02/05/2013 03:27 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2013

Easter in El Salvador, 1987

I once had a job in El Salvador. I fell into it by accident because I had just gone through an awful divorce, resigned from my church, and was looking for work. I heard that a foundation was needing people to travel in developing countries researching humanitarian agencies, and I applied for the job. They said yes, and suddenly I was living in Central America.

El Salvador in the 1980s was a tortured country. The U.S. was darkly involved in fighting their civil war, and ironically I was personally involved in fighting an internal war, over whether I would return to the church. Neither war seemed winnable.

I spent the spring of 1988 visiting villages in the province of Chalatenango. I was with a tall, red-haired, lapsed-Catholic journalist named Winston Burrows. We were interviewing people in towns being resettled by refugees who had fled to Honduras years earlier, but who were now returning home. They had decided that they could only bring true peace to their country -- and themselves -- by coming home. Burrows was writing an article and I was doing my research, but looking back I think I was actually searching for something deeper, perhaps more spiritual.

One of the communities we visited renamed their village, appropriately, Las Vueltas, "The (place of) Returning." We hadn't originally intended to visit them, but we were working miles away when we learned that the military had mined the roads behind us and we couldn't go home the way we came in. If we wanted to survive, we needed to go forward over a mountain to the next town. It was a long journey but we did it.

As it happened, the government had just ordered the people of Las Vueltas back to Honduras or face dire consequences. The villagers couldn't believe their own government would do such a thing, so they voted to stay and stand their ground. Burrows and I arrived, weary and wet, the very day the government's deadline had arrived.

An ancient, gentle Catholic nun named Sister Loretta greeted us warmly and escorted us to the local church. She brought us food, blankets, and hugs, and wished us God's peace. "Tonight is Holy Saturday," she said. "It's a special night." That surprised me. We'd been on the road and weren't following the calendar. "We won't hold the Vigil tonight because of the troubles, but tomorrow we will celebrate Easter Mass, and you will join us." I said no, because we weren't Catholic (Winston mumbled unrecognizably to his feet). "It doesn't matter," she said. "This is a time when the power of life is resurrected over the power of death, and everyone needs that, no matter their religion." I wasn't sure.

"Resurrection," she said, "is a sign of God's power to create peace in the midst of sin and hate."

Tomorrow we will pray for peace." Winston, the atheist, and me the doubter -- we both asked her why? Would it change what was going on in the country outside? She smiled slightly. "Maybe not," she said. "But it could change what is going on with us, on the inside."

She left, and had barely closed the door when an explosion went off in the street. It was followed by a second and third, bathing the sanctuary in light. We looked outside and saw a bank not thirty feet away in ruins. The sky was dotted with helicopters swooping over the town. The "representative" government of El Salvador was attacking its own citizens.

The church had little furniture and few hiding places but Winston climbed under the altar and I joined him. "You're the religious one," he said, "maybe you can make it do some good." I tried to smile, but my religious credentials didn't feel particularly helpful just then. It was thick marble -- the only thing there of much value or strength. Hanging above and to the side was a giant crucifix -- a plaster Jesus on a cross -- that looked ten feet tall. He watched us hiding beneath his altar.

For hours we heard pounding in the streets, punctuated by sounds of running and occasionally screaming, and endless dogs barking. The longer it went on, the less it seemed that we could survive.

One explosion blew the doors of the church off their hinges and into the sanctuary. The giant crucifix came loose from one of its wires and swung against the altar. A second explosion and the crucified body of Christ broke free and fell beside us, creating almost another wall of protection from the terror outside. He stayed there the rest of the night.

Throughout the night we hid under a marble altar at the feet of Jesus while bombs fell outside. I shook and trembled, and finally prayed. I prayed for a peace that I could never have prayed for in a calm suburb of North America. I prayed for a peace that I could not have understood in my previous life, a peace that might not change the world, but that could change me in the midst of the world. I grew oddly calm, even in the shadow of death. Weary, I moved to the crucifix and leaned against it and rested my head against Jesus' foot. I put my chin on a silver-gray spike, ringed by a trickle of plaster blood where it entered his foot. And I slept. I somehow knew that whatever happened, it would be all right. Life itself would prevail, even if my physical body did not.

When I woke up, sunlight was streaming through the windows of the sanctuary. Sister Loretta and others were busy cleaning debris. The villagers were returning to their homes and opening their shops, proving that they were still not afraid, still free. Incredibly, so was I. Winston was standing over me holding a broom and smiling grandly. "Hey, guy, wake up," he said. "It's morning. You're alive. It's Easter, and the Mass is beginning soon. There's work to do."

And he was right.