The Americas have become increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather events. Long periods of drought alternating with heavy rainfalls and hurricanes are affecting millions of people. This is especially the case in the so-called ‘Dry Corridor’, where water scarcity and food insecurity have triggered large population displacements.
Originally from El Salvador, Fray René Flores OFM works in Panama on issues related to human mobility, and advocates for the rights of displaced people across the region. We discussed what inspires his work, as well as the roots of his commitment to social justice.
Can you introduce yourself and explain your work?
I am a Salvadoran Brother who was appointed by the Franciscan Province of Central America as head of the JPIC (Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation) office in Panama. I am also a member of the Advocacy Committee of the Franciscan Migrant Network, for which I work on defending human and environmental rights. This includes accompanying migrants who cross the Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama, or Paso Canoas between Panama and Costa Rica. For this, I collaborate with the Clamor Network, whose goal is to strengthen Church organizations across Latin America and the Caribbean that welcome, protect, promote, and integrate people in situations of migration, displacement, refuge, and victims of trafficking.
What inspired you to start working on these issues and how does it relate to your vocation as a Franciscan friar?
I grew up in El Salvador in the 1980s and 90s, in the context of the civil war. At that time, many felt the call to serve and change the reality of the country, but this came with a price. Many priests, like Monsignor Óscar Romero or Cosma Spessotto, were assassinated for their commitment to helping the most vulnerable and calling for peace. This was also the case for friars that were killed during the civil war in Guatemala and the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. I started my journey as a Franciscan friar in this troubled context, which both challenged and inspired me to get involved in social justice.
What is the main challenge today?
A big challenge I see is the danger of apathy that leads to indifference in people. It is the risk of not wanting to get involved or organize social transformation because the system has already exhausted you, and you think that nothing can be done.
What is your proudest achievement and what inspires you?
The feeling of being with people walking in social transformation, who believe in Jesus Christ, and who at the same time are inspired to work towards a more just and fair society. It is walking with faith that inspires me the most to continue and to know that the Franciscan way fits very well in this journey with the people.
What is your main objective?
To strengthen the processes of organization and formation of the people I work with and for – not only peasants but also the whole Church. My goal is to be able to influence the Panamanian people so that they become involved along with other organizations and other pastoral agents in a process of transformation for better defense of life and creation.
How do you see the difference between charitable work and human rights work, and how do you think they complement each other?
I like the expression of Pope Francis who says that the highest and greatest form of charity is politics. Indeed, a good political decision can reach and benefit many people. But the term “charity” can usually only remain as assistance and help. Concerning the defense of human rights, I consider it best to talk about caring for the dignity and integrity of life. It is to seek that every human being and every living creature can exist in this common home, which is achieved through human rights work.
For more information, check out our main article on Franciscans at the Forefront of Human Rights.