Brother Tomas, Martyr of the Church of the Poor
Brother Tomás Zavaleta, a 40-year-old Franciscan friar from El Salvador, is the first member of the Catholic clergy to become a victim of the counterrevolutionary war in Nicaragua. His death in a landmine explosion on July 3rd shocked all of Nicaragua, especially the people of Matiguás (Matagalpa), where he came to work only three months ago. His death brought home more clearly than ever the importance of pastoral work in the war zones and of the presence of the Church of the Poor in this first line of fire. How Brother Tomás' death sharpened the conflict between Cardinal Obando and the Nicaraguan government is covered in this issue's "The Month." Here we will place the event in its religious and social context.
The place: The area where Zavaleta died is a hot spot of the contra war. In the department of Matagalpa, the Matiguás parish comprises 10,000 square kilometers where some 30,000 people live in dispersed and isolated communities. In the central part of the country, on what is known as the agricultural frontier, many of these peasants raise cattle as well as grow corn and beans for their own consumption. Here and in the neighboring areas of Zelaya and Chontales, the traditional exploitative relationship between the cattle rancher and "his" peasants was always masked by an idyllic paternalism, and the extremely fertile land allowed a hard-working peasant to live fairly well. A disintegration of this traditional cattle-raising world prepared the ground for the counterrevolutionaries to gain a social base between 1982 and 1985 with the promise that with them, things would return to "the way they used to be."
Matiguás, in the heart of Nicaragua
Several factors contributed to the disintegration and thus to the success of this counterrevolutionary dynamic in the area: the crisis in transportation, so crucial to commerce with other parts of the country; the crisis in commerce itself, due to the dismantling of traditional networks that weren't replaced with new ones; and the crisis in production caused by harvesting methods introduced after the revolution with little understanding of the area's special characteristics. To the message of "a return to the past," the FDN added religious arguments, presenting themselves as having been sent by God with the blessing of the pope. They represented the revolution not only as upsetting the established order, but as the enemy of Christianity.
To all this must be added the fact that in this and neighboring areas, the revolution had barely arrived when the military draft began, requiring people to defend a revolution whose benefits they had not yet felt. In Matiguás the revolution’s presence is still very weak and thus the presence of the counterrevolution is strong. Carlos Zamora, government representative in Region VI (Matagalpa and Jinotega), explains counterrevolutionary strategy in the region:
“As part of its general strategy for the destruction of Sandinismo, the Reagan administration concentrated a series of actions in this region to turn it into one of the main staging grounds for its plans. This was for objective reasons: a strip of border 175 kilometers long, an area with good topographical conditions for guerrilla warfare, a large economically, politically and culturally backward peasant population with tiny farms, and a system of such deeply rooted values as attachment to private property, conservativism, religious traditions, respect for people with a higher economic position....
For many years, the Matiguás parish has been in the hands of the Franciscans. Carlos Santi, the Bishop of Matagalpa, is a Franciscan, and Matiguás belongs to his diocese. Along with the Mercedarian and Dominican orders, the Franciscans were among the first to come to Nicaragua for pastoral work during the early part of the 16th century. It was they who brought to Nicaragua its most deeply rooted popular religious celebrations—Purísima (the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary), devotion to the Infant Jesus on Christmas Eve and the Way of the Cross.
The project: Father Ignacio Urbina, a 31-year-old Nicaraguan Franciscan, has been the parish priest in Matiguás since 1984 and survived the contra mine explosion. A few days later he underwent a delicate operation that saved him from becoming quadraplegic. The operation was a success, but he is confined to immobility for a long time.
Peasant survival in the war zones
From his hospital bed, Father Ignacio talked extensively with envío about the Saint Francis of Assisi Agricultural Project, a social project of the Matiguás parish he'd been working on for a year and a half and that Brother Tomás Zavaleta had enthusiastically joined. This project brings the presence of the Church of the Poor to this war zone; through it, religious faith is attempting to respond adequately to the peasants' basic survival needs, and at the same time awaken in them an appreciation for work in common. Here's what Ignacio Urbina had to say about the project:
"Given the chaos of the war and the problems of commerce and transportation, production fell tremendously; the peasants aren't motivated to produce. Shortages are terrible. There aren't any boots, machetes, insecticide sprayers... none of the things needed for production. In the face of this chaos, we thought first about how to get these things to sell them to the peasants so they could produce. Oxfam America was going to help us with this. Little by little we developed this and came up with the idea of a kind of credit and service cooperative, actually a production and supply project.
