Dorothy Stang anniversary reflection: “Hope is Eternal in the Midst of Darkness” and “The Rarer Christian Courage”

February 16, 2017

HOPE IS ETERNAL IN THE MIDST OF DARKNESS, by David Stang 15 February 2017

“I cannot leave my family. I know that Luis and his family have just had their house burnt down, their crops destroyed and his wife and children are out in the Amazon forest with no food, blankets, or protection of any kind. Can a Mother leave her children in such need.”

Dorothy Stang 2005

“David, I am on my way to Esperanza, with food, clothing, hammers, nail, saws. I can hear them outside ready to go, I said. Dorothy then continued, I  just wanted to smell the cool air of Palmer Lake Colorado and say hello. It is very hot here, humid and it is raining. I stopped at the police post to ask for assistance as there are killers where I am going. Thugs who have just burnt down Luis’s home and they are terrorizing the people who merely want to survive and maybe even enter into the economy of their country. The Government has approved this Project of Sustainable Development but the local Ranchers, Plantation Owners, and their armed thugs believe they are the government. I am going to Esperanza, to show support and help them, though this terrible  time however this time I am a little nervous.”

Dorothy Stang Feb 11, 2005

I am trying to pull myself together with this phone call as it is 4AM here in Colorado. “Dot don’t go,” I said.  I could hear the people outside, laughing and joking. “Good bye David”, she said. After Dorothy’s murder I flew to Anapu and visited Esperanza, sat and cried at the spot where she was murdered, sat and cried at the spot where she was  buried, deep in the Amazon, surrounded by nature, rain, humidity, singing birds, the dirt, mud  and the people. I was surrounded most especially by the poor who hugged me, touched my t-shirt, cried, but most of all, I saw unbelief in their eyes that this person who for years fought for them, ate with them, slept with them.  How could she be murdered, they thought? She had often escaped death, prison, hunger,  and stood with them, a warrior, fearless, undaunted. She would show up with legal documents to protect their homes and land. She was known to all of them, to not only fight for them personally, but also for their schools, but from the beginning she personally helped build these, over thirty schools, see that their teachers were paid and even developed teacher training centers.

As I sat in the Bishops’ pick up truck with soldiers in the back for protection, driving from Anapu to Esperanza, I was stunned to watch the driver handle the muddy road, slide down the hill and just stop right before the wet log bridge and wonder how we would cross over.  The driver was telling everyone to get out and walk over. As we slipped on the wet logs, looking at the raging river down below, we wondered how he was going to cross over with the Bishops’ pick up. Staring intently we watched the driver make the sign of  the cross, put the metal to the petal and sped over the narrow wet bridge, the tail end weaving back and forth. Truly this was a marvel of driving. I thought to myself, how did Dorothy a week earlier make it to Esperanza during the rainy season, for we had four harrowing bridges to cross over, deep mud, and hills and valleys to climb and slide down, hoping not to slide into the river itself.  The 20 miles from Anapu to Esperanza took four hours.  I kept repeating Dots powerful message, “I cannot leave my family,” A message so powerful it overcame the enormous struggles that I was seeing before my very eyes. Tears came to my eyes, thinking, like the people, how could they kill her, but also remembering Dot telling me that hundreds of leaders, farmers, have been killed in the area just in the last couple of years.  As I slept in Dot’s bed that night, on the walls were pictures of those who have been murdered. On the night stand was a little shrine that she made and on the wall, next to the door, was a piece of bamboo, slit in the middle, and carved out of this bamboo was a crib set that she would touch every morning when she left her room.

I mention all this to set the stage for “what happens now”?  After nine trials and the four people being indicted by the State of Para, the killers are after less than ten years are now free. Even one of them has been indicted again for another killing. The big rancher appealed to the High Court of Brazil, and won his appeal. For years now, he is free on appeal, even though the judge of the  Court of the State of Para clearly stated, “Regivaldo even if you appeal, you must stay in jail during the appeal.” In a packed courtroom, with one of the now free killers sitting right behind me with his thug friends, we all heard the verdict. The Judge brought in extra policemen to protect us, as I am sure the last thing he wanted was  to have more murders in his courtroom. As we left the courtroom, one of the TV broadcasters was surrounded by security, for she had just been threatened by a motorcycle gang of Regivaldo, who were supposedly to escort Regivaldo  home free. They were angry that he had been indicted.

