MARINA Castellanos’ friends and relatives were being kidnapped, tortured and murdered, and she was left asking “Where is God?”
Her faith was shattered and it took a man who is now a saint to give her the answers she needed.
The Brisbane grandmother was caught up in the middle of a civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s when she was a psychology lecturer at the national university.
Marina was a Community Leader of the Year finalist in The Catholic Leader’s recent Community Leader Awards 2019 for her work with Brisbane’s Latin American Catholic Community.
Her passion for her faith and her community has its roots in that time of pain and persecution in El Salvador.
“I used to belong to the teachers’ union, which was a very strong union in El Salvador, and just to be part of that union was very dangerous because many, many teachers were killed,” she said at her home at Coopers Plains on Brisbane’s southside.
“About 600 teachers were killed.
“Some of them were killed, others disappeared and some of them were tortured so it was a very bad situation.”
Marina plunged into a crisis of faith because she was seeing “so much injustice in El Salvador”.
“The people were being killed, people from the union were tortured, my students were being kidnapped and killed, friends of mine who were teachers were kidnapped, tortured and killed and disappeared, so I went through that struggle in myself (and asked), ‘Where’s God? Where is my God? Why …?’,” she said. “(And) you know why I came back to the Church?
“Romero – he made me come back to the Church.”
St Oscar Romero was then Archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital, and he was assassinated in a hospital chapel on March 24, 1980.
That was the price he paid for speaking out against the violence, persecution, injustice and killings.
Marina met him when he visited the university to speak to the students and staff, and she would hear what he had to say when he preached in the San Salvador cathedral.
“When I started to listen to him, the way he preached and the way every Sunday he was denouncing all the injustices of that week, and I thought to myself, ‘Well, the perception of God I had was a very angry God, a God who had no concern about people, just to give rules and following the rules …’,” she said.
“When I was little, my grandmother used to tell me, ‘If you don’t behave, the earth will open and you will be swallowed …’ and I held that image and said, ‘That God is very bad …’
“So this is why when we had that oppression in El Salvador, I said, ‘Where is God?’
“And then, ‘Why does he allow the people to torture, to kill the person and persecute people?’
“And then Bishop Romero made me come back to the Church and to believe there was a God of justice, a God who loves all of us, no matter where we come from and whether we are poor or we are rich, but particularly if we are poor …
“He made me come back to the Church.
“And I started to get into another journey to reshape my whole perception of that God I had during my youngest years and in another God who is a God for everyone, who loves us – all of us.”
Marina and her late husband Mario fled the violence with their four daughters around 1988, coming to Brisbane under a humanitarian immigration program along with many others.
The early days were particularly difficult.
“It was very hard for me to adapt to this country,” Marina said.
“I never cried in my life like I did for the first two years.
“I cried a lot because everything was strange for me, very different.
“I remember I used to watch a program for little kids on television, and I was crying because I was a teacher in my country, and here I had to be like a little kid watching TV and children’s programs just to learn the language.”
Fired by the words and actions of Oscar Romero, Marina turned to the Church, and found the support of the late Mercy Sister Mary de Lourdes Jarrett who is legendary for her work with migrants and refugees.
“She came to my place, because she was very concerned about me because all my daughters went to the school and I stayed alone at home and I felt so lonely,” she said.
“And she used to come to my place to be a companion, and she helped me.”
Another important step was a visit to the Catholic Mission Office where she met Jose Zepeda and the late Mary Gavin who were also supporting migrants and refugees.
Jose invited her to come to the office as a volunteer and, as teacher who spoke Spanish, she was valuable in helping people from the countries of Latin America.
The Mission Office eventually employed Marina as a cross-cultural pastoral care worker and, after about 10 years, she was volunteering with the Latin American Catholic Community.
Although she has stepped back from some of her official roles with the community, she remains active assisting catechists and the co-ordinator of the RCIA program, and preparing parents and godparents whose children are being baptised.
She particularly loves being part of one of about 15 small Christian communities among the Latin American Catholics that meet regularly around Brisbane.
“In my case we have a small Christian community of seniors and we gather every two weeks, and that’s very good because it’s becoming part of our extended family …,” she said.
The groups are similar to the small Christian communities that operated in El Salvador around the time of the civil war.
“During the civil war, some of the co-ordinators of the small Christian communities were killed, particularly in the poor areas, and so they didn’t continue because they were hiding and persecuted,” Marina said.
So the small Christian communities suffered back then; now they are healing.
“Yes, it’s very interesting. But I believe we all have a need of healing, to be healed,” Marina said.
“It could be spiritual, it could be emotional, it could be psychological.
“All the time we need that.”
And, in faith, Marina believes that best happens in community.