Front Royal man makes journey of understanding, faith

Tom Howarth

Although Front Royal resident Tom Howarth’s connection with El Salvador didn’t begin until many years after four American churchwomen were killed there in 1980, he said he has been “tremendously educated” by their impact serving in the community.

For the 35th anniversary of the tragedy, Howarth will be traveling to El Salvador with a commemorative delegation from SHARE Foundation, which will visit where the four women died and place a memorial there. Those on the trip will also stop by the National Cathedral and Archbishop Oscar Romero’s resting place after his assassination in 1980.

According to Howarth and the delegation itinerary, the delegation will spend a lot of time conversing and connecting with Salvadorans and attending a seminar on immigration. He said many in the delegation and members of the community they’ll speak with were touched by the churchwomen’s work.

“They were the ones that knew them best, and had worked with them and been assisted by them,” he said.

But the deaths of those public figures during the civil war are only the tip of El Salvador’s iceberg, Howarth said. In addition to the SHARE itinerary, he’s looking to visit Maria Madre de los Pobres, his sister parish in the La Chacra area of San Salvador. He said those that live in and around La Chacra live in fear of area gangs – to the point where he’s encountered public transportation drivers who refused to drive into the community.

“If I have any sense of uneasiness it’s when I got to my sister parish … it’s because of the impact of gangs and the fact that in some places, the gangs seem to be more important than the police,” he said. “People can’t walk through the community, they have to be very conscious of whose territory they’re in. I’m anxious to see what the impact of things have done to them.”

In light of the recent attacks on Paris and debates on immigration, Howarth said he’s looking forward to learning more about the effects of U.S. policy from within El Salvador. He said some children whose families are part of Maria Madre de los Pobres have fled gang recruitment to the U.S., where keeping in touch with their families back home can be difficult.

“Seeing that problem and those realities from the perspective of people in El Salvador will be very interesting and very challenging,” he said.

Past visits to El Salvador have meant visiting business owners he had interacted with through his work as a board member of Salvadoran Enterprises for Women while living and working in D.C. He likened the situation of working women after the Salvadoran civil war to that of American women after World War II. Gender dynamics in El Salvador is another advocacy topic that the delegation will focus on.

It’s been about a year since Howarth’s last trip, and he said he uncovers new layers of understanding for the community every time.

“I’ve been growing in my relationship with El Salvador since 1991 and I hope to continue that growth and keep understanding at a deeper level,” he said. “I also want to renew my commitment to the people there and to find new ways to be of assistance to them. … It grows out of a lot of the foundation of these four women that were killed and carrying out their work in a certain way.”

In Front Royal, Howarth said he responds to his calling by working with the House of Hope, the Congregational-Community Action Project and St. Luke Community Clinic. Despite fostering personal connections with those he interviews and continuously learning more about the scope of the local homelessness situation, he said his travels to El Salvador have fostered a spiritual connection – a “reverse mission” to gain a deeper understanding of the gospel.

“It’s a real spiritual renewal to go there. It causes you to have some very fundamental questions about what you believe and how you practice your faith,” he said. “People in El Salvador … the people I know there talk about Jesus as if he’s standing next to them. Their belief is that God is right with them in the suffering, that God suffers along with them.”

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com