Column entry, “Sacred Space,” by Dennis Smith

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Column Title: Bearing Witness: Reflections on a Life in Mission

June Column Entry: “Sacred Space”

Column Description: If you hang around long enough, mingle with enough folks in enough places on this fragile planet, and pay attention at least part of the time, life happens. And with life, stories. In this monthly column, Dennis Smith, former President of the World Association for Christian Communication, shares communication insights and wisdom gleaned from 43 years of service as a Presbyterian mission worker in Latin America. Through mission service, God gifted Dennis with quite an assortment of relationships. Through them, the Divine whupped him upside the head and “invited” him to pay attention. To be present. To bear witness.


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Sacred Space

The group from Pennsylvania was still a bit groggy after the 11-hour flight from Newark to Buenos Aires the previous day. It was March 2014, and they had come to build relationships with partner churches in Argentina and Uruguay.

We had agreed to begin here, by remembering.

Since 2004 this has been the Museum for Memory and Human Rights, but during Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1974-83) it was the Higher School for Navy Mechanics (ESMA) and also a clandestine prison and torture center.

We checked in at the kiosk. I had arranged for an English-speaking docent but that turned out not to be possible. A group for Spanish-speakers was forming nearby. I quickly asked that docent whether we could join her group, insisting that I could provide simultaneous interpretation. There was no other time in our schedule, I told her, and these people had just traveled 5000 miles (8000 kilometers) to learn what really happened here.

The docent—a university student specializing in contemporary history— was dubious. There were 11 in our group, and she already had 12 Argentines. She would not sanitize the US role in what happened here, she said. Nor would I expect her to, I replied. To us, this was a sacred space and the memory of the dead and disappeared must be honored by learning what really happened here.

I will ask the others, she replied, and see what they say about your yanquis, or Spanish to English translation. After a brief exchange, the group agreed to receive us.

We took in the scene: A large campus, covering several city blocks. Two- and three-story buildings, nothing fancy, interspersed with green. Almost bucolic. An upscale neighborhood, along a broad thoroughfare lined with apartment buildings, clinics, the usual shops. How brazen to hide such a demonic enterprise here, in plain sight!

The River Plate—just a few blocks away—is 50 miles wide here; on a clear night one can see the lights of Colonia del Sacramento, the Uruguayan port town, reflecting off the clouds on the river’s eastern shore.

The docent takes us back to a time when the world was still in the throes of the Cold War. The Argentine military under Jorge Videla had consolidated control over the country and implemented a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against their leftist foes, mostly students and young professionals.

Right-wing military dictatorships also ruled neighboring Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay; all coordinated their struggle against the perceived Communist threat with the advice and consent of US military and intelligence services. In Argentina, this “Dirty War” killed at least 30,000 people.

One tactic used throughout the region was to “disappear” suspected dissidents and then torture them in secret prisons. Some bodies were dumped in clandestine graves, others were dropped from aircraft downstream into the Atlantic Ocean.

Based on tactics developed by the French in Algeria and the US in Vietnam, “to disappear” dissidents was a counterinsurgency strategy rooted in the social sciences. Psychology, sociology, anthropology— even theology and communication theory—had weighed in on how to make resistance to established authority so costly as to become unthinkable.

Photos and film clips—the buildings and the surrounding grounds, impeccable lists with cryptic notations—helped us to sense what it would have felt like to live in this place at that time. To have a son or daughter disappeared was to be denied the tangible catharsis of an arrest, a trial, a verdict. Finally, they were denied the closure of embracing and interring a body. The disappeared were never allowed to die.

We learned that more than a few of the young women captured were pregnant and forced to give birth in clandestine prisons. Their babies were “adopted” by the families of military officers, without the knowledge of their biological families. This, too—to steal a family’s future—was part of the plan.

(We learned that 500 children may have been born in captivity. Of these, due to the heroic efforts of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, more than 130 have now been identified through genetic testing and reunited with their biological families)

The tour lasted several hours. As we walked from building to building, room to room, people shared stories, asked questions:

“How did they keep this a secret, even from the students at the school?”

“Strict security was enforced. The detainees, as you have seen, were hidden away in attics and behind hidden walls. It’s easy not to see what you aren’t looking for, what you don’t want to see.”

“Yes, my brother was in the Navy. He attended a course here. He says he never knew. Last year he came to see for himself. To look at the pictures. See the names. Feel how they were imprisoned.”

“And the neighbors? What about the cars coming and going in the dead of night?”

“It was not a time when people felt free to ask questions.”

“And the doctors that tended to the pregnant women? And the priests?”

“Some of them are on trial now. Some claim they believed that all was justified in defense of the Fatherland. The church, the medical profession, the military, all will have to answer to history.”

“I had a niece who was disappeared. Through the research you have done we are almost certain that she was held here. Only now have we had the courage to come and see for ourselves.”

The group from Pennsylvania asked themselves what they were doing when all this was happening? Why was this supported by their government? Why didn’t they know?

The tour ended and we gradually made our way toward the exit.

“Now that we have seen this together,” our group asked the Argentines, “we feel ashamed. What can we do?”

“What you have done is a start. You came. You had the courage to show up.”

Before we left, the whole group gathered for a photo. We embraced. We departed.

Nothing had been resolved, really. But an experience had been shared, meaning was now held in common, barriers, for a bit, lowered. Profoundly human connections in a sacred space.

As the Pennsylvanians reflected on the experience, they gave thanks for the generosity of spirit of the Argentines. Would they have been as gracious if the tables were turned?

They agreed that this had been the right way to begin their trip. How could they understand the current challenges facing our partner churches without beginning here?

They gave thanks that they were allowed to be “the Other” for once. How different it would have been if the docent had spoken to us in English, without the questions of the Argentines, without their lived experience.

We somehow understood that this was not a moment to be bottled or franchised. The moment was enough. And now each of us, all of us, would have to decide what to do with what we had experienced in this sacred space.


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