BY KELLY SWAN | June 5, 2018
“Part of the human condition is that we experience endings. But having lived in El Salvador, with the Salvadoran people, where this reality of the human condition is so evident…we have been taught that there is not a choice but to believe in the resurrection.”
Since 1999, Kevin and Trena Yonkers-Talz have served as co-directors of Casa de la Solidaridad, a program of Santa Clara University animated by the legacy of the Jesuit martyrs and the witness of Blessed Oscar Romero. The program was co-founded by Kevin and Trena along with Dean Brackley, S.J., Steve Privett, S.J., and many Salvadoran partners as a means to bring college students into deeper experiences of relationship and encounter in El Salvador and integrate those experiences with academic reflection and study.
In the ensuing 19 years, Kevin and Trena welcomed approximately 700 students from over 30 universities in the Jesuit network and beyond to the Casa. A lasting community, spanning years and continents as their alumni base grew, was built on the foundation of the power of shared experience—including the births and childhoods of the couple’s four daughters and deep and transformative relationships with the people of El Salvador.
In fall of 2017, when Santa Clara University announced that the program would close due to escalating violence in the country, Kevin and Trena began considering next steps in their commitment to El Salvador—and ways to commemorate the legacy of Casa de la Solidaridad.
Trena explained that she and Kevin envisioned a gathering that provided the opportunity for Salvadoran partners, Casa alums, and friends to come together to express “overwhelming gratitude for having been a part of this work for many years—for what we’ve all been able to accomplish together.”
As the commemoration plans took shape, attendance numbers grew, culminating in 85 Casa alumni along with representatives from Santa Clara University, including President Michael Engh, S.J. On March 24, the anniversary of the murder of Blessed Oscar Romero in El Salvador in 1980, hundreds gathered in the UCA chapel for a commemorative mass celebrated by Mark Ravizza, S.J., a former Casa faculty member.
While Kevin and Trena are adamant that the gathering was not intended as an ending, but rather as a celebration and means of looking forward, attendees brought their own experiences and reactions to the closure of the program. “Some alumni would say that it was devastatingly sad,” shared Trena. “Some saw this as a reunion, some as a goodbye, but also some as a renewal of their commitment to El Salvador.”
“The tone was layered,” explained Sullivan Oakley, a former student and staff member at Casa de la Solidaridad. “There was a layer of grief and sadness, as a truly transformative program was coming to an end. And it had so clearly touched us all that it was hard to imagine the world without it. It also felt like a bit of a celebration of all that had come before…a great reunion marked by memory, laughter, and deep gratitude.”
Allison Reynolds-Berry, also a former Casa student and staff member, who attended the gathering with her husband and fellow Casa alum, Patrick, and one-year-old son Colin, echoed Sullivan’s thoughts. She went on to share that the gathering was “an opportunity to say goodbye to the Casa as we had known it, without fully saying goodbye to the future possibilities of the Casa or to El Salvador.”
Sullivan agreed. “Of course,” she said, “there was also (as there always is with Kevin and Trena) a tone of dreaming, re-imagining, and looking forward. The resilience of so many Salvadoran communities has taught us, over and over again, that death does not have the final word. And so it is with this closure, there will be another word that God speaks in all of this.”
Kevin and Trena echo this deeply rooted belief. Even after nearly 20 years living in El Salvador, they continue to learn from the Salvadoran people who experienced the civil war and now increased gang violence. They explained that their Salvadoran community has encouraged them to sit with the sorrow of the Casa program’s end but to remember that we are a resurrection people and that the Casa’s closing will not be the final act.
“We are here because of the history of this place, because of the legacy of the Jesuit martyrs and Monsenor Romero,” explains Kevin, “to imperfectly live a faith that does justice.”
“Yes,” says Trena. “We are looking with hope toward what is next.”
Kelly Swan is communications director for the Ignatian Solidarity Network. She is a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University. Kelly has done work related to parish social ministry, child and family advocacy, community education and organizing, and magazine publishing in both West Virginia and northern New Jersey. She lives in the Cleveland, Ohio area with her husband and four children.