The actor playing Archbishop Oscar Romero raised the chalice with his arms as he stood on the altar. Then a simulated gunshot rang out, and he crumbled to the ground.
Three nuns in blue habits ran to his side, shrieking in horror as their beloved archbishop, known as "the voice of the voiceless" for his defense of the poor in El Salvador, died in their arms.
The dramatization of Romero's life and death left a packed church at St. Martha's parish in Uniondale in rapt attention on Sunday. Wednesday, on the 30th anniversary of Romero's assassination, Salvadorans and others will remember a man who the Vatican is considering for sainthood, who some compare to Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, and who still generates controversy.
"He is a figure of worldwide respect," said Yanira Chacon, an outreach worker at St. Brigid's parish in Westbury who said she had to run for her life at Romero's funeral when government soldiers opened fire on the crowd. Two years later she fled to Long Island, home to an estimated 100,000 Salvadorans, one of the largest concentrations in the United States.
Chacon is among Salvadorans here helping lead an effort to rename the main international airport in their homeland after Romero. Daniel Rivera, a Salvadoran immigrant and seminarian from Hempstead who is the author and lead actor in the 30-minute play, is presenting it at several churches. He's also selling $10 backpacks with Romero's image.
In El Salvador the government, now run by the party founded by former leftist guerrillas, the Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, has for the first time declared the day of Romero's death a national holiday.
Romero gained fame by advocating for social justice and denouncing atrocities by the Salvadoran government at the time and government-sponsored "death squads" that murdered peasants, teachers, union workers and priests.
On March 24, 1980, the day after he called on the military to "stop the repression," Romero was shot by a sniper from the back of the chapel at a cancer hospital where he was celebrating Mass in San Salvador, the capital.
Although the shooter was never apprehended, Romero's death was ordered by Roberto D'Aubuisson, the founder of the right-wing ARENA party that until last year controlled the country, according to the UN truth commission on El Salvador. At the time, the government was battling the FMLN at the start of a 12-year civil war, which left 75,000 dead, most of them poor people.
Romero's killing still provokes passions. Manfredo Velasquez, an FMLN leader from Brentwood, said he recently ended his group's participation in talks there to curb violence because of complaints from party members that he was sitting down at the same table with ARENA members.
For his part, local ARENA leader Santiago Reyes of Brentwood said it hasn't been proven D'Aubuisson was behind Romero's murder, and that while no death is justified Romero got himself into trouble by wading into politics. "War is war," he said. "Even the most important person is going to die."
Rivera, the play's author, said Romero rose above politics and continues to move people. The play depicts the archbishop consoling people whose loved ones were killed or "disappeared" by government forces, facing down armed soldiers as he tries to enter a church, and walking off with Jesus after his killing as he enters heaven.
One parishioner, Ligia Clara, 40, said she cried when Romero fell to the ground in the play Sunday. "It was painful to remember it," she said in Spanish, adding that she was a girl living in El Salvador when he was killed.
Rivera, 26, said Romero's life inspired him to enter the seminary to become a priest. "He's still alive," Rivera said. "I feel his presence. The voice of truth, nobody can kill."