Salvadoran activist explores lay-led ministries of hope and transformation

Published: November 9, 2015

by Andrea Simmonds (MDiv ’18), Amanda Kerr (MDiv ’18) and C. Mark Batten, Office of Communications


Pictured: María Elena Sanabria (left), Dr. Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo (right)

On, Wednesday November 4, the School of Divinity welcomed Salvadoran María Elena Sanabria, who presented on the causes for the youth of El Salvador to migrate north, fleeing poverty and violence, and the responses of lay-led ministries in Christian base communities by strategically supporting sustainable development, education, and solidarity.

Sanabria is the education coordinator for the Salvadoran non-profit and non-governmental organization FUNDAHMER (Fundación Hermano Mercedes Ruiz). She has worked with FUNDAHMER, bringing hope and life to communities, for 14 years.

Sanabria first depicted the seriousness of violence and poverty in El Salvador. “You hear mostly bad news about El Salvador. Even though it is small, El Salvador is considered to be one of the most violent places in the world.”

These living conditions account for why Salvadorans migrate north to the United States. Sanabria noted that El Salvador’s financial climate hinges on those who migrate. “The country depends more on the financial assets sent back home from the U.S. than any actual production that happens in the country.”

El Salvador is considered the ‘Little Flea’ of Latin America. There are 7 million inhabitants, but 2 million Salvadorans are immigrants in the United States. Migrating does not come without its challenges, Sanabria said, as she explained the conditions Salvadorans experience when they migrate. “They leave with great risk to themselves. Rape, drug trafficking and other horrible things happen in their journey north.”

Amidst this appalling reality, there is work progressing in El Salvador to promote the ‘Salvadoran Dream’ as an alternative to seeking the ‘American Dream.’ One of the largest sources of income in El Salvador is farming and agriculture. Christian base communities are working to find ways for impoverished individuals to gain meaningful work in this area.

“If we want the reign of God to be present, and if the reign of God is life, for us life is to eat,” Sanabria said. “There is a struggle for food to be guaranteed for all, but we are devoted to cultivating work practices that are in harmony with Mother Earth and producing non-genetically modified food.”

Overall, farming cooperatives have begun to grow, and with them the Salvadoran quality of life. Alongside the work of the lay-led ministries, this is also a result of the President of El Salvador committing to only allowing farmers to use seeds bred by Salvadoran farmers.

Sanabria also noted that migration causes family tensions. As the family environment of youth begins to disintegrate they begin to look to gangs as an alternative family. However, for some, they overcome these odds because of the ministries. “Despite all temptations, young people have been able to obtain the conditions necessary in order to study and develop a critical consciousness of reality,” Sanabria said. “To be together and reflecting as a group, they are participating in the work of constructing the reign of God, here and now, and they are constructing their own Salvadoran Dream.”

Simply waiting for conditions to improve and waiting on others to provide necessities are no longer options, Sanabria powerfully advocated. “We need to be the subject of transformation, not just objects of transformation.”

The Christian base communities use a three-step model in their work: see, judge, act. This model is communally-focused. To see is to understand the reality of what Salvadorans are experiencing; to judge is a process of reflection and engagement; and to act is to identify at least one way to respond effectively, like partnering with other communities or organizing a protest.

Those in attendance included students from Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity and the Latin American and Latino Studies program. Third-year Master of Divinity student Daniel Reese noted a correlation of the work in El Salvador with his own. “The methodologies of these Christian base communities can help inform dialogue across denominational lines. ‘See, judge, act’ is very practical and a place where our theology can go.”

Elizabeth Gandolfo, Earley Assistant Professor of Catholic and Latin American Studies at the School of Divinity, invited Sanabria and has worked with her in El Salvador. “I wanted María Elena to join us at so that she could share what it is to be the church in a way that is very different from what many of us are used to,” she said. “The church experience for María Elena is very different from that. This is the church of the poor, this is a model of being a church from the grassroots up and not the top down.”