Land Rights Equal Justice

Paul Jeffrey | February 12, 2015

Beatriz Sousa da Silva in the Esperança Sustainable Development Project, the community that Dorothy helped found. Photo: Paul Jeffrey

Beatriz Sousa da Silva in the Esperança Sustainable Development Project, the community that Dorothy helped found. Photo: Paul Jeffrey

Ten years ago today, 73-year old Dorothy Stang was gunned down in the Brazilian Amazon as she read from the Beatitudes to her killers.

Dorothy was Catholic nun, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, and she had spent almost forty years as a missionary in Brazil, accompanying rural families as they faced violence from cattle ranchers and loggers who assaulted the jungle and the people who lived there. Dorothy helped found a village in the jungle where residents would live in a sustainable manner, taking sustenance from the jungle without destroying it. They called the place “Esperança,” Portuguese for hope.

I went to the region in 2008 to write a story about Dorothy’s murder and the legacy of this feisty woman who declared, “The end of the forest is the end of our life.” I vividly remember a meeting I attended of the “Dorothy Committee,” an ecumenical group in Belem that was working for justice in Dorothy’s murder. At the end of the meeting, a Brazilian sister, Margarita Maria Pantoja, pulled out a glass container of blood-soaked soil from the site where Dorothy was killed. We all laid our hands on the bottle. “Sister Dorothy lives!” shouted Margarita. “Forever! Forever! Forever!” the group responded.

I’m recalling that moment today as I think of Dorothy and the people she accompanied, like the 6-year old girl in this photo. Beatriz Sousa da Silva lived with her family in the Esperança Sustainable Development Project, the community that Dorothy helped found. Dorothy’s model of accompaniment wasn’t to sit in some air-conditioned office far away from the challenges and simply fund projects to help the poor. Instead, she immersed herself in their reality, and, like the poor she served, she died for her dream. And yet she does live on in the dreams and struggle of people who go on struggling for justice and life in threatened forests around the world. We can all lay our hands on the blood-soaked soil of her death, and take inspiration for our own struggles in defense of all of God’s creation.

Sister Dorothy lives. Forever.

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