Traveling on the path of nonviolence - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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Fall 2022 newsletter


Bob Cunningham, El Salvador

Teens having fun during a Tú Decides workshop on health.

When it comes to playtime at the Refuerzo after-school program where Liz and I work, the boys default to either fútbol (soccer) or games in which they pretend to shoot each other. When playing “Red Light, Green Light”, for example, they pretend to shoot anyone caught moving, and they fall down “dead.” One might dismiss this behavior as “boys being boys.” On the other hand, it feels like it is hitting too close to home in a country where these kids are at high risk of being recruited by gangs, guns are everywhere, and the homicide rate is among the highest in the world (61.8 murders per 100,000 individuals).

Bob tutoring a boy at the Refuerzo after-school program in El Zaite

We live in a world where violence of all kinds – self-directed, interpersonal and collective – is ubiquitous. The history of brutal colonial and authoritarian rule and a deeply entrenched gang culture in this country have given rise to pervasive violence that manifests in many different forms, including gang-related, intrafamilial and gender-based.

The Refuerzo program is part of the Patronato Lidia Coggiola community center in the El Zaite community of Zaragoza, El Salvador. Children here do not have to use their imaginations to witness or experience violence on a regular basis. Many young people have been swept up in the recent wave of arrests connected with the government’s ongoing state of emergency, which allows police to arrest suspects without warrants. Since March, 46,000 people have been arrested on suspicion of belonging to gangs. Human rights groups say among those arrested are children who do not have any links to gangs. Families are struggling to have them released and exonerated.

Violence is one of the main themes in the workshops of the Tú Decides (It’s Up To You) program for teenagers at El Patronato. The goal is to raise awareness of the causes and effects of violence and provide tools for coping with it, i.e., naming the problem, claiming it and taming it. The young people participate enthusiastically. One young woman in the program has two brothers in prison. Despite her busy school and work schedule and the challenges of living in this violent environment with limited resources, she shows up with a big smile and participates in the workshops eager to learn and improve her life.

Violence is also evident in the prevalence of alcoholism here. We see individual and small groups of men lying on the streets in drunken stupors almost every day. On a recent afternoon, one of the girls in the Refuerzo program pointed out the window to a man lying on the street and said that it was her uncle. She shrugged her shoulders and rolled her eyes in an expression that said, “That’s just the way it is.”

Members of the Tú Decides teen group cleaning the neighborhood

And yet, the magnitude of violence here stands in stark contrast to a culture characterized by the warmth of the people, strong family connections and a vibrant community ethos. The programs at El Patronato tap into these values and provide opportunities for building skills, but more importantly, they offer hope and a sense of agency. El Patronato is just one small community center, an island in a turbulent sea of violence, but by giving and receiving love to one another, the members of the community are striving to live nonviolently and “enter by the narrow door.”

According to the Gospel of Luke, “Someone asked [Jesus], ‘Lord, will only a few be saved?’ He said to them, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.… Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last’” (Luke 13:23-24.30).

It can be difficult to see and follow a path of nonviolence. It is often shrouded, but it reveals itself in moments when a veil appears to lift and there is a kind of recognition, a connection with another person — a child’s gleaming smile pierces the heart, a teenager shares a carefully guarded hope, a mother hugs you like one of her own, someone holds your hand for an extra second to convey gratitude. Love shows the way.

The roots of violence run deep here in El Salvador, but the roots of love run even deeper.

Please consider making a special gift to Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ “Walk With Us” campaign, which raises money for the recruitment, training and ongoing support of all of us lay missioners. We can only “walk with” the people here because you are “walking with” us. Thanks to matching gifts, every $100 given to the campaign in effect becomes $150. To donate ONLINE, click the “Walk With Us” button below. Thank you so much for your generosity! 


Bob Cunningham
Working together with his wife, Liz, at Patronato Lidia Coggiola, Bob Cunningham accompanies and supports the education and empowerment of the people in El Zaite, El Salvador, particularly children, adolescents and women.