THEY WERE posing for pictures at Hickory Hill. Their faces were so happy they lit up the room. There was the slight figure of Amilcar Mendez Urizar with his wife and three children. Beside them was the equally slight, equally lionhearted Jesuit, the Rev. Charles Beirne, with his mother and sister. Everyone was smiling. Some wondered why.
Mendez had just received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award at a Georgetown ceremony for his work in assisting oppressed Indians in Guatemala, a country that is smothered by a vicious military. Father Beirne had introduced him, with a powerful speech about the six Jesuits who, with their cook and her daughter, were murdered by Salvadoran military a year ago.
Mendez, an elementary school teacher, founded the Council of Ethnic Communities (CERJ) in 1988. Five members of CERJ were murdered, including his best friend. Five were "disappeared." His niece was raped. A death threat was spray-painted on his house. Mendez and his family fled to Canada.
But he didn't stay. When Sen. Edward Kennedy asked him why at the lunch, Mendez said laughingly that he had slept on a wooden bed in Guatemala and that the mattresses in Canada were "too soft." His wife laughed, too, but less.
Father Beirne, who could also have chosen a more comfortable life, was going back to El Salvador, where the murderous military holds sway. He left Santa Clara University to go to the University of Central America and take the place of one of his fallen brothers. Since August he has been the vice rector for academics.
He likes his work, he says. The morale at UCA is good, and the only security precautions they have taken is to disperse the Jesuits around five centers on the campus to make massacre more difficult.
Washington doesn't see too much courage of this kind. Finger-pointing, blame-shifting, ducking are much more in evidence. Last week we had the spectacle of two senators vying for the honor of being called "wimp" by Charles Keating.
But here are two people who are walking into danger and with a great good cheer that excuses us from feeling sorry for them or guilty for ourselves.
Being brave makes them happy. It must be good for the soul. It may be even better when bravery is proclaimed to the world and celebrated among Kennedys, who have been so deeply instructed about violent death. There was, at the festive lunch, an undertone of worried conversation about whether the $30,000 Kennedy award would be life insurance for Mendez or a death warrant.
Joseph Eldridge, one of the many civil-rights sophisticates in attendance, said that he had visited Mendez in his mountain village and had been shown encouraging letters from all over the world. Mendez thought they helped preserve his life. Eldridge, who lived in Honduras for three years and now works for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, believes that giving prominence to front-line advocates like Mendez causes "the predatory military to think twice before committing these acts of violence and retribution."
Mendez has always, he said, "radiated a kind of energy and joy."
He is about to receive another prize, the Carter-Dominique Meneuil Human Rights Award, which could also help him to survive.
His chances are probably equal to those of Father Beirne, who may or may not be protected by his U.S. citizenship. Surely danger has not stopped him from speaking his mind about either the Salvadoran military or U.S. complicity in the tragedy of El Salvador.
Introducing Mendez at Georgetown, Beirne said, "He has experienced military forces who, like their Salvadoran counterparts, act with impunity, violating human rights as a matter of course, and often doing so with weapons supplied in our name as U.S. citizens." And he accused the U.S. Embassy of suppressing evidence in the investigation of the Jesuit deaths -- "perhaps afraid that it might reflect negatively on their failed foreign policy, a policy bent on solving El Salvador's profound social problems and institutionalized violence through a military victory by the very forces responsible for most of the human rights violations in the country."
The Jesuits have caused a giant worldwide uproar over the slaughter at UCA. On the first anniversary they held a mass that was concelebrated by 300 priests and bishops and attended by some 10,000.
Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.), bulldog leader of a congressional task force investigating the case, says the military is now saying that the murders were "stupid." But "nobody is saying they were wrong."
The Central American military needs instruction. It is getting two teachers back who will help it understand the limits of the power of intimidation.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.