I’ve written extensively about this bold woman, but it seems even more important to tell and retell her story now, when some in government thoughtlessly disregard the precious resources of the environment.
Dorothy Stang was a gutsy idealist, who had always wanted to be a missionary. Arriving in Brazil with her friend Joan Krimm in 1966 was a dream come true. It’s embarrassing that after 400 years of Catholicism in Brazil, they have 18 million homeless and the largest gap between rich and poor of any country in the world. By 1974, greedy loggers and ranchers had destroyed 40 million acres of invaluable rainforest, a process which continues. This extraordinary gift of God’s creation contains 30% of the world’s biodiversity. Worse, the wealthy landowners treat their workers like slaves, and exploit them heartlessly.
Seeing the children’s malnutrition and the people’s ignorance of their rights ignited Dorothy. She worked with women to establish base communities, and even delivered–in a jeep—a baby who was named by her mother “Maria Jeepa.” In Anapu, she built 36 schools in 36 years, then insisted the teacher get the government salary required by law. Perhaps most importantly, she upheld the dignity of human beings constantly threatened by the police, military or landowners.
Furthermore, Dorothy had studied Brazilian law, and had no problem calling federal officials to accountability. They would let her wait for hours, then treat her condescendingly. Impatient with their stonewalling, she would sometimes dig into their files to find the protests they denied receiving. Any small victory loomed large, such as farmers blockading a bridge until the government finally fixed the road.
On her home visits, Dorothy would get medical treatment for worms, study life-giving subjects like Creation Spirituality, enjoy parties and ice cream. She came downstairs for her golden jubilee wearing her usual uniform, a t-shirt and shorts. Other sisters pleaded, “surely for this day, you could wear a skirt?” Her happiness seemed unassailable; she was doing what she loved in Brazil and was eager to return.
Only in later years do her letters reveal some ambiguity. Progress seemed slow, the poor were getting poorer and fighting among themselves. She was growing tired, and her body, older. After she turned 70, long walks through the jungle became harder. Nonetheless, she continued arduous trips to Brasilia, reporting illegal logging. She was up against a hard fact: Brazil was becoming the largest cattle exporter in the world. With a booming logging business, the economy was improving. No government wants to impede that—and few officials wanted to hear the protests of “an old woman,” as Dorothy termed herself in her seventies. The $20,000 bounty offered by loggers and ranchers for anyone who’d kill her seemed astronomical to poor people.
At the same time she got death threats, with an irony that seems peculiar to Brazil, she received awards: the Chico Mendes Medal and Humanitarian of the Year award in 2004. She continued to delight in unscarred rainforest, its green canopy her cathedral, and small reforestration efforts a joy.
One friend of Dorothy, Luis, encouraged other farmers to stay on land that was rightfully theirs. But the rancher Bida sent drunken henchmen to threaten Luis and his wife Francisca’s seven children. Allowing the frightened family a little time to escape, the thugs then burned down his house and crops. Although Dorothy reported the crime to federal police, they had little interest in arresting anyone. Dorothy had a map that clearly showed the land belonged to Luis and other farmers, and planned a meeting with them for February 12, 2005.
She never got there. Beneath magnificent towering trees, two men confronted her on the path. She showed them her map, again explaining the farmers’ rights. Asked if she had a weapon, she replied, “only one,” and pulled out her Bible. She read aloud the Beatitudes, so her last words would have been “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” What a graceful prelude to a violent death. Shooting her several times, the gunmen vanished.
Ordinary people grieved; ranchers and loggers exulted, thinking that after a few days the turmoil would subside and they could continue on their arrogant ways. They didn’t anticipate the solidarity of crowds who were outraged, the banners demanding justice for the killing, the voices of human rights groups, lawyers, Notre Dame sisters and friends, the long series of trials.
Amid shouts of “Dorothy Vive!” she was buried in her favorite dress with a sunflower pattern. St. Julie, the foundress of her order had said, “turn to God as sunflowers turn to sun.” Certainly she had lived the Notre Dame motto, “Women with hearts as wide as the world.”
Excerpted from When the Saints Came Marching In by Kathy Coffey. Liturgical Press: 800-858-5450, http://www.litpress.org