For the past year, a congregation of Salvadoran immigrants has gathered in a Pikesville church every other Sunday to pray for peace in their ravaged homeland and to donate part of their meager earnings to help rebuild the shattered lives and homes of their countrymen.
Last Sunday they came to pray again, but this time it seemed their prayers had already been answered.
A few days before, final agreement had been reached between the Salvadoran government and leftist rebels to end the 12-year-old civil war that has claimed more than 75,000 lives and drove many of those in the church from their homes.
"I hope that this is not only a peace that is written on paper," said Miguel Angel Rivera, a 39-year-old native of El Salvador who came to Maryland eight years ago and who now works as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant in Catonsville. "I hope it is a peace that lives in the hearts of all Salvadorans."
It was a sentiment shared by all of those who gathered at St. Mark's on the Hill Church at about midnight -- just after closing time at the restaurants where they work as busboys and cooks. The group of about 20 men and two women stood in a circle, lifted glasses of sparkling grape juice and expressed the hope that the peace is real.
But most were skeptical, the memories of the brutality and devastation still too vivid. And, while they remain committed to sending money home, many of the immigrants said they would prefer to stayhere despite the prospect of an end to the civil war.
"There are no schools. There are no jobs. There is no food," said JoseElias, a 28-year-old immigrant who was in the Salvadoran army when he left his unit and made his way to Mexico before coming to the U.S. three years ago.
"If the people do not have those things, there will still be fighting. Besides, even when there wasn't a war, the government did not respect the human rights of the civilians. They killed people on the streets all the time."
A flood of immigrants has poured into the United States since the start of the war. In Maryland last year, more than 10,000 Salvadorans were given Temporary Protective Status, which allows them to live and work in the United States for 18 months.
Mr. Rivera organized the group of 70 immigrants who live and work throughout the western edge of Baltimore County a little more than a year ago. They worship together. Groups of five and six of them share apartments. They help each other find work -- usually kitchen jobs where they do not have to speak English.
On the last Sunday of every month, the group gathers and each person donates $10 to pay for food, medicine, clothing and housing to support the village of Ciudad Barrios, on the outskirts of San Miguel.
"When I went home to visit my country in 1988, I saw a woman with seven children," said Mr. Rivera. "She was giving them away to strangers because she didn't have any money."
"I saw someone taking away one of her little boys," he said. "He was crying so terribly. When I came back here, I knew I had to do something."
Photos of the people in and around Ciudad Barrios who have benefited from those donations, along with short biographies of them, are posted on the walls of St. Mark's church hall. Many more photos and biographies are tucked away in Mr. Rivera's sparsely furnished apartment in Catonsville. In all, he estimates that his group has helped some 30,000 people.
Led by the Rev. Robert Stuckey, who celebrates the Sunday midnight Masses for the group, the Salvadorans prayed for those who could not be saved. "They are the ones who really deserve a toast," said one woman.
They thanked God for the safety of their families. But few were eager to return home to their relatives.
"My parents called me last week and they were very happy," said Jose Midon Guzman, 22. "They said that this time they think the peace will last. But I am not so sure."
Mr. Guzman served two years in the Salvadoran army and he said it will be a long time before the army truly adopts practices of protecting its citizens rather than persecuting them.
Jorge Portillo, a 22-year-old busboy, fled El Salvador two years ago to avoid being drafted into the army. He plans to stay in the United States and to study electrical engineering. "We had nothing to do, and most of the young people were turning to vandalism and robbery," he said. "I had nothing there, so I left."