Rafael’s Story

Rafael’s Story

by Lisa Marie Belz – America Magazine

Remembering the stranger we are commanded to love

We met Rafael’s battered body in Capulín, El Salvador, where the dusty road out of the parish of Chirilagua reached its highest and widest point. From there, one can survey the western part of the 200-square-mile parish: the cornfields climbing steep, deforested mountains and mud and stick huts dotting the deep valleys, surrounded by pyramid-shaped volcanoes jutting up from vast ancient flood plains blanketed by the sugar cane and cotton fields where so many underpaid serfs work from sunup to sundown under the relentless and brutally hot tropical sun. Not too many days before, a young and vibrant Rafael had passed by this very spot, eager for a new life of promise in El Norte. But on this day, weighed down by hearts heavy with grief, we gathered together as a parish family to meet the “hearse,” a beat-up old pickup truck that would bring home our young friend’s lifeless remains.

I first met Rafael while directing a young catechists’ retreat. With only 50 or so priests for a population of nearly two million Catholics, the Catholic Church in this diocese in El Salvador exists because of catechists like Rafael—faith-filled, dedicated and committed young men and women who deeply love God and the church. Rafael had a joyous, exuberant personality that attracted many of his young companions, and I was delighted when he sent them to be trained as catechists alongside him. One day Rafael asked me if he could borrow our Spanish-language recording of “Jesus of Nazareth” (1977), by Franco Zeffirelli, to show in his village. He was certain that all the jóvenes, or teenagers, in the town would come the following Saturday to the little chapel to watch it.

His little town along the Salvadoran coast had recently acquired electricity, and a stateside relative of one of the townspeople had donated a small television set and a video cassette player to the local Catholic chapel. I hesitated to lend out the valuable video, but he assured me, with his broad, toothy grin, that he was very responsible; and he promised to return it the following Sunday, when he would walk the four hour round trip on foot through the mountains to attend morning Mass at the parish church, his weekly custom. Something inside told me to take the risk and, sure enough, after Mass the following Sunday, Rafael spotted me out to return the video in person, showing me his customary smile. “See, Madre,” he said, “I told you, I’m very responsible. And, just as I said, all the jóvenes came to watch it. We had a great time together!”

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