By Sister Jane Dwyer, SNDdeN
In February 2015, we will remember the 10th Anniversary of the death of Sister Dorothy Stang, SNDdeN. During the years since her assassination, new life has burst forth even in the midst of continued violence and threatening situations. Sr. Dorothy was murdered, but her life and work have taken root in the hearts of the people in Brazil. Hope abounds in signs of new growth. When Sr. Dorothy died, there were 35 basic Christian communities; today there are more than 85 communities who live daily the Gospel message. In 2005, the
Projects for Sustainable Development (PDS) were fragile, just beginning. These projects for developing and cultivating the land, as well as protecting the rights of farmers in building their livelihoods were in beginning stages. Today, individuals and families, living and working in an ecological way in the forest, plant gardens on small plots of land. They take responsibility in defending a major forest surrounding this land and where they can only work collectively. Now there are two sustainable projects in Anapu: Virola Jatoba and Esperança. Sr. Dorothy was murdered on Lot 55 of PDS Esperança. Now there are more than 450 families in the two projects, many who have electricity and well-built homes. In the last ten years, more than 1,200 families have occupied government lands destined for agrarian reform. Their insistence has more or less secured their right to remain on the land until judicial questions are resolved. Schools appear as the people organize and demand them. Roads are at least passable in most cases.
On February 12, Sr. Dorothy’s anniversary, the Sisters and people will remember and relive the shock and pain of her murder, the fear and violence which haunted us during 2005. We will remember the empty chair at our table and at meetings, the lilting laugh and adventurous spirit so brutally silenced. We recall also, in the aftermath of Sr. Dorothy’s murder, that the local radio hounded the parish and land pastoral team and terrorized the people. The local media portrayed Dorothy, the people and the Sisters as the culprits, who were getting what we deserved. The Sisters had no vehicle through which we could respond or question. We bore the calumny and terrible lies. The population was fearful and we did not know whom to trust. As the years passed, we made 9 trips to Belem for the trials of Sr. Dorothy’s murderers, always with 2 or 3 busloads of people, and always with police protection. During the first two trials, we camped out in the park area in front of the judicial building in simple tents put up by the Dorothy Committee and their friends who always welcomed us with open hearts and hands.
In May 2005, a friend helped the Sisters look realistically at the situation. This friend met three times with the Sisters and people to advise us in taking initial steps towards a normal way of living, different from before Sr. Dorothy’s death. In the first meeting, about 30 people arrived while at the third meeting in August, there were over 100! From these meetings, our Committee in Defense of Anapu was born. This Committee is an open
forum in which the people participate at will. The people bring the agenda, usually conflicts over land and preservation of the forest. Quality education in the rural area is also a high priority. The Committee meets monthly, usually with 80 to 120 participants. We begin with a “mistica,” a sharing of the reasons for meetings as well as our goals. These reflections and shared encounters with our beliefs have kept us alive and hopeful during these years.
Site where Sr. Dorothy was murdered ten years later. (Photo: Catholic Telegraph, 2015.)
On February 12, 2005, hired gunmen murdered Sister Dorothy Stang, SNDdeN while she was walking along a dirt road in Anapu, Para, Brazil. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Sr. Dorothy worked with the people of Brazil for almost forty years. At the time of her death, she was working with the Project for Sustainable Development (PDS), a government initiative created through Brazil’s National Institute for Agrarian Reform (INRA). With this project, the government grants land for farms to landless families for the benefit of sustainable farming systems. Powerful ranchers, coveting the land, opposed Sr. Dorothy’s involvement and hired assassins to kill her. In 2008, the United Nations honored posthumously Sister Dorothy Mae Stang with the UN Prize for Human Rights, in recognition for her outstanding contributions in the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
September 7 was Independence Day in Brazil, celebrated with parades which include participation of school children. In earlier years, Sisters and friends tried to include a poster of Sr. Dorothy in the September parade but were refused, and even fled in fear. The Independence Day parade, even with children, was under the conrol of the military and local government authorities. Sr. Dorothy and anyone associated with her were excluded from participation in the parade. This year, banners of Sr. Dorothy Stang were a highlight of the parade, with a celebration of the people of Anapu: their lives, work, and hopes. Young adults paraded their lives and beliefs in the streets. Small family farmers, fishermen, strong women in the agricultural community, and indigenous people joined in the celebration. In the parade, they highlighted two major crops of cacao (chocolate) and acai, for Anapu.
THE SEED DIES AND GIVES NEW LIFE
Over 10 years, changes have occurred slowly and tangibly. The people previously oppressed and repressed, take on their own destiny today. Without violence, they do not back down when basic principles are the issue or question. The people are unafraid in confronting loggers, gunmen, ranchers or local authorities who threaten the planet and the lives of their families. They have learned to do so with strategies and organized strength. When the official channels of communication are closed to them, they find or create unofficial new ways to communicate. The people now challenge any violent deaths which continue to be a reality. Citizens in Anapu give financial contributions to pay for bus trips to Belem so that the Sisters and people are present for the trials of those who killed Sr. Dorothy.
The people challenge injustices and sustain a profound and irrepressible hope and belief in the future, their future… a future they remember and reverence as Sr. Dorothy’s legacy to them.
Every year, the annual Forest Pilgrimage in July is a time to travel the road of Sr. Dorothy’s last journey. This annual pilgrimage has become cultural patrimony in the state of Pará. February 12 is now a holiday in Anapu, a day on which to remember and celebrate Sr. Dorothy’s life and all that has been accomplished in her journey in life and death. Many people are in solidarity with this journey for profound justice leading to true and lasting peace. Sr. Dorothy is a symbol of the defense and protection of human rights. The Sisters continue to reflect on her life, its meaning and power in their lives and the life of the Brazilian people in Anapu. Sr. Dorothy Stang lives on in the people who pray to her, honor her memory and imitate this holy woman, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur.
Originally published in Good Works Magazine, “Seeds Bear Fruit in Brazil,” by Sr. Jane Dwyer, SNDdeN, November 2014. Reprinted with permission.
Download the .pdf version of the Good Works, November 2014.