"In January 1986 the project went into operation, motivated by what is most essential in Christian life—love of one's neighbor, charity, faith joined to works. In each community, a pastoral leader—the Delegate of the Word or Catechist—has a book of sales orders. The peasant goes to his house and says 'Look, I need to buy machetes.' The delegate is responsible for screening the requests. 'Okay, what are you going to do with that many machetes when you're working alone? Why do you need more than one? And how are you going to pay, on credit or on account?' 'On credit.' 'Hey, I know you just sold a calf and have cash. What do you need to buy on credit for? Look, this project is yours, too...' This way, the pastoral leader, in the screening process, is conscienticizing the people about working in community, thinking not only of themselves and seeing that the project is all of us and that it's going to continue and succeed according to what we put into it.
"With the sales order, the peasant goes to the project office and is waited on there. If they're paying on account, they pay in kind—'How are you going to pay, with corn or with beans?' 'What's the price of a hundredweight of beans right now?' And then, when he produces his hundredweight of beans, that's what he pays with. And the project sells those beans and uses the money to buy provisions for the peasants. This year, the shortage of grains was serious and we sold them to the poorest, even though we lost money selling that way, in small quantities. But that's what the project is for, to let the poor help those who are poorer than they. Because not just anyone can be a member of this project, only the poor. Here our definition of 'being poor' is having no more than eight milking cows and not much land.
"The project brought results. It motivated production tremendously. In addition, faced with the labor shortage caused by the war, the peasants began to use new production techniques. For example, they weren't used to using any fertilizers. Their forms of production were very primitive and since the land was rich, they were adequate. But the war turned good grazing land into scrubland, and then came blights. Now everyone knows what to use for blights, which insecticides, which fertilizers... This project has brought about a kind of agricultural revolution. But the most important thing is that the peasants have grown a lot in their sense of serving their neighbor, helping one another, seeing work as a gift of God and a means for building the Reign of God.
"The parish initiated and carried out this project and the leaders of the peasant Christian communities managed it. Because the situation is so delicate in this area, I've been very careful not to let the project be politicized. The contras, seeing that it’s a parish project, realize that it would be hard to attack it directly. Since we've been careful not to let it become political and because the peasants aren't armed, the contras have been careful not to attack.
"I committed myself to this project because it's a concrete response, a response of love, and because it's about food, about the life of the people. In Nicaragua there are so many works like this that the Church can commit itself to. In some of the war zones there's no one else to provide these kinds of services. It was never my idea that this project should last forever. This is an immediate response in a tough time, and tomorrow, or whenever there’s no longer a need for the Franciscans to provide this service, it should end right there. Then there will be other work to do. The important thing is that the Church be present as a humble servant of the people in every place and at every moment.
"Brother Tomás was just getting into the project, looking for the best way to guide it along, where to grab hold of it. He was just getting to know the peasants when they killed him. On sale days he was there in the office, totally present, courteous, ready to look, learn, begin to build up relationships with the peasants. His function in the project was to encourage the others, to look after the administration, the accounting, the warehouse, see how things were working.... He was very obliging. For me the pain is this: how is it that in such a short time such a good man came to die here, this way? This pains me deeply; it reveals the cruelty of this war...."
The event:The Matiguás area has been a scene of permanent tension due to the counterrevolutionary war. Traditionally, the Jorge Salazar Regional Command has been the most active FDN company in this zone. But it wasn't "the Salazars" that killed Brother Tomás. All indications are that the ones who placed the powerful mine that took the Franciscan brother’s life were contras belonging to the "15th of September" company, who had been in combat with the Nicaraguan army from the early hours of the morning near the place where this event took place.
