The book sleeve gives a succinct introduction to Binka Le Breton’s book The Greatest Gift:
“In 1966, Sister Dorothy Stang went to Brazil as a missionary, and in 1982 she moved to a small town on the Amazon to work with an organization to protect poor farmers and their land from loggers and land developers who stop at nothing- including murder- in pursuit of profits. After testifying at a government panel investigating illegal incursions into protected areas, Sister Dorothy was denounced as a ‘terrorist’ by powerful companies and began receiving death threats. Refusing to be intimidated, she continued her work- until two gunmen shot her six times on a rural Amazon road.”
I had never heard of Sister Dorothy Stang before I read this book. After I finished reading this book I grew to admire Sister Dorothy Stang and I grew to better understand the plight of the poor farmers in the Amazon and their exploitation by the land developers and rich farmers. Dorothy’s mission in life was to help the poor and to create a more favorable relationship between people and their natural environment.
Dorothy Stang was born on June 7, 1931 to a family of 9 children. Her father, Henry, was an officer in Wright Patterson Air Force Base, and her mother was a housewife in charge of caring for their children. They were devout Catholics, and they instilled their faith to their children. Dorothy was especially devoted, and was known by her siblings and friends as being an outgoing and fun person to be around. She was also known for her sense of mischief, and was involved in the backyard baseball games. With these qualities was a devotion to God that lead her to join the order of Notre Dame de Namur at the age of seventeen.
After a few years in the convent, Dorothy went to a parish in Arizona and worked with migrant families and the poor. This gave her a heart for helping the poor, and it prepared her for her final ministry when she moved to Brazil in 1966. During this time, Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council and it gave a new spirit of renewal within the Catholic Church. It was a time when the church began to empower the laity to study the Bible, priests turned to face the people during the mass, and nuns stepped out of the lower rungs of the church hierarchy to blaze new ministries. The pope who followed John XXIII was Pope Paul VI and he wrote an encyclical Populorum Progressio which squarely put the church on the side of the poor. He wrote: “But it is unfortunate that on these new conditions of society a system has been constructed which considers profit as the key motive for economic progress, competition as the supreme law of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right that has no limits and carries no corresponding social obligation. This unchecked liberalism leads to dictatorship rightly denounced by Pius XI as producing ‘the international imperialism of money’. One cannot condemn such abuses too strongly by solemnly recalling once again that the economy is at the service of man. ”
Soon after this encyclical was produced, Latin American bishops met in the Council of Medellin and the Council drasticly changed the role of the church in Latin American society. Penny Lernoux wrote an article in the August 27, 1988 issue of The Nation that defined the new role of the church. Lernoux wrote:
“Instead of parroting what they had been told, the bishops took a hard look at political and economic conditons in Latin America, going beyond Vatican II by interpreting conciliar changes in light of the poverty and injustice in their underworld. Heretofore allies of the upper classes and the military, the bishops shocked the regions elites by denouncing the ‘institutionalized violence’ of the rich against the poor and by committing the church to help the poor organize themselves to achieve greater political, social, and economic equality.”
In Brazil, the government had embarked on a program to develope the Amazon region. They built roads that opened up the forest to migrant workers to cut trees, set up ranches, and build towns and factories. The landless poor flocked to the forest, in hopes of owning their own property through a government program that promised them title to the land. This promise proved useless, as large land owners and ranchers took the titles to the lands that the poor had settled in. Many of the migrants wound up as farm laborers, many living under a system of debt bondage that was little more than slavery. These poor Brazilians lived in fear of the landowners, the army, and the police.
Dorothy came into this situation armed with the spirit of Vatican II and the Council of Medallin and she was determined to apply those Christian principals to helping poor Brazilians. With the Sisters of Notre Dame, Dorothy worked to set up base communities for the poor, train migrants to be leaders of their communities, and helped build schools for the Amazon community. They prepared people for marriage, baptism, and the Catholic sacraments, but along with this, they also taught about land reform, and their rights as Brazilian citizens. As Dorothy learned about a creation centered theology later in her life, she began to fight for the preservation and wise stewardship of the Amazon forests. Dorothy tried to move migrant farmers from their habit of cut and burn the forest and exhaust the soil, and instead plant trees and care for the soil.
For this effort, Dorothy Stand made many enemies among the large landowners and corrupt officials. She was accused of arming settlers and of inciting violence. Dorothy was threatened with death threats for her support of land ownership for migrant settlers. On February 12, 2005, Dorothy Stang was shot down by the henchmen of a rich landowner.
Sister Dorothy Stang’s death was a loss for the Brazilian people. Her death though, does not mean that her good work disappeared as well. The Brazilian peasants who knew her are now active members of their church and are empowered to fight for their rights. Dorothy was a fighter for her church and she was devoted to serving God. Sister Elizabeth Bowyer, of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, wrote in the foreword of The Greatest Gift:
“If this simple, fun-loving, courageous person could spend a lifetime reverencing the dignity of every person, then maybe we can do the same. Dorothy Stang’s love of people can inspire in us a sense of human kinship as we experience a kind of global interrconnectedness unknown to previous generations. Because Dorothy embraced and cared for this wonderful Planet Earth, we are encouraged to do the same. Her joy in giving up the ‘good life’ speaks to us, the 18 percent of the world’s population who use 80 percent of the world’s resources. Her life tells us that we too can free ourselves from the slavery of consumerism and live more simply so that others can simply live. Dorothy Stang, a little lady from Ohio, has a big message for our world.”