Strong faith and the Church saved Salvadoran priest from war and destruction
BY JULIA GASPAR-BATES
The Rev. Vidal Rivas hails from the city of San Sebastian, in the central zone of El Salvador. Growing up in the countryside, he spent happy early childhood years living in paradise on a “finca,” or farm. (The following interview was conducted in Spanish.)
“The earth was very fertile, and we cultivated oranges, coffee, coconut, pineapple, sugarcane, corn, rice,” explained Father Vidal. “At age 7, I began working with my father in the fields. I woke up every day at 4 a.m. to collect water. Then I went to work at 6 a.m. until noon, and then I began to study in the afternoon.”
Although neither of Father Vidal’s parents could read or write, his mother was determined that her 10 children receive an education. And she eventually arranged for her eldest son, Vidal, to go to seminary.
“I wanted to become a pilot. I loved to watch the airplanes pass overhead. One day, I was at Mass, and I felt called to speak with the priest and enter the seminary. After six months, I became a student leader. I showed a lot of discipline and character, so I advanced quickly.”
In 1977, the Salvadoran Civil War broke out, and life became very difficult for Father Vidal and his community. “The war impacted me a lot because we lived in a very violent city. Every day, three to five people were killed in their houses by the army. It was a horrible experience. A city close to me, San Lorenzo, was completely destroyed. Only the bones were left in the houses.”
The military often targeted priests, who were defending the poor. Father Vidal witnessed numerous killings and recounted three of his own harrowing escapes from death.
“I was attacked by seven people. They broke my teeth with the point of their gun. They hit my head and my shoulders, and I lost a lot of blood,” he recalled. “The year before, I was detained by an armed group who stole my car, and they asked me not to denounce them. I was defending a young man the military wanted to kill. They put a rifle to my throat and were going to kill me; however, a higher-ranking officer arrived. He was a relative and saved my life. It was extremely traumatic and scarred my life. Thanks to God I am still here.”
Father Vidal came to the U.S. for the first time in 1991 to visit relatives living in Rockville. In the following years, he had the opportunity to visit several other U.S. cities and states.
Following a third attack, Father Vidal realized he had to permanently leave El Salvador. In 1998, he received work documents from the Archbishop of Washington and was assigned to a small church in Northwest D.C., Saint Gabriel Catholic Church, where he celebrated one Mass a week.
Father Vidal said that, unfortunately, a local cardinal found him to be too much of a revolutionary; he was removed from his post in 2001. “It was terrible because the cardinal and Archdiocese of Washington were insensitive, deaf and blind to people who were crying.”
The Washington Post ran a story about the controversy. For two months, people protested nightly outside the Archdiocese of Washington, which was planning to send Father Vidal back to El Salvador. “This impacted me a lot. But I didn’t leave the area. I preferred to stay to help the poor people with the unions, at Casa de Maryland to organize them.”
Eventually Father Vidal left the Roman Catholic Church because, he said, it was too conservative, and he was received into the Episcopal Church. In 2008, his Spanish congregation became tenants of St. Matthew’s Parish in Hyattsville. “We started with 35 members, but today we have more than 500 members,” he said. “We have a lot of solidarity. We are always helping immigrants and fighting for the poor.” Today the church is often referred to by its Spanish name, San Mateo.
Father Vidal indicated that he experienced culture shock upon first encountering Americans’ regard for private property. On two occasions, he was chased away by property owners — once by someone with a pistol when Father Vidal had stopped to sit on a door stoop in downtown D.C. “Here people are more preoccupied with appearances and buy lots of things. They want to consume a lot. I was used to a simple and poor life without a lot of complications. It’s another culture.”
Yet, Father Vidal appreciates “the order, the punctuality and the cleanliness of North American people.” He added, “Also, the discipline in school and the rules. The children learn this when they’re very young.”
Father Vidal explained that he likes Hyattsville a lot, especially because of its sanctuary city status. “I like the conviviality and sharing in the community. [And] that there is not racial discrimination based on language, religion or culture.”
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