One Sunday in November, the Rev. Don W. Lewis was at the altar of St. Edmund's Episcopal Church in San Marino. He delivered a sermon, served Communion and led the well-heeled congregation in a few rounds of "Amazing Grace." It was just another Sunday in the life of a suburban priest--with one exception.
Twelve hours later, Lewis was airborne for the front lines of El Salvador, where for three days he would distribute medical supplies, console church workers and, in one especially dangerous moment, camp out with refugees on the floor of a school as mortars and gunfire exploded all around them.
And then, after a five-hour TACA Airlines flight, he was back in San Marino, worrying about next year's church budget and finance committee meetings.
Lewis is a commuter on the Los Angeles-San Salvador shuttle, one of many. Fueled in part by the wealth of Westside liberals, the flashy activism of Hollywood and the presence of a huge Salvadoran refugee population, Los Angeles has become linked in an extraordinary way to the conflict in El Salvador.
The pipeline that funnels people and material between a peaceful city and a war zone's capital is fed by legions of Los Angeles activists. They set up blood banks, charter relief planes, stockpile medical supplies. And many take breaks from their daily Los Angeles lives to dash down to El Salvador and deliver money, medical supplies and the like.
"I'm beginning to become a frequent flier," said Lynne Halpin, a retired aerospace personnel director from Whittier and veteran of numerous trips to El Salvador.
On the Los Angeles home front, they stage press conferences with television actors and rock singers, receive faxes with the latest battle reports from the guerrillas, attend "emergency" fund-raising meetings in comfortable homes in the best Westside neighborhoods. Some work quietly through their churches; others take center stage in spirited sit-ins outside the U.S. Federal Building. Many go to jail. They march on the Salvadoran Consulate, boycott Salvadoran coffee.
The movement found renewed life last month when leftist Salvadoran rebels launched their largest offensive in 10 years of civil war. El Salvador had again become a \o7 cause celebre\f7 , and entire networks began springing into action.
Some are unabashedly supportive of the Marxist-led guerrilla coalition, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, which is fighting to oust the right wing, U.S.-backed Salvadoran government. Others say they oppose violence from both sides and call for a negotiated peace in El Salvador. While there certainly are supporters of the Salvadoran government in Los Angeles, especially among the estimated 300,000 immigrants from that country, they tend to keep a lower profile than the anti-government movement.
"Los Angeles is an alternative to Washington," said Richard Walden, an attorney and head of Operation California, a 10-year-old international relief organization located on Melrose Avenue in West Los Angeles. "You can get high-profile people to speak out on issues . . . (and) getting funds together is not a problem here. There's always enough Hollywood money when it comes to Nicaragua and El Salvador."
When Walden chartered a DC-8 for a relief mission to Nicaragua last year, after the devastation of Hurricane Joan, it took 24 hours to raise the $40,000 charter fee, he said. And last month, Operation California and other relief agencies airlifted more than 20 tons of donated medical supplies to El Salvador. Even Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony joined the shuttle, personally flying to San Salvador to deliver the material to Salvadoran leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Salvadoran government looks askance at the large number of groups working in Los Angeles. At best, say Salvadoran officials, the activists are misguided romantics who do not understand El Salvador; at worst, they are communist-inspired fronts for the guerrillas.
Lewis, the San Marino priest, arrived in San Salvador late last month to find that the city's only Episcopal Church had been raided by government troops, its rector and 17 of its lay workers arrested.
"It's as though they declared war on the churches in El Salvador," Lewis, 58, said later, recalling the experience.
It was his third trip to the Central American country, but the decision to make this one came only after a good dose of agonizing.
Among those accompanying Lewis on the five-hour commercial flight to El Salvador were two other Episcopal priests from Pasadena's All Saints Church, Susan Buell and Tim Safford, and Halpin, the self-described frequent flier who represents the United Methodist Church leadership.
Before leaving, the group underwent a three-hour briefing at the offices of a local refugee organization, receiving such pointers as how to clear airport inspections and who to call (the U.S. Embassy, the Catholic Archdiocese, a congressman) if anyone got stopped.