A mine, bought with the $100 million
As a result of those battles, to which the Sandinista army sent reinforcements, the original group of about 120 contras broke up, and one of those groups, about 50 contras, placed the TM62M anti-tank mine on the trail that runs between the small settlement of La Patriota and Matiguás. The mine exploded when it was activated by the red truck belonging to the Matiguás parish that served the St. Francis of Assisi Project.
At 3:00 in the afternoon on that day of battles, Father Ignacio Urbina requested permission from the military authorities to travel two kilometers from town. He took off in the truck with Brother Tomás driving. Despite the serious fighting taking place, the two Franciscans set out to go beyond the two kilometers they had permission to travel. They knew that the parish secretary, Emperatriz—"Tichita," as she was called—and her sister-in-law Digna had set out walking toward La Patriota, where they were to pick up some documents, and would be coming back over a difficult road, at nightfall. They had already found the women and were on the way back with them when the mine exploded. The truck was blown to bits.
Brother Tomás died instantly. Father Ignacio suffered serious injury to his spine. Tichita was in a coma for several days with a serious concussion and will be many months recuperating. Digna's wounds were less serious.
President Daniel Ortega commented on the Franciscan's death in a July 4th message to the people of the United States: “Despite the attempts of some to portray the mercenaries who are attacking the Nicaraguan people as the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, our people and our government cannot believe that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin could have been capable of defending the rights of the United States by directly or indirectly committing terrorist acts like that which caused the death of a Franciscan and seriously wounded other religious personnel in Matagalpa yesterday. Despite the pain the Nicaraguan people are undergoing, we remain convinced that the ideals of the Founding Fathers of US independence, which were also Benjamin Linder’s ideals, will one day govern relations between Nicaragua and the United States.
The martyr:The Franciscan Provincial, Father Damián Moratori, described to Nicaraguans the personality of this important man who didn't think of himself as important and who chose to work in Nicaragua. Father Moratori’s homily at the funeral Mass celebrated in Managua July 4th was long and charged with emotion. The text of that homily follows:
A man who chose to come to Nicaragua
"In the year 1220, Francis of Assisi sent five of his brothers to Moroccan lands. And when our brothers arrived in those lands, they preached peace in Christ's name and suffered martyrdom. When Francis heard that the brothers had died for Christ, he exclaimed, 'Now I truly have five little brothers!'*
*This is a Spanish play on the words for "Friars Minor," from the name of the Franciscan order, and "little brothers."
"Today the Franciscans of Nicaragua and of all of Central America can say with deep feeling that we truly have more little brothers. Since 1980 four of our brothers have been despicably murdered.
"Yesterday a young man gave his life for this country, which he had chosen as his own. This time a young religious worker, barely 40 years old. For being close to the people and for preaching peace, a simple man has fallen, a humble man, and generous, a man of El Salvador, another country tormented by war.
"When he was very young he entered the Franciscan order and when his superiors and his companions told him that because he was intelligent, he should study for the priesthood, he always refused. He said, 'I just want to be a friar minor, a brother. I only feel called to serve, and only through service can my life have meaning.' He chose this path in the order, the path of the humblest and simplest brothers, the path of those who weave their lives in the silence of the house, like anyone's mother. Even yesterday he had spent a few hours sweeping the house.
"Everything was wonderful to him, everything was important. And that's how he lived, this brother of ours, for 20 years in the Franciscan order, 20 years which we now give over to others. Throughout those years his superiors gave him many important jobs; they always assigned him to houses of formation, where young men were getting to know the order, beginning to love it and to commit themselves to it. This lay brother was for many generations of novices an example of the real Franciscan, the Franciscan making himself the servant, the least of all. And when the superiors discovered what great talents this simple man had, they as-signed him to the Franciscan offices in Rome, and the Master General himself chose him as his companion. He served the Master General as secretary and driver. Today, as I was looking through the few belongings that he had in his room, I came across a letter from the Master General whom he served with love, in silence, for six years. And he recalled, in his letter, that those six years that he had spent with Tomás were wonderful years, years of friendship, of pain and of achievement. The letter was signed, simply, 'Juanito, with much love.'
