It was the seventh youth pilgrimage Stewart had led to El Salvador.
The trip aimed to expose the young people to a different culture, “yet show them that people here have the same aspirations,” said Stewart. In the more than 20 trips he has made to El Salvador over the years, he added, “I’ve learned that people are the same everywhere, they can be joyful and happy in grinding poverty.”
Besides visiting the various historical sites, the group also traveled to communities of extreme poverty assisted by the church and Foundation Cristosal, a human rights-based community-development organization.
One thing Cleaver-Bartholomew noted toward the end of the weeklong visit to El Salvador was that, despite the history of violence and the violent current reality – El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world – people live in relative peace, without the everyday anxieties suffered by people of affluence.
“You’d think it would be the opposite,” said Cleaver-Bartholomew. “I’d heard about El Salvador before I came, but it doesn’t add up until you get here.”
From 1980-1992, El Salvador suffered a brutal civil war fought between its U.S.-backed, military led-government and a coalition of guerilla groups, organized as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN. The war was fueled mostly by the gross inequalities that existed between a small group of wealthy elites who controlled the government and the economy and the majority of the population that lived in extreme poverty.
Pilar Padrón, one of the group’s chaperones, first visited El Salvador on a similar youth trip from Central New York.
“The last time I came down I was their age,” said Padrón. “It changed my life so much, I’m excited to see how they are changed.”
Padrón first visited El Salvador when she was 16. She previously had visited the Dominican Republic, where her father was born. Still, she said, nothing prepared her for the poverty and the resiliency she witnessed.