“It is Unputdownable!&rdquo —Rev. Dawn Linder
“Compassion is indeed not pity; it is to believe in and live by justice. Rev. Bob Cook’s life and ministry, in so many ways, offers the proof necessary to live by the only life that counts—compassion: ‘to suffer with.’ To speak with Bob about those in need and to have been given the grace, even for a short while, to serve alongside him offers all of us a lesson in the only life worth living. As Bob has changed so many lives, so will this book change its readers. We live by compassion or we die.
—Fr. Jim Laurenzo, Leader of Drake University Student Delegation
“This book tells the story of a Presbyterian minister who truly took the biblical call to do justice seriously. It tells of his journey to serve the poor in El Salvador and, in doing so, his learning more about what it means to be a follower of Jesus from the people he served.”
—Frank Cordaro, Phil Berrigan Catholic Worker House, Des Moines, Iowa
It was my first trip outside the United States. It would be an understatement to say I was nervous. As the plane taxied to its designated place for passengers to deplane I could see the large sign that welcomed travelers to El Salvador. My discomfort turned to unnerving apprehension when I saw a camouflaged tank rolling up to the plane. Next came a dozen or so soldiers with M-16 rifles to establish a security perimeter against an unseen enemy. It all set the scene for a reality far exceeding whatever education and experience my forty-seven years had offered me. It was not the sort of thing one usually saw when disembarking in Des Moines, Iowa. The comfort of my white, male, middle-class American life had collided with violent truth. It would repeat itself in many pensive moments in the twenty-nine day trip that lay ahead. Today, as I write these thoughts from the many Salvadoran experiences I have had over the past two decades, I realize that it was those twenty-nine days that changed my life...and my mission in life... forever.
Every seat on the 727-passenger plane was occupied. Most were gringos who had come to participate in the first anniversary of the murder of six Jesuit priests and two women at the University of Central America. The silence among my fellow travelers suggested that the military greeting we had all just experienced was beyond almost everyone’s frame of reference for deplaning. The cabin was filled with an isolating, deafening silence. The significance of the days ahead began to take on a different meaning in my mind. What I had imagined was to be adventure had been transformed to a journey into vague insecurity.
We deplaned and I followed in line with other passengers to immigration. The line of foreigners snaked its way through a dingy and poorly lit airport, down a non-functioning escalator to a large open area filled with what I estimated to be two hundred visitors to El Salvador. It seemed an eternity for it to become my turn with the immigration official behind darkened windows and thick walls. It was another eternity for him to review the thirty-day visa I had stamped in my passport from the Chicago Salvadoran Embassy. Even though I could not see the person’s face behind the smoked glass, I sensed I was not welcome. None of us were welcome. At that moment, I did not much care if he denied my visa and sent me home, thus putting an end to the shades of nightmarish moments that were clouding my mind.
The pound of his official stamp on my passport broke the silence and signaled that finally the official behind the sea of blackness had permitted me to travel in his country. I was such a novice at traveling; I assumed I had thirty days, as that is what the Salvadoran Embassy in Chicago had stamped in my passport some weeks earlier. So I did not even look at the number until eleven days later. I had been given twelve days on my visa. Twelve days to be in the country legally. By not having a valid Salvadoran visa I actually lived illegally in El Salvador for eighteen days of my trip.
The airport was stuffy and dirty. Today it has been converted into a clean and modern facility which some say is the best airport in Central America. My first stop beyond immigration was the bathroom. The odor reminded me of the outhouses of my youth in rural Iowa. Baskets in each stall overflowed with used toilet paper. This was done in order to avoid having the paper clog up the pipes when flushed down the stool. Sanitation in the Third World is an educational process, and this El Salvador is still learning about it even today. It was an easy decision to postpone my bathroom needs, and I moved on to the luggage carousel to retrieve my two suitcases. The line of bags inched forward, each suitcase’s contents examined for contraband, weapons, drugs or whatever the representatives of the Salvadoran government decided to arbitrarily decline. I felt some apprehension because one of my suitcases was filled with medicines and educational supplies for the cantón El Tablón at Berlin.
My turn for inspection came. The man doing the baggage inspection was armed and surrounded by others soldiers with M-16 rifles. To say it was an unfriendly welcome would be to grossly understate the moment. He waved for me to stand back as he unzipped the first suitcase containing the medicines. He pawed through the many bottles, and without exchanging words I knew he wanted the bottle of aspirin he held in his palm. I stepped forward and offered him another. I would have given him half the contents of the suitcase at that point just to get beyond the intense, unfamiliar clamor of the immigration process. It seemed like very cheap fare for my passage into the world of El Salvador. I was waved on through.
Gigi Grunke, a staff person for the SHARE Foundation, had made the arrangements for my trip. Tony, the man she had arranged to transport me to San Salvador, was waiting outside the airport with a sign that read “Robert Cuk.” It was close enough, and I was very happy to be greeted by a friendly face, and especially relieved to discover that his face spoke English. I deeply appreciated the moment of lucidity. There would be few of them in the days to come.
Tony was Salvadoran, small in stature with piercing dark eyes. With a heavy accent he stated, “Velcom to mi contree.” I soon learned he too was a visitor to his country from Houston where he had immigrated with his wife and two small children. He had come to serve SHARE as a guide for delegations visiting during this time.
Darkness had enveloped the mountainous terrain as we made the forty-five minute assent from the airport to San Salvador. Tony kept his eyes on the narrow, pothole-filled highway as cars and pickups whizzed past us, some with dim or no taillights. I appreciated the vigilance he devoted to the task of driving, but even so he talked incessantly about his country’s social and political conditions. Finally his interest turned to the reason for my visit and he asked, with an assuming voice, “Are you here for the celebration at the UCA?” And so began my first attempt to explain to a Salvadoran my intention to live for sixteen days with the people in the cantón El Tablón. His wide-eyed response was, “Why?”
Ultimately he expressed some appreciation for the intent of my visit to the country but seemed surprised I knew so little about the country’s history. And he was correct in his suggestion that I would not understand the life of poverty in a vacuum of knowledge about the war and the violence advanced against the poor by the Right Wing Arena Party. He went on in some detail about the martyrdom of Monsignor Oscar Romero, who was shot through the heart by a member of a right-wing death squad while celebrating the Mass at the Divina Providencia Chapel. Once Tony started speaking, he seemed to be full of only what was bad, but what he most obviously thought was necessary, news. He talked about the repressive acts of torture and killings by death squads against anyone who advocated for social need or change. And he punctuated it with the commemoration that would happen on the sixteenth to remember the six Jesuits and two women who were martyred on that date a year earlier. I did not enjoy his description of how the military literally blew out the brains of the Jesuits, so that they lay next to their own broken and shattered skulls. But there was something about the way that he told it that I could tell he knew I was far too naïve about Salvadoran history, and as though his telling the gruesome details of the murders would put it all in perspective for me. His timing was bad. I was not prepared to hear these grisly details and, in fact, I was simply too tired to absorb the full weight of his educative diatribe. That time would come later. It was too much, much too much, too soon, too ugly, and too sad to absorb.
Rev. Dr. Robert Cook is retired Presbyterian Minister, missionary, activist, and organizer. Those who know him regard him as a man driven by a heart that desires to be employed in the work of the Kingdom of God. He has been a vocal and fearless advocate for the voiceless, powerless victims of poverty and a thorn in side of those responsible for it.