Collecting Stories: The Subversive Cross

The "mother church," the "bishop's church," the church called "Resurrection" is home to a treasure of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church.  That treasure is called "The Subversive Cross."  The cross, made of wood, painted white, and inscribed words inscribed by suffering people during a time of war, tells a story - a powerful story of the transformational work of the Holy Spirit, of faithful people being encouraged and hardened hearts being softened.

Lutheran pilgrims to El Salvador often take time during their journeys to hear the story of the cross and to stand in its presence.  The story of the Subversive Cross has been told and retold, by Bishop Gómez, by his wife, by people who were present when the cross was created, by people who wrote words on the cross, by people who saw the cross in captivity, by people who remember its return to the people, and by people who heard the story as it has passed between family members and friends.

I have heard this cross story many times.  I have re-told the story many times.  A movement in our synod resulted in more than 120 congregations placing models of the Subversive Cross in their midst and I helped put together the accompanying devotional materials and transcribed version of the Subversive Cross Story.  Yet a few weeks ago, I heard something a little different, and realized there is more which can be said about this cross.

Pastor Santiago stood beside the Subversive Cross with a group of Lutheran pilgrims from his own congregation and from his US sister church.  I was translating.  The pastor asked how many in the group knew the story of the Subversive Cross.  Half of the US people indicated that they knew the cross's story, but not one of the Salvadorans could raise a hand "yes."   I thought, "For 16 years I have brought different groups to the cross.  How could it be that none of these Salvadoran friends could tell the story?

Pastor Santiago began:  "Each person has his or her own version of the Story of the Subversive Cross, but no one person has the complete story.  I believe it is necessary to gather the pieces of the story of the Subversive Cross from Salvadorans who now live far away, from Salvadorans who are now elderly, from foreigners who participated in and witnessed parts of the story.  I imagine that there are people out there who know something about the cross that no one else knows, and I think the time may be short in which to gather the versions together:  not to make an 'official' version of the story but rather to understand the story and the power of the Subversive Cross from many perspectives.

I was involved in the Resurrection activities which led up to the making of the cross.  People would come to church from all the communities surrounding the capital city.  They would arrive early in the wee hours of the morning, well before the worship began, and when they were together, of course they shared stories.  The people and the church at this time were never just about words but also about action. So the people took to the streets, marching around the periphery of the church, through the barrio, with signs calling for peace, justice and 'no' to violence.  These words of the people are what ultimately emerged on the cross."

We peered closely at the words.  Pastor Santiago continued, explaining how the cross was made:  "The people planned a vigil and during that vigil the people wrote the words.  The spelling errors and expressions of the countryside are written on the cross because the common people wrote them there.  This was a confession for what was happening in our country.  All of these words came out from the people because this was what they were experiencing and this was what they were talking about in the streets.  After the vigil, we kept the cross and it was placed along the wall in the church.

During November of 1989 the FMLN [guerrilla forces] made their final offensive [on the capital city, San Salvador.]  The area around Resurrection Church was surrounded by soldiers.  Bishop Gómez and other leaders were black-listed death squads looked for them.  They came looking.  We planned an escape by contacting the US Embassy.  When Bishop Gómez arrived at the embassy he found other church leaders - bishops and other high level people he knew - all hiding there.  When the Atlacatl Battalion came looking, they banged on Bishop Gómez's office door and on the doors of a nearby refugee center.  They arrested this cross as evidence of subversion, and they arrested some Salvadoran nationals and some foreigners.  They took them to the jail of the treasury police in Ciudad Delgado.  I was not at the church that day, but was in Ciudad Delgado. We could not get in our out of our neighborhood because we were surrounded by the military.  My work, with my friends, was to provide first aid to those who needed it.  While we were in Ciudad Delgado, we got word that the cross was there.  It was confirmed and friends saw it.

Bishop Gómez had escaped, and he spent time in Guatemala and in the US.  He traveled back and forth to continue his work with the people, maybe every couple of weeks and always under the radar, and this was very risky.  After some time, Bishop Gómez was on a plane returning to El Salvador.  He saw the Ambassador from the United States on the plane and he said, 'Hello, how are you?' and he 'chatted him up' and finally asked the ambassador if he could help the Lutheran Church to get its cross back.

The stories of the cross and its time in jail are well known.  The guards at the prison were affected by the cross.  President Cristiani was affected by the cross.  The guards said the cross did not belong with them.  When it was at the presidential house, President Cristiani felt that the cross did not belong there.  Well, you have seen the photo of the president returning the cross to Bishop Gómez, and that was negotiated with help from the United States and other foreign entities.

We did not put the name 'Subversive' on this cross.  That was the name given to the cross by the military which seized it as evidence of subversion.  The mystery of the cross as it denounced sin to the soldiers and the president caused it to keep its identity as The Subversive Cross."

See also:  Subversive Cross Litany, Subversive Cross Poem

If you are connected to the history of the Subversive Cross, please share your story and your perspective with me via the comment section or private message.  Your words will be gathered with the words of others into a collection of reflections which will be treasured by the Salvadoran Lutheran Church and faithful friends around the world.


  1. Thank you Linda. My name is Paul. I lived in El Salvador and worked with and out of the Lutheran Church between 1988 and 1994. I was at that vigil but don't believe I wrote on it. This was one of many experiences in the Church helping us to maintain clarity and spirit in the midst of a deeper seeking. On November 16th, 1989, the day of the massacre at the Jesuit University, my wife, another young Salvadoran, and myself were running an emergency refugee center at the church's school when about 15 internationals and 4 Salvadorans were taken away by the National Guard. In places were people were being tortured around us, all the words of sin on that cross were being acted out.
    I am visiting now in El Salvador and have had conversations with Pastor Santiago and Bishop Medardo, among many others. I saw the subversive cross there. I pray that the vision of compassion, justice, and peace they represent, from that time to now and into the future may truly become reality

    1. Hello Paul. Thanks for your comment and for your continued presence with the Salvadoran Lutheran Church! I think we may have crossed paths at Resurrection on Monday - was that you with the Bishop? I echo your prayers for compassion, justice and peace - may the witness of the cross continue to inform the church as it works for good amidst current challenges.


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