A history of the Chapel and SHARE El Salvador

SHARE El Salvador and University Lutheran Chapel

In 1981, Eileen Purcell, a community organizer working with Catholic Social Service of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, made a presentation to the Lectionary Group meeting at the University Lutheran Chapel. Eileen had been invited by Reverend Gus Schultz to share her work with Central American refugees and the findings of her 1980 fact-finding trip to El Salvador. Archbishop Romero of San Salvador, El Salvador had been assassinated while saying mass on March 24, 1980, four US Church women had been raped and killed by the US sponsored military in December, and thousands of Salvadorans were killed or suffering persecution and fleeing the country seeking refuge. Many who reached San Francisco turned to the Catholic Church for help. The Archdiocese in San Francisco was turning a bright light on the situation. Catholic Social Service was committed to building effective services and advocacy for the refugees in our midst while at the same time addressing the root causes of the exodus.  Included in that Lectionary Group was Reverend Gustav Schultz, Pastor at University Lutheran Chapel.  Also included were several other future key players in the Sanctuary Movement.

Eileen Purcell presented the Lectionary Group  with the startling facts of Salvadoran brothers and sisters; Archbishops, Bishops, Priests, Pastors, Nuns, and more importantly thousands and thousands of people – peasant farmers, women, men, children, who were being slaughtered in a brutal civil war that raged with no end in sight in the very small country of El Salvador.  That day the Lectionary Group heard of how the war arrived violently and destructively taking away any chance of safe ground within El Salvador.  Those who spoke out against the impunity were killed or disappeared or fled for their lives.  Many were arriving in the U.S. with no where to go.  They wandered through the desert and through the cities traumatized and seeking safety.

Those present answered the call.  Pastor Schultz invited the group to consider declaring public sanctuary for Central American refugees.  Five congregations, including the Chapel,  began a discernment process. They met refugees, studied domestic and international law, and examined their faith traditions and the biblical invocation to “love one another” and to “welcome the stranger.” They also studied the potential risks and ramifications of providing sanctuary to refugees the United States government deemed ineligible for legal status.  They drafted a written covenant and invited each congregation to elect whether or not to adopt it.  And on March 24, 1982,  five congregations, including University Lutheran Chapel’s congregation, declared public Sanctuary for Central Americans with four Salvadoran refugees physically receiving sanctuary and staying in the Chapel for a period of time.   It was not a new thing, but a reaffirming of the Sanctuary promise that had been made during the Vietnam War for the sailors from the USS Coral Sea.  In those early days other faith-based organizations began to also join the Sanctuary movement, and the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant (EBSC) was formed.  The University Lutheran Chapel was a founding member of that Covenant.  They declared safe places for refugees, they joined together to raise awareness of the plight as well as the US complicity.  They helped refuge for the many Central Americans fleeing the wars in their homelands.

Shortly after declaring public sanctuary, Pastor Gus Schultz and other members of ULC traveled to El Salvador and to Honduras at the invitation of some of the same Salvadorans who had participated in Sanctuary, the Archdiocese of San Francisco and Concern. Their mission was to visit the United Nations-sponsored refugee camps that had taken in thousands and thousands of Salvadoran refugees as they had spilled across the borders fleeing scorched earth policies and massacres.  They returned to share the stories of what they had seen.  They returned with the pleas from the Salvadorans that they met – Stop the US sponsored war.

The war continued in El Salvador throughout the 80’s, and the Chapel continued to accompany the Salvadoran people.  Members of the chapel continued to participate in the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant (EBSC) and in other groups around the Bay Area to work to end the war, to help the Salvadorans in El Salvador, the refugees in Central America and throughout the world.  Delegations continued to go to El Salvador and to the refugee camps in Honduras.  International presence proved to save people – soldiers were less likely to capture, torture, kill peasant farmers and church workers when we were standing with them, accompanying them.

Pastor Schultz joined the Board of Directors of the SHARE Foundation and was a founding member of othe National Sanctuary Defense Fund and chair of the Board of Directors. He worked with the Lutheran Synod and the World Council of Churches to introduce Bishop Medardo Gomez of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church to those in the exterior of El Salvador.

By 1984, the Sanctuary Movement blossomed to include upwards of 500 congregations nation-wide, sparking a crackdown by the U.S. government. As US Sanctuary workers were threatened, arrested and put on trial by the US government the Chapel became a key player in the trial, and the National Sanctuary Defense Fund  (NSDF) raised millions of dollars to defend Central American refugees and the faith leaders who were persecuted for standing with them.  For a period of time NSDF was housed at ULC Press conferences were regularly staged in the sanctuary, members of the chapel sat on the EBSC board of directors and Chapel members continued to travel to El Salvador.

In 1987 the SHARE Foundation launched a  national campaign t called “The Going Home campaign.”  “Going Home” was a response to an invitation directly from the refugees in the UN camps in Honduras.  They had been there for almost 7 years and they wanted to return to their home villages in El Salvador.  Their children didn’t know their home and the camps contained innumerable struggles. The refugees asked the SHARE Foundation to accompany them on the perilous journey.  SHARE and ULC, as part of the Going Home campaign, helped to coordinate the delegations, work with the refugees and raise money to accompany the thousands of refugees in the camp back to El Salvador.

The Chapel joined SHARE’s Sister Parish program in 1988, teaming up with Berkeley’s Kehilla Synagogue to share the honor of being a Sister Parish with San Jose Las Flores (also a Sister City with the City of Berkeley through NEST’s Sister City program).  Several Chapel members have traveled to San Jose Las Flores meeting with the community carrying handmade gifts from the congregation and carrying back beautiful embroideries that were signs of our solidarity and accompaniment.

Gus Schultz once noted that Sanctuary was not a place, but an enduring relationship, a covenant.

The Chapel, and SHARE, have worked together through decades in relationship with our sisters and brothers –  from the sailors of the USS Coral Sea to the people of  El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, abroad and here at home.  We have been defining what it means to accompany one another – with prayer, communication, through raising funds and bearing witness to pain and joy.