Dorothy Stang, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur for 58 years, was born in 1931 on a farm outside Dayton, Ohio. Forty of those years she lived in Brazil, advocating for the poor and the Amazon rainforest within which these people scratch out a life. The attempt of these people to survive and thrive flew in the face of illegal loggers and ranchers, developers and politicians who had more self-enriching visions for the land.
In 1991 Sr. Dorothy took a sabbatical leave at the Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality under the direction of Matthew Fox, where she gained the insight that Creation Spirituality is a natural ally with liberation theology and the struggles for justice in Latin America. “Fox talked about ecojustice as essential for planetary survival and human ethics.” Sr. Dorothy returned to her forest people well aware of the dangers she faced. She knew she was on a death list.
On 2/12/2005 this premonition became a reality, when, at the age of 73, hired assassins gunned her down. Sister Dorothy’s life journey as she lived it is captured in Roseanne Murphy’s book, Martyr of the Amazon (2007), Orbis Books. This biography enters into the mind and heart of a woman enamored with God’s creation yet sickened by the oppression of the poor and the destruction of the rainforest. Her story tells of the courage and dedication, struggle and suffering, compassion and love shared by Sr. Dorothy and the people she loved.
“At the top of a small hill Dorothy found herself surrounded by a canopy of magnificent trees. At that moment Raifran and Clodoaldo stepped out in front of her, blocking her path…She raised her hand still holding her Bible, as if to shield herself, and Raifran fired…emptying his gun before he too ran.” As she walked down a dirt road in the Amazon to a meeting with peasant farmers who were constantly harassed by illegal loggers and ranchers, Sister Dorothy was killed on February 12, 2005 in her long 40-year fight for the poor and oppressed of Brazil as well as the rainforest itself.
Dorothy Stang had a dream to be a missionary. A girl of generous spirit, Dorothy joined the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur (SND) in Ohio at the age of 17 with the hope to do international missionary work. At first she taught primary school in Illinois, then Arizona where she particularly loved her work with migrant families. However, when Pope John XXIII sent out an appeal in 1963 for missioners to Latin America, Dorothy volunteered immediately. In 1966 she and four Sisters of Notre Dame arrived in Petropolis, Brazil for several months of intense study at the Center for Intercultural Formation while on the weekends immersing themselves in the Brazilian culture and practicing Portuguese in Rio de Janeiro
Initially the SND women were assigned to the parish of Our Lady of the Pieta in Rosario, a northeastern city in the state of Maranhao. They arrived to a half-standing house that, through their effort and sweat, soon became livable. Their initial assignment was to concentrate on pastoral work and help develop base ecclesial communities. At first the pastoral team (the sisters and a co-pastor) would go to the landowners who would signal to the workers to come in from their shacks. A makeshift arbor would be created for mass, baptisms, marriages and basic Catholic religion education. The majority of the people in the parish knew very little about church social teachings or their human rights. Soon the team became aware of the harsh inequities endured by the workers, forced to become completely dependent on the will of the landowners who treated them as property, just as those before them had treated the workers as slaves. By law, the peasant farmers were to give 10 percent of what they produced to the landowner but the landowners always tried to demand 50 percent and more. Most of the time, the workers lived on the whims and vouchers created by these landowners for their necessities.
Over time mutual trust developed directly between the people and the priests and sisters. The pastoral team made the decision to go into the villages no longer by the invitation of the landowners but by invitation of the people themselves. They would stay with the peasant farmers for they wanted to show the people that their preference was to work with the poor. The team would begin to teach the members of the communities about their rights as human beings.
How the people were living became painfully clear to Dorothy and the other sisters who saw the swollen bellies and stick legs of the children and heard the brutality of the landowners’ treatment of the workers. Change is not an easy thing for people who for centuries lived in subservience. Gradually the landowners were becoming suspicious of the sisters who were “stirring up trouble” by pointing out the rights of the worker to the people.
Sister Dorothy and her fellow sisters had arrived at a critical time of transition in Brazil and for the church in Latin America. A dramatic shift in the role of the church in Latin America was underway. The spread of military governments as well as the underlying structures of social injustice created a state of “institutionalized violence.” Traditionally the church leaders understood their role as ministering to the spiritual needs of the people. However, the bishops at the 1968 conference in Medellin, Columbia charged the church to take on a new role as a prophetic agent of evangelical justice and social transformation, later defined as a ‘preferential option for the poor,” a stance rooted in God’s love for the poor and oppressed. In the past the wealthy elite throughout Latin America always regarded the church as their ally in blessing the status quo. However, their response to the church’s changing role was met with outrage and a sense of betrayal. Those who stood by the poor were now seen not as religious workers but as dangerous subversives. Dorothy grew even more convinced of the importance her pastoral work involved helping the poor farmers to understand their rights and reclaim their dignity.
The decades-long journey on which Dorothy embarked in northeastern Brazil was one of courage, tenacity and love for the marginalized worker. Within her grew an ever-deepening love of the land and forests that were being illegally logged and confiscated from the people. Few legal protections were available to the people, finding themselves all too often up against the wealthy who often had the politicians and legal system in their back pocket. The deeper into the forest she went, the larger the inequities and suffering yet her total dedication to the people did not falter. Dorothy’s hunger for justice, capacity for forgiveness, propensity to see potential in everyone and natural zest for life kept her going. In the midst of the violence around her, she knew she made a difference to the “many small communities that have learned the secret of life…sharing, solidarity, confidence, equality, pardon, working together.” Dorothy changed in the process too.
In December 1991 Dorothy stepped back for a few months, taking a sabbatical at the Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality at Holy Names College in Oakland, CA. Within this program that embraced ecojustice — justice for people, Nature and Earth — she found a natural connection with her beliefs and experiences. She found a link in Creation Spirituality with liberation theology and the struggles for justice in Latin America. The program also helped Dorothy reclaim her suppressed creativity, rejoicing in music and dance, relishing the presence of others who shared her love of life and Earth. Others noted that she finished the program being freer, more relaxed and more in touch with herself – the emergence of a more playful, passionate, creative Dorothy. She returned to Brazil more determined than ever to help reclaim the rainforest and its people.
Aldo Leopold’s words provide a truth gauge to determine right from wrong. “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Thomas Berry talked about “Earth, our home and mother, the community of which we are a part…” Clearly all Earth beings need to be a considered honored integral part of a thriving community. However, a recent January 2013 New York Times article reports a backslide in protection of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. (See sidebar) One friend suggests, “Looks like we need a next generation version of Dorothys to step up to the plate.”
In each generation there are those whose lives form and inform others who work for the poor, disenfranchised and Earth. Dorothy’s life continues to inspire countless others who take up her cause, both in Brazil and wherever the poor are oppressed. Inspired by the vision of Sr. Dorothy Stang to improve the quality of life of the poor, a small group of educators and community activists started the Dorothy Stang Adult High School in 2004 to meet the needs of Latinos aged 25 and older who want to continue their education, gain employment and move into better jobs. The school is housed at Josephium High School in Chicago and has graduated adult students with diplomas from the program. The curriculum includes critical study that honors the individual while deepening knowledge and encouraging moral and social responsibility. As we can see these courageous ones continue to work to do right, to preserve Earth and human dignity around the planet. Sr. Dorothy’s spirit continues to animate the people she loved so deeply. Her body rests in Anapu near the forest she loved so deeply. “Dorothy Vive!” Dorothy lives. Her story is far from over.
Article by Kitty Nagler