Chris Kerr is the executive director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network, a national faith-based social justice organization founded, in part, as a response to the murders of the Jesuit martyrs.
I first learned about the Jesuit martyrs in Fr. Jim King, SJ's freshman theology class at Walsh Jesuit High School in 1993. Jim is a passionate advocate for the poor and marginalized and utilized his Hebrew Scriptures class to share relevant justice issues whenever he could. School of the Americas Watch had just produced the first of a number of short videos about U.S. military training of Latin American soldiers involved with human rights abuses, which Jim showed us in class. Titled "School of Assassins" the video introduced us to many of the massacres and assassinations carried out by graduates of the School of the Americas (now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), including the Jesuits' murders. Toward the end of the class Jim said, “Imagine if you found me and a bunch of the other Jesuits at Walsh dead on the front lawn.”
While I couldn't tell you what I was doing as an 11-year-old boy on November 16, 1989, it's safe to say that the deaths and legacy of the Jesuits and their companions have changed my life forever. Learning their story as a high school freshman soon after the murders was one of the first times in my life that I questioned an institution like the U.S. government. Up until that point I don't know that I knew that my government could do anything wrong. However, coming to know this story and furthering my understanding as I entered college at John Carroll University caused me to become engaged in examining the realities of others both locally and abroad in ways I could have never imagined.
The story of the martyrs was certainly one element of what caused me to travel to places like Ecuador, Micronesia, Appalachia, migrant-farming communities in Florida and elsewhere during my college years. There I was immersed in the realities of people who were marginalized by poverty, injustice and greed. These experiences caused me to want to dedicate my life to being in solidarity with others in any way that I could. At first this happened through teaching at various levels, but also led me to find ways to mix together my passion for education with human rights and social justice advocacy. The martyrs are definitely the driving influence in where I am today in my role at the Ignatian Solidarity Network (ISN).
I have come to have a special affinity for Fr. Ellacuría, something that was furthered after our ISN delegation to El Salvador this past summer in honor of the 25th anniversary year. He is complex and I feel like I am always learning a little bit more about him. However, our time in El Salvador helped me to understand how he came to be "fully committed to the reality of El Salvador" as Fr. Jon Sobrino, SJ, often states. Of course that commitment was not something that Fr. Ellacuría was born into. Growing up in Spain, Fr. Ellacuria's path to El Salvador was not a guarantee, but his arrival there as a young Jesuit caused him to deeply engage in the reality of El Salvador and become a pivotal leader for the Jesuits, the church and the country, seeking dignity and justice for the people he came to know and see as his brothers and sisters. His significant involvement in the Jesuit response to Vatican II and Medellín in consideration of the reality in El Salvador is something that I have found particularly intriguing. He didn't just lead the UCA, he helped to form it into a force for social good that was responding to horrific injustice. And, while he didn't see the final product, his work resulted in a more peaceful El Salvador.
I think his story reflects the work that many of us seek to do in the spirit of the martyrs. I hope that our work at ISN can invite people to more deeply understand the realities of injustice in our world, to commit themselves to being in solidarity with those who are marginalized and to act on that solidarity for justice and peace. I think we can all live out the legacy of Fr. Ellacuría, the other Jesuits, and Elba and Celina, if we are willing to commit ourselves to responding to the realities of those marginalized in our community, our country, our world.