One does ask, who controls the Amazon? Who really is in charge of Brazil? There are pretty substantial rumors that the real people who murdered Dorothy were never even named, that they all sat in a hotel in Altamira, and planned her murder. We all know that the legally elected President of Brazil has just recently been thrown out of office, and the people said she was no angel, but the people who are now in charge, are worse, the people say. For example, the law against destroying the Amazon, cutting down illegally the trees, has been legally thrown out, and that all who broke this law in the past have been forgiven. I remember one of the people who worked for years in the Amazon saying to me, “these trials are merely a distraction.” On the other side, the two Projects of Sustainable Development, are thriving, and others farmers are uniting to demand, their rights. The schools are still open. The special school to educate future farmers, is still open. The seed of Human Rights planted by all those who have been murdered are growing and the memory of Dorothy and all those warriors for the people in the Amazon are still remembered, in the midst of such oppression, pisteleiros,  and hundreds of years of  Injustice, one wonders how things go forward. Is it not the blood of those who gave their lives?

Changing long term habits can be so difficult. Dorothy knew very clearly what she was up against and that she did as much as she did is clearly a miracle in itself.  We must know History or we will certainly repeat it. This we must know in order to understand why there are so many murders in the Amazon, Among Indigenous People, among the poor:

“When Christopher Columbus first set foot on the white sands of Guanahani Island, he performed a ceremony to take “possession” of the land for the king and queen of Spain, acting under the international laws of Western Christendom. Although the story of Columbus’ “discovery” has taken on mythological proportions in most of the Western World, few people are aware that his act of “possession” was based on a religious doctrine now known in history as the Doctrine of Discovery. Even fewer people realize that today five centuries later, the United States government still uses this archaic Judeo Christian doctrine to deny the rights of Native American Indians.”

Steve Newcomb

Why do I bring this document before us? The Plantations Owners, Ranchers, in Brazil feel they have the same right of discovery, even if people live on the land they are claiming. Governments are vital to overcome this long habit of discovery. Dorothy was very involved with the Government of Brazil on so many levels, Education, Land, Freedom. As the Federal Prosecutor of Land in the Amazon said in the Courtroom, “She did what we were afraid to do, she encouraged us to do our job.” The stories of Dorothy going to Brazilia or to Belem to help people get legal documents is well known. As the Security Person told me in Brazilia, in the Department of Justice Building, “ I recognize you she said, you look like your sister Dorothy. I am the one who would give her permission to sleep in the hallway all night so she would be at the officer’s door when he arrived to do his job.” I saw a look of pride in her eyes.

David Stang

Feb. 15, 2017

  • A cross stands on the spot where U.S. Sr. Dorothy Stang, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, was murdered Feb. 12, 2005, on an isolated road near the Brazilian town of Anapu. (CNS photo/Lunae Parracho, Reuters)
 |  Editor’s note: From the NCR archives comes this March 25, 2005, editorial, in honor of the 12th anniversary of the Feb. 12, 2005, murder of Sr. Dorothy Stang. 

There’s scarcely an American Catholic over 45 who didn’t know Sr. Dorothy Stang. That is, they’ve known the archetypal cheerful, pancake-making, ice cream-eating, can-do, go-getting U.S. nun with the ready smile and willingness to help, who could stand as firm as the Rock of Gibraltar when justice for the poor was threatened, and organize faster than governments can move.

It takes a strong faith and a strong prayer life to do it in the United States. It requires a rarer form of Christian courage to do it in a far place.

They said at the burial of Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Dorothy Stang in Anapu, Brazil, that she was not buried, she was “planted” in Brazil’s soil. Brazil’s ambassador to Washington said at a memorial service, her seeds already have shoots. He was referring to Brazil’s commitment to speed through the pending legislation for two enormous tracts of land for sustainable development sites for poor farmers.

And yet, when Dorothy Stang’s blood seeped into the earth from her gunshot wounds, it did more than plant her deeds and memory in Brazil. It bonded her to more than a century of women religious from the United States who left their homes and learned new languages in order to understand the cultures of the larger family they had come to serve in the four corners of the world.

Some died in wars and uprisings. Some died at peace at a great age, others wasted from disease too rapid to cure or too far from the medicine that might have saved them. All these churchwomen died as they had lived and served, thousands of miles away from home. Most would be satisfied that their final remains would be in those places they’d been privileged to serve, places were these women knew that the blessing was something they’d received being there.

They, too, were planted. Their seedlings are strong bulwarks of faith committed to change and justice. Certainly, the Dorothy Stangs from America are fewer now. Where once there were many hundreds, there are now but a few score, a few dozen.

They were, they are, along with the priests and brothers and lay volunteers, fine representatives of the best the U.S. Catholic church has to offer the world. Stang understood as life was blown from her by violence, as she said:

Blessed are the poor …
Blessed are those who hunger and
thirst for justice …
Blessed are the peacemakers …

National Catholic Reporter, March 25, 2005