I first learned of Jean Donovan in 1984, almost four years after she and three other North American churchwomen were murdered in El Salvador by government soldiers. Jean was a lay member of the Diocese of Cleveland mission team. Along with Cleveland missioner Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Jean worked among the poor in El Salvador at a time of civil war, when siding with the poor was considered subversive by the military-led government. Jean had prepared for her assignment in the mission formation program of the Maryknoll Lay Missioners.
I was working as a volunteer on the California-Mexico border with Salvadoran refugees in 1984 when I saw the movie Roses in December, the 1982 documentary about Jean Donovan. The images of Jean playing her guitar and her incredible story hooked me.
Jean served in El Salvador from 1979 to 1980. The 12-year war between the government and rebels, which would claim 75,000 lives, was heating up. Jean wrote to a friend, “Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them?” My spirit bowed to that powerful simplicity. I wanted to be a part of it. And I wanted to learn to play the guitar.
My dream reached fulfillment when I arrived as a Maryknoll lay missioner in El Salvador in 2012. I bought three guitars. The idea was to learn to play one guitar and lend out the other two.
El Salvador still lives with much social chaos due to the extreme divide between rich and poor. One result of this divide is the presence of gangs, which lure vulnerable youth into their cycle of violence. Jean’s spirit of compassion and service is just as needed now as it was when she was here.
One day, a gang member suddenly appeared in the community center where I work in La Esperanza. “Hey, give me a guitar,” he demanded.
Marvin was tall, muscular and wearing a tank top. His stature filled the only entrance to the community center and his craggy face took on the air of a petrified gargoyle that wasn’t going to budge until he got what he wanted. I handed him a guitar and told him I’d need it back tomorrow at 2 p.m. for a catechism class. My pulse raced as he took the guitar and walked out. I thought I’d never see it again.
The next day I arrived early for my class. Marvin was already at the front gate, cradling the guitar. He thanked me for trusting him and put the guitar into my arms.
“Take it again tonight if you want,” I told him.
He shook his head, no, and explained he only wanted to play a birthday song, Las Mañanitas, for his mother that morning. I knew his mother. She lived in dire poverty and had been bedridden for quite some time.
“Take it,” I said. “And keep singing.”
He refused. A few weeks later he was arrested. He ran when he saw the police and was shot in the leg. He remains in prison.
“If only we could have reached him a few years earlier with that guitar,” I thought.
Fortunately, I was able to reach another youth. Alex was 11 when I met him. He also lived with his mother in desperate poverty. Like so many kids in La Esperanza, he was bored out of his mind. But the day I showed up at his house with a wheelbarrow full of books from our mobile library and a guitar on top, he perked up. We practiced a few chords and he asked if he could keep the guitar.
“It’s like a book,” I told him. “You can keep it for up to six months as long as you’re still practicing.”
We practiced and now he’s playing a few songs. His favorite is Madre de los Pobres (Mother of the Poor). He has become a member of the church choir and often travels to religious events in San Salvador. When he returns, you can see a light in his eyes. He is now 14 and a catechist.
Most kids have no idea what they can get from the guitar, but I’ve found if someone is there to encourage them, they get excited about playing, and that opens so many other doors. Jean’s spirit did that for me and, in turn, that spirit has inspired Alex.
Jean’s guitar now sits outside the Maryknoll Lay Missioners chapel, in Ossining, N.Y. It was a gift from one of Jean’s friends, inspiring a new generation of missioners and those they serve.
Featured Image: Jean Donovan and her guitar inspire a new generation of Maryknoll lay missioners.