"After having served the Master General, Brother Tomás returned to Guatemala and his superiors assigned him once again to a house of formation, this time not just as a worker in the house, but as a member of the formation team for men studying for the priesthood, even though he was a lay brother. Brother Tomás never gave a lecture, never took the pulpit to give a sermon. His 'sermon' was working long days, rising early and retiring late, serving his brothers and anyone who came to him.
"At the end of last year, the Master General wrote to him, saying that he wanted Tomás to go to the US to work in California. Brother Tomás went into a crisis and said: 'Father, I'm a Salvadoran, a Latin American! My people are at war and it doesn't seem to me that my place is in the United States. I want to stay here. Send me where I am most needed, where my brothers are in trouble and I can help.'
"At that time, Father Ignacio, who's in the hospital now, told him that we had a cooperative in Matiguás with 1,000 families, a wonderful cooperative that was coming together to produce food, and that here he could work wonders. So Brother Tomás came to see me and told me that he wanted to stay, and gave me back the plane ticket I had given him. 'I'm going to Matiguás, I'm going to Nicaragua, I'm not going to the US,' he told me. He packed and by April 20 he was already in Matiguás. He started to work the day he arrived.
"Within scarcely three months this simple man, this little-educated man, this shy man, slow to speak, captured the affection of the children, the peasants, the people, with his eagerness to help. Whoever called him, he was always available, and often, during these three months, at risk of his life. Yesterday, just like any other day, two women of the parish went off into the mountains looking for some documents they needed. Brother Tomás and Father Ignacio found that out and just like that, at 4:00 in the afternoon they went off to look for the two women who would be returning, alone and on foot, along those difficult and dangerous roads. They found the two tired women coming home on foot, picked them and started back. If they had come by five minutes earlier, the mine wouldn't have been there, but five minutes later it was. The mine exploded, the truck was thrown a distance of 20 meters, and Brother Tomás ended his journey, there on a mountain in Nicaragua, a mountain he didn't know, helping two Nicaraguan women who were not his own people, but who the Lord—and Tomás, himself, as a Friar—wanted to help.
"Brothers and sisters: The life and blood of Brother Tomás are added to the lives and the blood that have flowed from many people. I believe that his blood, falling on Nicaraguan soil, sanctifies it. Losing a brother is cause for grief, but in this case it is also a cause for joy, because we see that he has been chosen to accomplish the words of Jesus: 'There is no greater love than to give one's life for others.' How many Nicaraguan brothers and sisters are crying and suffering for others at this very moment! We must make this life our own and try to take it as an example, because Brother Tomás chose to come here to serve his brothers and sisters and preach the gospel not with words, but with his very life. He preferred to give his life rather than live it selfishly.
"Brother Tomás knew what he was doing. On their way, a number of people warned them, 'Father, don't go, something might happen to you.' At 8:00 last night they told us what had happened. And we too went to the mountain, greatly afraid. On the way we met peasants and militia members who greeted us and gave us courage, and arriving at the place where it happened, I found a company of soldiers, who, with the peasants, were praying for the repose of Brother Tomás. They were still waiting for us. It had happened at 5:00 in the afternoon and we didn't arrive there until 9:00 at night.
"After putting the body on the truck, we went to Matiguás. The whole town, all the civilian and military authorities, children and people of all kinds were there, in a gesture of solidarity with the brothers who had suffered violence. In the tears I saw and laments I heard, I felt that if we were all united, if we could share with one another what life offers us every day, it would then be possible that the words of the prophet we have heard today would come true.
"In the face of this tragedy, this death, I have to confess in the name of God that yesterday was an overwhelming day for me. Coming from Río Blanco at 10:00 in the morning I found myself in the midst of a battle and had to take some wounded soldiers in the car. On the faces of those boys I saw the courage to give one's life freely, and there in that car I felt the Lord was accompanying us. When we parted, I said to them, 'Brothers, don't thank me for anything, it's God that you have to thank.'
"Yesterday was a day of violence, but even more so a day of solidarity, a day in which I felt once again the reawakening of the conscience of the Nicaraguan nation—this poor and welcoming nation trying to improve itself. That's why I say to you that the words of the prophet, where he tells us that we will return to our land and plant our vines and cultivate and harvest them in peace, have become key for me.
