Follow our love for the poor: Dorothy Stang

This essay is an adaptation of the homily given at the Caldwell Chapel community Mass on the Catholic University of America Campus, Feb. 8, 2015.

Today we honor Dorothy Stang, a Sister of Notre Dame, a sister like Denise and Cita and myself, a woman we knew either personally or by reputation before the six bullets fired into her body on Feb. 12, 2005 brought her to the attention of the larger world. The word martyr still doesn’t sound right to me in speaking of Dorothy, a very vibrant, loving woman, who was as stubborn as she was gentle, who not only spoke truth to power, but acted on what she knew to be true.

Her story confronts us with the raw reality of the economic power that is destroying our planet. It confronts us with a Gospel response to this power.

Before the phrase “preferential option for the poor” was coined, Dorothy, from listening to the Gospel in church, school and family had absorbed the message, and it was deepened in her religious formation during the years of the Vatican II renewal. It was a major reason she volunteered in the 1960s to go to Brazil as a missionary. The one time I met her was during an evening in which she shared informally with a group of us about life in Brazil. What I took away from that evening was the reality that she had a great sense of humor and also a great love and respect for those she was working with. They were leading her as much as she was leading them. As time went on in Brazil, and decisions needed to be made, Dorothy consistently chose to follow the people as they moved in an effort to better their living conditions. She sought to be with the poorest of the poor.

The day she was killed Dorothy was on her way to a meeting with a family whose home had been burned down by the wealthy landlord who wanted the land for pasture for his cattle. She was carrying a bag that contained food for the displaced family, legal papers showing that the poor farmer did have a right to the land and her Bible, which she always had with her. The gunman she encountered on her way was not acting on his own, or simply on behalf of the wealthy land owner who wanted that small piece of land belonging to the displaced family Dorothy was on her way to visit; he had been hired by an organized cartel who were engaged in cutting down and selling the magnificent trees of the Amazon rainforest, the locus of her murder. As many of you know, when the gunman pulled out his gun, Dorothy took out her Bible and began reading the beatitudes, the core message of the Gospels. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the merciful, those who seek peace. The gunman’s shot silenced this message for the moment. The witnessing forest stood silent. It was a moment pregnant with fear of the ongoing decimation of the forest in the interests of the owners of the local saw mill and the international steel industry. Both profit from the charcoal of the burned trees, used in the making of steel.

In this context, it is clear that Dorothy’s death was more than a simple single incident over a small piece of land. It is rather an incident that puts into sharp relief the conflict we encounter daily between the Gospel values we hold dear and the economic system which in its plunder of natural resources is endangering the survival of human life on this planet.

Dorothy had named this conflict very succinctly in the words emblazoned on the T-shirt she often wore, “The death of the forest is our death.” She understood deeply our human connection to and reliance on the whole natural world. She loved the forest and deeply grieved its destruction. She urged us “to develop a kind and tender relationship with Mother Earth.” She believed that when we do that, we will know what action to take in these difficult and confusing times.

By the time of her death, Dorothy, in her love for the landless farmers of Brazil and her love for the forest, had organized 35 communities of landless families who were learning how to live sustainably in the forest, using only 20 percent of the land for farming and also starting projects to reforest land that had been clear cut of trees. The good news in this story is that now, 10 years after Dorothy’s murder, under the courageous leadership of the sisters in Brazil who have continued Dorothy’s work, these communities now number 85. The project of reforestation, is flourishing. These ways of living a kind and tender relationship to Mother Earth offer a small, but significant ground for hope that the forest will not die and necessary changes will take place.

So, how do we today, living the developed world, enriched by the resources coming from poorer peoples and nations, discern what the Gospel is saying to us about how we should act?

Dorothy’s message to us is simply to follow our love for the poor and nurture a kind and tender relationship to Mother Earth. Then we will know what to do in this very complex world in which we live.

[Sarah Fahy is a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur. Her present ministry is working with a group called The Amazon Connection / Care for Earth to educate about the changes in attitudes and action needed to turn around the severe ecological crisis facing us today.]