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An extended retreat in El Salvador

First slide

Father Alexander Diaz was standing in the airport in San Salvador, El Salvador, with his luggage — a light bag containing a pair of shoes and a few changes of clothes — ready to board a plane back to the United States when the airport shut down. 

Only a few days after arriving in his native El Salvador March 9 for a weeklong silent retreat in the mountains, he learned he needed to return to the states due to the escalating coronavirus pandemic. He already had reached the airport when El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele closed it and stopped departing flights. 

Inside the airport, passengers were complaining and crying as Father Diaz tried to reach someone who could help him. 

“I was frustrated,” he said. “In my thoughts, I needed to come back because the following Saturday (I had) a big retreat,” he said. “My concern was, who is going to cover that?” He knew he also had weddings and quinceañeras to prepare for among other duties as the parochial vicar of Our Lady of Angels Church in Woodbridge.

“I think in that moment nobody saw that the disaster was coming to us,” he said.

He spoke with an attendant at a service counter who said they were negotiating with the president about proceeding with the flights already prepared to go. After waiting in the airport for six hours, he learned the flight would not depart. 

So began his monthslong layover.

“The interesting part of this was I wasn’t ready to be in my country for so long a time,” said Father Diaz. 

Unable to leave as more countries restricted travel and entered lockdown worldwide, he joined his mother, younger sister, brother-in-law, and their two children in a house in a rural area. There was no internet, he had only a few belongings in his bag and was unable to buy anything due to store closures. 

Despite the constraints, he was happy.

“For me it was a blessing,” he said. “It was a blessing to be with (family), even in quarantine.”

Ordained in El Salvador in 2006, Father Diaz was assigned to the Diocese of Arlington just a few months after. Since then, the longest he’d spent at home was a week and a half. Now, one of the few things left unlimited was family time.

He adjusted to a new lifestyle as restraints in the country increased — residents over 60 could not go out; only one member per family could go out at a time; and police ticketed or sent to quarantine centers anyone caught outside without a reason.

At home, he gardened, prayed with his family and celebrated Mass — he had his alb and chasuble, and a nearby church supplied hosts and wine.

He upgraded his cellphone plan and began ministry from afar, sending daily reflections through WhatsApp, a messaging app, and livestreaming Mass on Facebook. He was able to continue most of his ministries remotely.

“I never lost connection with the people,” he said.

While ministering to his church from a distance, up close he witnessed the effects of the pandemic on the people in El Salvador, hit hard by the lockdown.

“It’s so stressful for me because when I saw the people cry for food or help, that makes me so down because I want to help them, but I can’t,” he said. “We need to accept the situation with faith; God is going to provide.”

As travel restrictions continued, he applied to the U.S. Embassy for aid and was approved to return to the states on one of the weekly United flights that lands empty, boards and carries passengers to the United States. The first flight, May 5, was canceled. He rescheduled for May 11, but he came down with a fever and a kidney infection, a painful condition he attributes to the hot temperatures. His doctor advised him to wait a few more weeks. Finally, May 24, he once again made his way to the airport — a very different scene from the hubbub and confusion he witnessed more than two months earlier.

“The airport was like a scary movie, everything empty, everything closed, nobody was there,” he said. “I was down and depressed when I saw it, everything was quiet.”

After flight delays and a layover in Houston, he returned to Virginia and began his two-week quarantine, using the time to prepare to move for his new assignment as pastor of Queen of Apostles Church in Alexandria — and to reflect on the past few months.

“My retreat was just God teaching me … we don’t need a lot of things to be happy,” he said. “We need to abandon ourselves to his will.”

His extended retreat, though not the silent, self-guided experience he expected, nonetheless became a profound spiritual experience: “God teaches me I need to live in simplicity,” he said. “God teaches me I need to enjoy the poverty like other people in the world.

“My time in El Salvador reminds me of who I am.”

As he faces his newest adjustment, becoming pastor at a different parish, he sometimes feels apprehensive. But “God had a plan and that was to prepare me for something,” he said. “I don’t know what it is, but he was preparing me for something. I’m sure about that.”

Bartlett can be reached at Meghan.bartlett@catholicherald.com.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020