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By Water and By Fire
by Sara Miles

The night I got pregnant someone was tortured and murdered nearby. I was a reporter living in El Salvador, and the road past my house ended in an overgrown ravine. I can't be exactly sure which night it happened, but I know that pretty much every morning during that fall of 1988 I'd go out and learn that a body had been dumped in the ravine.

Getting pregnant in the middle of a war wasn't an accident, but it wasn't a rational choice either. There was death everywhere; there was unspeakable cruelty and loss. There was this wrecked country and my own shaky, overwhelmed self. But I wanted this new life so much. I longed for more life.

As much as I wanted to be a mother, though, I felt unprepared, irresponsible, unworthy. One time, when the fighting got really bad in the capital, I'd gone to cover a battle on the edge of town. It was a crummy little barrio, with unpaved streets and families jammed on top of each other. The guerrillas were trying to shoot their way out of a cul-de-sac, and army troops were firing blindly at them. I got pinned behind a yellowish wall, along with a group of people from the neighborhood. Every once in a while, as the afternoon wore on, someone would try to dash across the street to safety, but the crossfire would drive them back. I remember the woman next to me cried a little bit, quietly; there was a guy with a gold tooth who was holding his kid tightly by the shoulder. I tried to decide if it would be better to keep my belly towards the wall, to protect the baby, or better to face out so I could see what was happening and maybe make a run for it.

I got home okay that night, but I was badly scared. I couldn't do this right. My child wasn't even born yet, and already I was endangering her. I felt undeserving and ashamed.
Then there were the romantic daydreams. Sometimes having a baby seemed like the single great gesture that was going to save me, redeem the mess I felt I'd made of my life, create enough joy to dim all the suffering around me. I imagined I was making a noble promise to the future, a vow that would transform everything.

But all around me other real people were living with that promise, and as their children grew and the sweetness of their love increased so did their heartbreak. I saw hungry kids, maimed kids, lost kids, scared kids, sick kids, shot kids. I saw a mother holding a dead child with the plastic barrettes still in her hair. I saw the relatives of soldiers, sitting outside the gates of the military hospital with their legless boys. Night after night, I knew mothers and fathers were still awake, waiting for their children to come home alive. I was heading straight into that suffering, as well as into love.

I thought a lot about fear, that year in El Salvador, and I asked everyone I knew about how they dealt with it. Some of my friends, like Ignacio Martin-Baro, a wry Jesuit priest teaching at the university, or Linda, a Maryknoll sister who ran a human rights office, or Gene Palumbo, a radio reporter who carried a Bible in his Jeep, were Christians. Some, like Hector or Leo or Guadalupe, who lived underground, "in the catacombs," as they liked to say, were dedicated communists. All of them had a faith that I could only dimly see, only guess at -- only wish for, without much hope.

But I could feel something moving inside me. As a foreigner, a journalist, I'd been able to at least pretend to have a certain distance from ordinary humanity. Now I was just another pregnant lady, inescapably marked as sharing it. I kept being drawn closer to people I didn't know. Women patted my belly wherever I went. A labor leader who was in hiding stopped our interview, made me take his chair, then went out in broad daylight to find me some milk. And at a political rally held by the leaders of the death squads, a furious young man spat at me. "Whose bastard is that?" he said.

I had no idea what was going to happen. Katie would be born, a miracle. Six months later, in San Francisco, I would hear from a stranger that Ignacio Martin-Baro had been dragged out of his house by the army, along with five other priests and two Christian women, and shot in the head. The next ten years would unfold in a dizzying blend of joy and anguish, as the war lurched to its desperate end, as my two closest friends sickened with AIDS and died, as I fell in and out of love with Katie's father, as my own father died, as Katie stood up and spoke and laughed and reached for more.

Choosing to get pregnant in a war is the closest experience I've had to the experience of getting baptized.

I'd never gone to church in my life until I walked into the small, quiet eight o'clock service at St. Gregory's early one winter morning. I was forty-six and had no earthly reason to be there. I'd never heard a Gospel reading, never said the Lord's Prayer. My hands shook when I took the chalice.

I drank from it. I ate the bread. I came back until I couldn't stop coming back. For a year and a half I received Communion, flooded with hunger and gratitude. I became a member, then a deacon, then set up a free grocery pantry at the church, all so that every week I could be at the altar, feeding others and being fed.

But baptism didn't really feel like my idea: when it first came to me, it seemed dangerous. I would stand there at the Table, looking out the doors at the font, a rough slab of rock split open, and try not to see the fresh water spilling forth.

I wept and wept as I felt myself being pulled closer. I wasn't ready. I didn't deserve it. I couldn't understand or control it. I still wasn't really a Christian, I kept protesting. I didn't even know what the Trinity was. Lynn Baird, a priest at St. Gregory's, told me the only question that I had to answer was right there at the beginning of the vows: Do you desire to be baptized? Oh, I desired it so much.

I wanted new life, but I also slipped into the same kind of romantic fantasies I'd had during pregnancy. Sometimes I felt so uplifted by the thought of being special, marked as Christ's own, that I forgot baptism wasn't about me. And it wasn't about the event, the particular day the water would wet me. I was just one of millions of people making a promise to suffer and to love. And God's covenant, like a growing child, was going to be there for the rest of my time on earth.

Nobody gets baptized alone. I walked out the doors to the rock because of the prophetic witness of Martin-Baro, because of that cup of milk on a hot morning in a Salvadoran slum, because beloved friends and total strangers had carried faith for me in the war years when I was unable to feel it. I walked out there because of the people I'd somehow found at St. Gregory's, and Mark, my godfather; because of my missionary grandparents and my atheist parents and Martha, my wife, who taught me how to pray. I walked out because somebody had been tortured and murdered, and because Katie was alive and beautiful.

I was baptized, grateful and undeserving, into the crucifixion of the world. And into living, daily redemption.


Sara Miles is a journalist who lives in San Francisco.

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