Dorothy Stang’s story has all the attributes of a folk tale, so let’s tell it that way. First, the setting(s). In Brazil, less than 3% of the population owns 2/3 of arable land. Displaced farm workers can’t find jobs in the city, so the government grants them land in the northeast, the last frontier. However, loggers and ranchers consider the Amazon their domain. They burn poor settlements, sell valuable timber, then use land for grazing cattle (to supply our McDonald’s!) The consequent loss of the rain forest is tragic. Some call it “the lungs of the planet.” As it shrinks, global warming increases.
It’shard to imaginea place more distant from the Amazon than Dayton, Ohio. Young Dorothy Stang lives here, her backyard a model of organic gardening, because her father is a chemical engineer. She learns composting and the dangers of pesticides. In a typical 1948 story, she becomes a Sister of Notre Dame and teacher. You expect her to become a benevolent nun who dies of old age in a quiet convent, right? That’s when her story gets interesting.
Our heroine volunteers for Brazil when her order calls for missionaries. In the 70’s she accompanies families to Para, bordering the rain forest, where they’ve been given land. Sr. Dorothy organizes people into co-ops: they learn about crop rotation, read the Bible and worship with music and dance. (Because priests are rare, she becomes the “shepherd.”)
When her people are attacked, she tells them brusquely to quit crying and start rebuilding. Her car, an old VW Beetle, wobbles over bridges with rotting planks. For her people, she travels to Brasilia and camps out at government offices. When officials deny receiving her letters, she finds them in their files. Persistenty, she asks for protection of poor farmers, but nothing is done.
Here’s the amazing part—she keeps this up for 38 YEARS. Dorothy starts fruit orchards with women and projects for sustainable development. The Brazilian Bar Association names her “Humanitarian of the Year” in 2004.
Enter the villains. The ranchers hire gunmen who shoot her six times on February 12, 2005. Dorothy doesn’t run, cower, or plead for her life, as most folks would, when she sees the gun. Instead she pulls out her Bible and reads the Beatitudes aloud.
Despite her brutal murder, her model continues to resonate. Without much in the way of institutional church, she finds God in the green canopy of trees, the cathedral of forest.
She asks the right questions: not narrow denominational or territorial concerns, but “How do we preserve the earth’s treasures? How do we empower God’s beloved people?” She reminds that we all need the large stage of the natural world. When we lose our sacred connection to the earth, we’re stuck with small selves and petty concerns. Her wonder at the miracle of the rain forest’s resilience is contagious.
Her brother David explains, “she was so in love with what she was doing, she didn’t notice her dirt floor, primitive plumbing or no electricity.”
As the population ages, Dorothy is patron saint for slow butterflies and reluctant caterpillars. She didn’t remain captive to her traditional upbringing. Vivacious and feisty, she tried new things, journeyed to new places. Her face is so youthful, it’s hard to think of her as 73. She could’ve hunkered safely into the retirement center, counted her wrinkles and monitored her ailments—as some elders do. Instead, she pours the wisdom of her experience into service of poor Brazilians.
Finally, she models innovation in the church. Brazil’s tremendous needs for ministry can’t be restricted by gender-defined roles. It didn’t much matter if Dorothy was male or female, ordained or not. What DID matter, burningly, was “no greater love than this–to give one’s life for one’s friends.”
Similar material has appeared in Kathy’s book When the Saints Came Marching In (Liturgical Press, 2015) and a “Wise Guides” feature in US Catholic.