Ten years ago today, a 73-year old US Sister of Notre Dame de Namur was gunned down on a rural path in the state of Para in Brazil. Sister Dorothy Stang had spent almost forty years as a missionary in Brazil.
She worked with the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission and had worked for many years with the rural villagers and workers, accompanying them as they faced the onslaughts of ranchers, loggers, and other powerful economic interests. She recognized that this was a struggle not only for the land, the environment, but also for the people on the land.
She had received death threats as early as the 1990s but she continued her work, accompanying the people and denouncing the injustices they were suffering.
She knew that it was dangerous but she felt that God called her there.
I don’t want to flee, nor do I want to abandon the battle of these farmers who live without any protection in the forest. They have the sacrosanct right to aspire to a better life on land where they can live and work with dignity while respecting the environment.
The story of her death seems to come out of the early stories of martyrs.
She was on her way to a meeting in a rural community when her path was blocked by two hired gunmen. She took out her bible and began to read the Beatitudes. At that point she was shot and killed. She had to know that they were going to kill her, but she responded with such peace –
Blessed are the peacemakers…
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice…
Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice…
Blessed are those who have the spirit of the poor…
I pray and hope that I may have the same peace and presence that she had when she faced death.
I think the way that I can prepare myself is to pray as she did:
I light a candle and look at Jesus on the cross and ask for the strength to carry the suffering of the people. Don’t worry about my safety. The safety of the people is what’s important.
I do believe that accompanying the people and looking to the suffering Savior are keys to peace and to a life of love.
So today I want to celebrate the death of a modern martyr – with a renewed commitment to mission.
I do it with joy, and hope, realizing that Sister Dorothy was killed near a settlement named Boa Esperança – Good Hope.
A short biography of Sister Dorothy can be found on her congregation’s site: here.