New Bishop of El Salvador Is Symbol of Hope After Decade of Civil War

Episcopal News Service. April 10, 1992 [92082]

Robert Melville

The war-torn people of El Salvador today have a new bishop to walk among them -- and he is one of their own.

Martin de Jesus Barahona, 49, a Salvadoran who for the past 14 years has been a parish and mission priest in Panama, was ordained and consecrated bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of El Salvador on March 28.

Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning and six other bishops -- four from Latin America -- consecrated Barahona before 800 church members and ecumenical friends on a lawn the size of a soccer field behind the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in San Salvador.

The consecration underscored how entwined is the life of the Episcopal Church in El Salvador with the life of the small Central American nation. It was held on the same lawn where, in November 1989, more than 400 refugees of the civil war were cared for and fed when government troops burst in and seized 21 church workers.

In his sermon at the ordination, the Rev. Luis Serrano, the former priest-in-charge at St. John the Evangelist and one of the Episcopal Church workers arrested in the December 1989 raid, said that the new bishop's role would be an important symbol for the entire society. "He has the incredible responsibility of being pastor to a flock who for 12 years has suffered a war of innumerable deaths... a flock who for decades has suffered in a war of silence, a war of hunger and injustice, which cries out for the justice of God."

The consecration came as El Salvador began a battle to win the peace, a battle for land reform, for controls on the military and the police, and a search to acquire humanitarian aid. United Nations-mediated peace accords went into effect on February 1, ending the civil war during which 75,000 people were killed and a million more uprooted.

Symbolic of the esperanza, or "hope," that was on many people's lips, the consecration took place against a backdrop of cascading purple bougainvillea, a blocks-long wall of dazzling color planted 20 years ago by Claude Horn, a U.S. Department of Agriculture expert and member of St. John's when it was largely a chaplaincy to expatriates.

First Salvadoran bishop

Barahona's consecration was roundly hailed by priests and laypeople, by administrators and acolytes, because he is the first bishop chosen by El Salvador, because he will be the young diocese's first full-time bishop, and perhaps most of all, because he is Salvadoran.

"Your church awaits you, Martin," Serrano said. "Your church expects much of you. You are the key person sent by God to strengthen and expand the church.... God has sent you to provide a church for the Salvadoran who is without faith....."

Josie Beecher, a former missionary with the Episcopal Church who was also detained with Serrano in 1989, said that "in this very critical time it was perhaps serendipitous" that the beginning of the peace process and the consecration came so closely together.

Before the consecration, Barahona vowed, in the words of the Prayer Book examination, to "boldly proclaim and interpret the Gospel of Christ" and to "enlighten the minds and to stir up the consciences of the people."

Barahona's wife and children joined him briefly before he celebrated the Eucharist and blessed the people.

Amplified guitars accompanied the spirited Central American choirs that united the congregation in song. Traditional El Salvadoran palm dancers, holding 10-foot-long palm fronds tipped with brightly colored paper flowers, danced just before the closing hymn.

Bishop James Ottley of Panama, who has overseen Barahona's work at city and rural congregations in Panama for the past eight years, said that Barahona "has the capacity to be a good pastor to the diocese. He enjoys working with the poor and the needy, and is a good example of what a missionary bishop should be."

Amanda Rivera, one of the diocese's first members and now president of the diocesan council, reported that Salvadoran women raised beets from seed, and sold them -- along with tamales and hot soups -- to support Barahona's consecration.

[thumbnail: Barahona Consecrated New...]