It was March 24, 1980, when Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered by government soldiers in his own church in El Salvador. His crime? Speaking out against violence and defending the poor of that country in Central America.
This year, St. Francis chose March 24 for its annual beans and rice dinner at St. Francis Spirituality Center. In addition to honoring the memory of this modern-day martyr, the event emphasized the ongoing suffering in many nations.
More than 60 people shared a meal of Hispanic foods to show solidarity the less fortunate. After the dinner, a prayer service took place and guest speaker Mary Anne Perrone presented a video on the challenges immigrants must face. A former teacher, she has been an activist for more than 30 and has made many trips to impoverished Latin American countries.
Peronne's program, "Immigrants' Rights: Why They Come and Why They Can't Return," highlighted the conditions that drive people out of their homelands. Her talk was focused on the Central American country of Honduras, which she recently visited. She called it "a beautiful country with beautiful people" - and a history of dictatorships, poverty and human rights violations.
"Anytime I go, one of the main purposes is to bring back what I see and hear, to listen and to learn," Perrone said. "The one thing that was not reflected in the video we watched ... it didn't touch at all on what is the role of the United States in the condition in which these people find themselves."
The Sisters of St. Francis first started assisting refugees fleeing from the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s. Perrone said the situation in Honduras is similar to what went on more than 30 years ago. U.S. aid given to Central American countries has tended to perpetuate abuses against the native people and concentrate wealth and power in a small segment of the population, she said.
In a brief overview of recent history in Honduras, Perrone shared some statistics. With a population of 8.2 million, nearly 5 million live below the poverty line. More than 40 percent of the people live on less than two U.S. dollars per day.
"There are currently more than a million immigrants in the U.S. from Honduras in search of jobs and a living and safety," Perrone said.
In a democratic election in 2006, Honduras chose a president to lead the country; however, the military staged a coup in 2009, deported the president, installed another man in the office and terrorized the citizens. A few months later, when another presidential election was scheduled, much of the populace boycotted the effort.
The elections did occur, but a non-violent resistance movement emerged, refusing to recognize the new leader. Those in power launched a wave of repression against anyone who did not support the new government. Perrone spoke of journalist Bertha Oliva and her 30 years of reporting abuses against the people of Honduras.
Oliva now is the director of COFADEH - Committee of the Families of the Detained & Disappeared in Honduras. That organization has been keeping records of citizens imprisoned or killed by the police and military and giving assistance to their families. She has documented the defenders who have become targets of threats and violence.
Perrone said she has spent time in the COFADEH office with Oliva as workers took "a steady stream of phone calls and people coming in" for advice and support. Pictures of the deceased and "disappeared" from the 1980s have been joined by more recent photos. Oliva and her staff have been under surveillance and have received numerous threats.
"Beyond that, they have been working nonstop since the coup in 2009 and are exhausted," Perrone said. "Bertha herself said, 'I am a citizen. I was not born to be a defender of human rights - I was made to do it.'"
Although human rights organizations filed more than 10,000 official complaints of violations by police and military, Perrone said the U.S. government did not investigate. Instead, the U.S. State Department, under Hillary Clinton, accepted the de facto government and sent funding for the military and police.
"Of course, it is the military and police that are used for these repressive measures," Perrone said.
Since the coup, more than 80 journalists who reported the government's atrocities have been killed, Perrone added. A Jesuit priest who testified about the repression and intimidation of the press before the U.S. Congress was threatened when he returned to Honduras.
Perrone cited a United Nations report from February 2012 which stated: "Human Rights Defenders continue to suffer extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment, death threats, attacks, harassment and stigmatization."
Youth, protestors of any kind, ethnic groups, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens also have become targets for disappearance, Perrone said. Also, the government has been permitting "development projects" such as acres of monoculture crops, resorts and golf courses built by large landowners. These projects involve tactics such as forcing peasant farmers (campesinos) to sell their property at gunpoint, taking over land from widows who are trying to support their families and simply killing the farmers to obtain their property.
Families displaced from their homes now are homeless or living in tents with no source of income. People in desperation such as this have nothing to lose by leaving the country. They could face imprisonment or death if they return.
After Perrone's presentation, someone asked, "Where is there hope? Is there any?" Perrone responded that much of the hope must come from wealthy countries such as the U.S.
"We are training, arming and funding the police and military of Honduras, a well-known human rights morass. And the number of people in the U.S. who know about it and bring attention to it is small," she said.
Perrone urged the audience to educate themselves and others about the conditions in Honduras and elsewhere, travel to these countries to accompany human rights defenders, contact members of Congress and the state department, and join the movement to close the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga. She said Americans must protest the use of tax dollars to support oppression abroad.
"Our Christian obligation is clear: to be in solidarity with those who are being oppressed means to do all that we can to not be part of the oppressing power and then to do all that we can to redress the wrong done," Perrone said.