In the early 1980s El Salvador was engulfed in a deadly civil war between the right-wing Salvadoran government and the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (known by its Spanish acronym FMLN). The war lasted over a decade and resulted in the deaths of over 75,000 civilians, 85% at the hands of government forces. It also caused over half a million people to be displaced. In the face of the violence and the abuse of human rights in El Salvador and aware that the U.S. government was funding and training the Salvadoran military, three American Christians with years of experience in peace-making and social justice ministry decided to respond. They were Catholic priest Peter Hinde, Quaker activist Paddy Lane, and Lutheran pastor Daniel Long.
In the fall of 1984, Long and Hinde traveled to El Salvador where they met with Salvadoran church leaders and proposed that U.S. churches work for peace by “accompanying” the people of El Salvador. Their proposal was two-fold: (1) recruiting U.S. volunteers to live in poor Salvadoran communities (which would help to protect them from government violence) and (2) organizing visits of U.S. citizens (called “delegations”) who would return home and, from a Christian perspective, counter the U.S. government’s distorted narrative about the war. Salvadoran Lutheran, Episcopal, and Emmanuel Baptist leaders joined the Catholic Archdiocese of San Salvador in approving this plan, and in 1985 the first delegation of twelve people traveled to El Salvador to take part in events commemorating the fifth anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop (now Saint) Óscar Romero. They represented Christian faith communities from across the U.S. and had agreed to serve as Board members of the new organization, Cristianos por la Paz en El Salvador or CRISPAZ (Christians for Peace in El Salvador). On this trip they heard a clear message from the Salvadoran individuals and communities with whom they met: “Accompany us.” This request has informed the mission of CRISPAZ ever since.
As the situation on the ground in El Salvador has changed over the years, CRISPAZ and its programs have evolved in response Hosting delegations from the U.S., Canada, and more recently Australia has remained a central feature of CRISPAZ’s work. These were originally called “Christian Education Seminars in El Salvador” (and later “El Salvador Encounter”). But over the years many long-term Volunteers have lived and worked in El Salvador in often-dangerous situations as part of the “Christian Volunteer Ministry Program.” Due to the danger, the CRISPAZ Board developed an Emergency Management Plan which called for three Board members to be ready to go to El Salvador at a moment’s notice while other Board members would advocate with government officials of both countries on behalf of endangered Volunteers. Indeed, given the repressive character of the Salvadoran government during the war years, the name “CRISPAZ” was not used, and the organization did not seek legal status in El Salvador.
Eventually, partner organizations in El Salvador requested Volunteers with specific skills, and CRISPAZ responded by requiring Volunteers to be appropriately qualified and to commit to a minimum of 15 months’ service. In 1998 CRISPAZ launched a Summer Immersion Program to provide an intensive service-learning experience in rural Salvadoran communities. More intensive orientation and training in cultural adaptation were also provided. CRISPAZ also formed liaisons with the Fundación Óscar Romero (sponsored by the Universidad Centroamericana and the Archdiocese of San Salvador) and undertook an internship program with Santa Clara University in California.
In addition to sponsoring Volunteers (who often accompanied Salvadorans returning to their homes from refugee camps in Honduras) and arranging visits by North American delegations, CRISPAZ made a commitment to enhance communication between Salvadorans and North Americans through various publications. The monthly Salvanet (started by Dan Long and Suzy Prenger) provided analysis and commentary to U.S. readers. The monthly Salvador Chronicle (created by Linda Garrett) published news articles related to human rights gathered from the Salvadoran media. Volunteers themselves were encouraged to create blogs which detailed their experiences. In addition, people associated with CRISPAZ have published accounts of their experiences in full-length books. For example, in 1990, CRISPAZ co-published Scott Wright’s El Salvador: A Spring Whose Waters Never Run Dry, a collection of reflections about El Salvador by past and present Volunteers and Staff, and in 2006 Larry Rosebaugh recounted some of his experiences accompanying the displaced in his book To Wisdom Through Failure. As another form of communication CRISPAZ encouraged the creation of artisan cooperatives whose crafts were carried by Board members for sale in the U.S. And in 2009 CRISPAZ initiated an annual Peace Award to “recognize individuals or organizations that embody the preferential option for the poor in their work for the promotion of peace and social justice.” Not only does this award honor recipients but it also helps to publicize the work of CRISPAZ.
Over the years CRISPAZ has maintained central offices in both the U.S. (at different times in San Antonio, Cincinnati, Boston, and currently Louisville) and in San Salvador. In the face of the pandemic of 2020, CRISPAZ was forced to make serious adjustments. These included giving special attention to overall financial security, closing the office in San Salvador (which included the unfortunate termination of several long-term Staff members), and finding new ways to carry out our mission. Executive Director Francisco Mena Ugarte, Development Director Stanley DeVoogd and Staff members Andreína Barrientos and Rafael Garcilazo responded by designing a creative virtual immersion experience for groups unable to travel to El Salvador. This has proved highly successful.