"In this very church, on July 14, 1979, preaching that same text—perhaps some of you were here that day—I said that listening to the Word of God, I felt that by the next Sunday we would be in peace. And so it was. The following Sunday we were able to celebrate our joy. As you bear your cross, I feel once again that if faith, willingness and sacrifice—this sacrifice added to that of thousands of people—are in our hearts, the Lord will also be in our hearts. And the words of the psalm will come true: Justice and peace will kiss. And the words of the gospel will also come true, that the death we are suffering today will be vanquished. Once again, the Lord is in our midst, sharing our suffering and bearing the weight of the death of Brother Tomás and of all of us.
"I have to confess that yesterday, embracing the body of Brother Tomás, I almost rebelled: 'Why, oh Lord? What did he do to deserve this, this young Salvadoran brother who left his country and had only just arrived in this country? Why him?' But then I heard in my heart Jesus' words about Lazarus: 'If you believe in me, Lazarus is alive.' And I believe that Brother Tomás is alive, alive from this moment forward in the memory of Nicaragua and of all those who knew him. Brother Tomás deserves honorary citizenship in Nicaragua.
"This morning, dozens of peasants who had only just begun to work with him in the cooperative came to the rectory. And I saw these sunburned men cry, because Brother Tomás was truly in their hearts. And do you want to know a coincidence, my brothers and sisters? Yesterday was the Feast of St. Thomas.
"The Lord called for this sacrifice. As superior of the Franciscans, in the name of all my brothers in Nicaragua, Central America and Panama, I am proud to offer you this life. I am deeply moved by this privilege that the Lord has given once more to us Franciscans. We preach the Word, not as a job, but through the very gift of our lives.
"I envy Brother Tomás, because I lived seven years in the mountains of Matiguás and went through many dangers, but never managed to achieve this completeness of giving myself and of service. In the name of the Lord, I offer you his life. I offer it to this country, and I hope that his mother, his brothers and the entire country of El Salvador can also offer this gift.
"I want to conclude by thanking all those people who, since 5:00 in the afternoon yesterday, have lived through this tragedy with us: the militias, the people who took Brother Tomás' body to the house and stayed with it until we arrived last night, those we met on the way.... I don't know your names, I don't know your faces.... I want to thank the Matiguás authorities, who put the communications system at our service all night long so we could talk to people all over Central America. I want to thank the doctors, the soldiers. I don't know your names, but I do recognize your help and your love. I want to thank the people of Matiguás and all the people of Nicaragua. I want to thank His Excellency President Daniel Ortega who came to the Matagalpa Hospital today to share our grief with us, and I also thank all those who came with him. I thank all the priests present here, and Comandante Tomás Borge for the gesture of love, of being here with us today. This is a moment that brings us together in solidarity, not because of a political association, but because of a man who gave his life and invites us to join in solidarity together, so that Nicaragua might be truly a free Nicaragua, a Nicaragua at peace, a Nicaragua where—as the Word of God tells us—we can build houses and reap in abundance, not only for this country, but also for others who need it.
"May God bless Brother Tomás and welcome him into His Kingdom!"
We end with the words of Father Ignacio Urbina: "When I came to, I was drowning in my own blood. On top of me was Brother Tomás, dead. When the peasants took me on a mule to Matiguás, in the midst of all that pain, I offered up everything for the peace of my people and the unity of the Church. They are painful, all the divisions in our Church, the ideological divisions, and sometimes even our own close-mindedness and selfishness. I offered all this to the Lord, in the hopes that so much sacrifice might contribute to that sincere dialogue that must happen between the Church and the government. And I offered it up for the peace of my people, a people who have lived too long in martyrdom.
"If I were before the Congress of the United States I would ask them not to give any more money. As long as there are dollars from the United States feeding them, there are going to be contras. Those dollars mean a martyrdom of who knows how many years. The fruit of those dollars is nothing but pain for the people. I think that today Francis of Assisi would work for peace for the people of Nicaragua and for the unity of the Church. And that's what we Franciscans, his children, most long for."