The Long Trip Home
Gene Palumbo June 19, 1987 - 12:00am
During the farewell Mass for Sister Andrea Nenzel, the sound kept recurring—the thumping, rumbling sound of bombs or heavy mortars falling on the slopes of the nearby Guazapa volcano.
A few months earlier, Nenzel had thought that her leave-taking—after almost two and a half years at the San Jose Calle Real Refugee camp—would mean going to live nearer to those explosions, alongside refugees who, despite the danger involved, were returning to their homes in the countryside.
But elections by her community, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, had changed all that for her. Now Nenzel was going home, back to Seattle for a five-year term as head of her order's western province.
Hours before the farewell Mass, Nenzel had made a final visit to the camp's original location, a soccer field behind a seminary. It was there that she and another Sister of St. Joseph, Margaret Jane Kling, had arrived in January of 1985 to live in the camp with the refugees.
"The identifying of my life with theirs, and the bonds that have been made, are just unreal," said Nenzel. "I've been a religious for twenty-seven years, and I've loved many groups of people I've worked with, but I don't think I've ever entered into their lives, or had them enter into my life to the extent that that's happened here."
She recalled her first, overwhelming impression when she arrived at the camp: "the tremendous, fundamental hopefulness" of the refugees.
"If you think about it rationally, there's a normal tendency to despair, to give up on life, when you've had everything taken from you. But here I found the exact opposite."
And after two years, she thought she knew why. "They know God. I've seen this here as never before. Often you meet people who are good, prayerful people and who know about God. But it's rare that you run into people who really know God as a friend, as someone in their life who is walking with them.
"And what's exceptional here is that it's a whole people who know God. They don't know a whole lot about God—if we gave them a catechetical test, they probably wouldn't pass—but they do know God. That's what comes through to me when they talk about where their hope comes from.''
Nenzel remembered that hopefulness in the prayers of a refugee who came to the camp last year. The man had been forcibly removed from his home by the army during a counterinsurgency drive.
"Daniel was eighty-six years old. He was deaf from the bombardments; his eardrums had been burst. He was also suffering from severe malaria, and almost died.
"He used to pray every day. He said, 'One day my son or daughter will come, and I will be able to go back. I can't stay here. I belong to the land, and I will go back.'
"Sure enough, after one of the later captures (by the army), his daughter was brought in," and eventually he moved back to the countryside, where Nenzel visited him recently. "He looked younger than ever. He was out helping with the planting. He's the happiest man I know."
The number of refugees who, like Daniel, are intent on returning home to the countryside, has been growing recently, and for a time it appeared that Nenzel and Kling would be going along with them—a step which would have meant living in a zone where the civil war continues to be fought. "Our decision," said Nenzel, "grew out of reflection and talking with the people. They've been asking the church to send religious personnel to minister to them and accompany them in the repopulation efforts. I kept saying we had to be willing to go with them.
''I'd be foolish to say that I didn't feel some fear, but I think that my approach to life is that you look at the things that give you life and hope, and I'm just convinced that if the people are there, that's where we need to be. I mean, where else should we be? That's what the preferential option for the poor is all about."
But when it appeared that the move to the countryside would not be possible, Nenzel consented to being nominated for the election of a new provincial for her congregation, despite her preference to stay in El Salvador.
"I felt that my entire faith journey has been responding to invitations to move on. So my feeling was that I had to remain open, and that if it was going to be, there was no way I could say 'no.'"
If she hadn't been elected provincial, "there's no doubt that Margaret and I would have moved into the war zone within the year. She hopes ''there will be other sisters who'll be willing to come down and be called to that ministry.''
As she prepared for the trip home, Nenzel admitted to feeling a little scared—"maybe more scared than I would have been about going to live in a war zone."
''Part of the fear about going back is wondering if some of the change I've experienced—the identification with the poor—isn't going to be trampled on. I feel as if it's a tender shoot that hasn't been nurtured enough. But I think that's where I have to trust that there will be the nurturing for it.''