around me, and said, “Oh, Seňor Barton! Buenos Tardes! I am so happy to see you!” She took hold of the stroller again and I lost her among the faces of the crowd.

I heard her voice, however, a serious voice for one so young, rise above the noise. 

“Excuse me,” she asked humbly, “But could you show us how to pay our bill?”

And there was Maria, seven years old, translating for her family, making the world a better place and organizing it according to God’s heart.

As we go out from Easter, let us look closely and listen carefully for Jesus, the gardener. He is in Oscar Romero, Maria, and all who seem to be the smallest and most forgotten among us. 

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