An 18-member team from The United Church of Canada is now in El Salvador to take part in an international ecumenical conference for peace, to be held from March 17 to 19.

Moderator Jordan Cantwell and former Moderator Bill Phipps head up a group that includes two survivors of Canada’s residential schools system, plus a dozen or so veterans of Canadian church solidarity work with El Salvador. All will participate in The Ecumenical Conference for Reconciliation and Peace in El Salvador, which brings together about 185 international and national participants.

Through conferences and workshops, participants will listen, learn and suggest ideas to resolve the ongoing struggle for peace with justice in that Central American country. In recent years, violence there has escalated to levels not seen since the civil war of the 1980s, with 6,656 murders recorded in El Salvador last year.

Jim Hodgson, the United Church’s Latin America partnerships program coordinator, explained in a blog post why Canadian residential school survivors are part of the church’s team. He noted that there are many similarities between what they went through and the experiences of the Indigenous Peoples of El Salvador.

Until the 1880s, El Salvador had a system of communal lands for Indigenous farming communities. But that was dismantled, and by 1932, just 14 families owned 90 per cent of the land, with Indigenous Peoples forced to rent fields from the landowners.

In 1932, up to 40,000 people were massacred as a rebellion was ruthlessly suppressed. Many of these victims identified themselves as Pipil Indigenous, and spoke a language derived from Nahuatl. But the force of the repression against the Pipil led most to abandon use of the language and traditional dress.

If Canada’s residential schools system is an example of cultural genocide, Hodgson says in his blog post, dispossession of land and destruction of Indigenous identity in El Salvador must also be understood as genocide.

The conference will celebrate the work and teaching of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, and will examine models and/or experiences of peace and reconciliation in other countries. The United Church delegation, along with members of the Economic and Social Development Association, will also visit with ecologists and human rights defenders