Witness

Twenty-five years ago I got a call from someone asking if a young woman could stay at our parish rectory. “Meribel has suffered horrific abuse, someone who wants to kill her has tracked her to the Rio Grande Valley, and our group cannot find a safe place for her.”

Meribel in her new home

Meribel moved into our guest room. Each day that she was with us, she would arise before dawn. I remember passing the guestroom door (which she left open) and seeing her kneeling in prayer. In our daily interactions, I had kept in mind that she must have had demons that had taken up residence in her heart and soul. For all of her troubles, she was gracious and kind, but clearly suffering.

Fortunately, at that time, several places of refuge had been set up for survivors of torture, places where they could rest from their demons, and, perhaps, over time, exorcise them. Meribel went to one of these places in Ohio, where she met another survivor of torture, Sister Diana Ortiz.

Surrounded by friends, Sr. Diana Ortiz quietly died this past Friday, after suffering with cancer. “Peaceful” was the word used to describe her death. In the context of her life, this was a well-deserved way to pass away.

Sr. Diana was a kindergarten teacher working in Guatemala. In the words of the Washington Post’s obituary, “on Nov. 2, 1989, assailants Sister Ortiz identified as Guatemalan security forces abducted her from a convent retreat-house garden in Antigua and drove her to a detention center in Guatemala City.

Targeted for working with the Indigenous community — which the military had long brutalized for presumed left-wing sympathies — she said she was blindfolded and raped by three captors.

They burned her with cigarettes as they demanded names of Indigenous subversives, she said; a doctor who later examined her counted 111 burn marks. She was lowered into a pit with rats and decomposing bodies and later forced to dismember another captive with a machete. She was told the killing was photographed and videotaped, to be used as blackmail if Sister Ortiz attempted to seek redress. About a day into her imprisonment, a fourth man, called Alejandro but whose accented Spanish led her to believe that he was American, entered the torture chambers and ordered the others to stop. He said Sister Ortiz’s disappearance was making headlines in the local and American media.”

While being driven to another site, Sr. Diana escaped her captors, and made her way back to the United States. For the next thirty years, Sr. Diana dedicated her life to exposing the United States’ involvement in the terror wreaked upon indigenous people in Guatemala. She was publically ridiculed by some of the highest authorities in the State Department, routinely threatened by the CIA, and dismissed by the public as someone not quite right in her head. In spite of these troubles, she also offered important leadership in efforts to bring some level of peace to her companions who had suffered torture.

Over the next coming weeks, asylum seekers who have been remanded to the Migrant Protection Program (and many of them tortured while in that program) will begin to be released into the United States. These people face demanding challenges: aside from the burdens of the personal trauma they bring with them from their home countries, they will need to navigate the difficulties of beginning a new life in a strange place, during a pandemic, and in a nation that has told over the past four years that they are criminals and fraudsters.

The new administration, however, has publically committed itself to undoing the harms of the previous president. This new government could exercise generous compassion, and, more importantly, apply the basic concepts of justice to those seeking asylum.

In the meantime—in this moment—the life and death of our sister Diana Ortiz invites us to acknowledge that there are demons at work in our midst, and that many of them share our national identity.

Her life invites us as well to take courage from those who refuse to be silenced about the horrors that these people have wreaked upon the lives of others. She inspires us to live lives in which we welcome the stranger, however needy, into the sanctuary of our own homes.

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