Author’s Note: As Canada struggles to follow the challenges of living up to the United Nations’ Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, we recall with pride how the Church of Canada through the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, as well as many of its own missionaries, struggled to support action in situations similar to those in Canada. The Sem Terra (“Without Land”) movement in Brazil was one such effort where our own missionaries were active participants and supported by people of faith across our country.
By Fr. Lawrence DeMong, OSB
It was about 3 o’clock at the rectory in Uniao dos Palmares, home of the Saskatoon Mission since the 1960s in the Brazilian state of Alagoas, when a desperate call came.
The call was from a member of a group of about 80 landless people whom we at the parish had helped to move at the stroke of midnight a few days earlier from the larger encampment near the highway that runs to the capital city of Maceio, to a vacant piece of land closer to our town. They had put up their black plastic huts and started to settle down, when they got word that the owner and his henchmen were coming to evict them. Afraid of violence, they were asking for help.
“The ‘pistoleiros’ are coming!” was the desperate call from these folks as they begged the padre to come out to their encampment (“encampamento”) which the land owners referred to as an ‘invasao’ (“invasion”).
These desperate folks were simply exercising the freedom given them by Brazilian law to grow food on unused land. The word among these landless was whispered that the former mayor of Maceio who “owned” it was a shady operator. Besides, this land was just being held for speculation and producing nothing. And the people who called us were sure the owner would not cold-bloodedly kill a priest, even if the priest took their side in defending their right to use the land.
I called up two brave women, Cleoniza and Carmelia, who agreed to come along. Off we went with the parish truck, hoping our presence could prevent violence against these poor people. In the course of our conversation as we drove out there, Cleoneza asked me, “Are you afraid?” “Of course! Aren’t you?” I asked. “Oh,” said her companion, Carmelia, in good round Portuguese, “This would be a perfect way to die!”
I had written a brief “last word” in my diary before leaving, but I confess that I wasn’t quite ready to give my life, and felt like a scared chicken beside these brave women!
On our arrival, everything appeared calm; no one had yet come to challenge the group. But soon enough over the hill to our left, a group became visible in several vehicles. Our little gathering moved closer together and upwards on the hill as these newcomers assembled at the bottom about 50 meters from us. No guns came out, but pretty soon the cameras were busy recording our presence. It was definitely an eerie experience, knowing that we were being marked, but we stayed put, and pretty soon they drove off and we returned home.
When I see this incident in the context of the Sem Terra movement, one of the most powerful experiences was visiting the larger group along the highway a few days earlier in the place from where this new group came.
After meeting a mom holding a very emaciated child, a woman who accompanied Fr. Les Paquin and me during our visit to encourage these people, told us: “That child will be dead within a few days.” I had no doubt she was right.
That experience gave us the push to return and support the midnight move of part of that larger group to this new piece of land. I believe the outrage of children dying of starvation in this rich and prosperous land motivated many of us comfortable people in Brazil to get involved and add pressure to the Sem Terra effort.
It certainly provided motivation for those of us who returned home to comfortable Canada to gather signatures from thousands of Catholics in order to reach out through our Catholic justice entity, Development and Peace, to encourage action. We supported our dear Leo and Helen Kurtenbach to deliver those many thousands of signed petitions to the federal government in Brasilia. (Leo Kurtenbach – the former farmer and World War II veteran who over many years was an insightful and articulate letter writer on issues of justice and pacifism – died recently at the age of 103. )
During the years when Sem Terra was a prominent force in making land available for the most excluded ones in Brazil, the Prairie Messenger, which unfortunately has discontinued publication (previous papers are on-line), carried in its March 14, 2007 edition some wonderful reflections of high school students who had traveled to Brazil.
With gratitude to the authors, I have chosen the following from these very thoughtful letters:
- “The most important thing I learned while on my trip to Brazil was that our lives are not about us, as individuals. We are not here to live in such a way that all of our desires are met, without concern for others. I believe that we are here to take care of other people and the earth. That is what the missionaries and the Brazilian poor demonstrated to us. They take care of one another. In their giving, they receive. I received in Brazil, and they taught me something important about giving.” – Kylie Boire
- “My favourite word in Portuguese is the word alegria, which means ‘joy.’ This is something that was shown time and time again by the people I encountered in Brazil. While life is by no means easy, the Brazilians and the Canadian sisters we spent time with show joy in all things. Joy in work, joy in play. But what struck me most deeply was the joy I witnessed in service. … I left Brazil with a desire to take this spirit of generosity with me. … In this spirit, service becomes no longer a chore, but joy. Alegria!” – Melanie Lipinski
A truly touching response also came from Louise Bitz, one of the two teachers responsible for this student journey to Brazil. Following her reflection upon the seasonal slave work of 12-hour days for a pittance by the sugar cane harvesters and the group’s meeting with the sugar mill manager at a feast put on for the Canadian visitors, Louise wrote: “Of all the people I have met in Brazil, all the amazing people, I am the most like him, and I like him the least.” The realization was inescapable. “Conversion is what happens when you have tea with your shadow,” Father Les replied with a grin.
It’s a beautiful confession of the need for conversion, not only of individuals but of countries like our own. And people like Fr. Emile April, Fr. Les Paquin and Sr. Jeanine Rondot, who are mentioned in that Prairie Messenger edition, are among the many missionaries whose experience desperately needs to touch and change us, making us missionaries to our own rich country.
Archbishop James Weisgerber of Winnipeg, previously bishop of Saskatoon, in this same copy of the Prairie Messenger, challenged us to act on the needs of the poor that “the wealthier nations be more involved in solidarity, social justice and universal charity.” And in his own words, adding: “The need for Development and Peace is greater than ever.”
Development and Peace in Brazil:
“Development and Peace has a long history in Brazil, and its programming has developed over the years through its initial interactions with the pastoral commissions of the Brazilian Church, which were set up to address specific socioeconomic issues in the country. The Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) of the Church remains an important partner of Development and Peace in strengthening peasant rights.
“Through its partnerships in Brazil, Development and Peace’s program is addressing the injustices and abuses suffered by poor and marginalized communities in the name of development projects that benefit corporate interests, such as mining sites, large-scale agriculture of monocultures and the construction of hydro-electric dams. Whether in urban or rural areas, the poor and vulnerable rarely benefit from the wealth generated from these projects, and as a result Brazil has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world. Development and Peace is working to ensure that the voices of these communities are heard and their rights are respected at the municipal, state and national levels.” – www.devp.org/en/program/brazil
A historical note:
“In 1967, the Canadian bishops launched the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace as a creative new way to assist the poor and oppressed peoples of the world in their struggle for justice…To realize this vision, the new organization devoted many of its resources to building an integrated social movement that educated Canadians about global injustice and mobilized them for action…The origins of Development and Peace were at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Working closely with their colleagues from Latin America, Africa and Asia, the Canadian bishops became increasingly aware of the massive poverty and systemic injustices that confronted the developing world…” – Page 13 of the book Jubilee, 50 Years of Solidarity by Peter Baltutis.