Today, February 12, is the anniversary of the assassination, martyrdom and resurrection of Sister Dorothy Stang, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, who was murdered in the Amazon for standing with the peasants against landowners, multi-nationals and others determined to destroy peasants, indigenous peoples and others living in and defending the rain forest. Sister Dorothy (“Dot”) was a student of mine in my master’s program in creation spirituality. Born to a farm family in Ohio, with nine siblings, she is becoming known around the world as a peaceful warrior on behalf of Mother Earth. Her life and teachings and commitment make her a contemporary patron saint of Eco-warriors.
Last night, on the eve of her anniversary, I received a letter from her brother David Stang. He wrote of their final phone conversation, the night before she died:
Dorothy called me on the 11th to express her entering into the pit of hell, Esperanza, basically to give me a hug and say goodbye. She had just been refused any security. She knew what this meant, her death.
She left early in the morning, during the rainy season and it was raining. The 30 mile trip was totally on slippery, muddy, dirt roads, across four slippery log bridges, with dangerously deep filled rivers below. The small black car she sat in was filled with four people, blankets, food and tools for rebuilding. Though it was only thirty miles it took over four frightful hours. Why one would ask would you do this? She knew the farmers were waiting for her. She knew these poor proud strong farmers were scared to death. They knew that they were being threatened with drunken killers and one of their neighbors had just been harassed all night by these drunks and early in the morning they had burnt down the home, the crops and left the family in the forest with no food, or clothes or any tools, and scared to death that they would all be shot.
“How can I desert my family?” Dorothy said again and again. She had been told not to go by her friends, even by the Federal Prosecutor for land in her area. “I cannot leave my family,” she responded. By reading your book Confessions and knowing Dorothy’s story I can say, Matt you have gone through this very same pit of hell and would understand Dorothy’s story very well. I am with you as you talk about Dorothy whom you freed from the Empire and the Institutions so you and her could love real people without the moss covered Empire and Institutions. Thank you for giving me my free joyful sister who so loved me to call me about her death.
At her funeral a peasant farmer stood up and declared: “Sister Dorothy, we are not burying you, we are planting you.” This is what resurrection means in our time: Dot’s life and message to take a stand on behalf of Mother Earth is a seed that is growing in many places around the world. Sister Dorothy Stang’s life and work and death and resurrection, in the form of others being inspired by her work, is very much a part of an Eco-spirituality and Eco-practice where courage and commitment are needed to protect the rain forests and small farmers and soil and animals and oceans and rivers and trees everywhere.
Dorothy Stang’s story raises for all of us the important question of vocation. What am I called to do in this life, after a journey of 13.8 billion years to get here? That’s a long journey. Our work matters. Our choices matter. Our conscience matters; and especially at this time when the planet is in grave danger and so many species, our own included, is facing extinction from a dominant reptilian brain in humans that is dangerously out of control.
My Dominican brother St Thomas Aquinas said: “The proper objects of the heart are truth and justice.” Sister Dot was in love with both truth and justice. That is why she asked lots of questions and did a lot of study. That is why she learned the legal details of the Brazilian legal system, so she could fight for and with her people; and that is why she studied the judiciary in Brazil to know which judges were reliable and which were bought and sold.
Sister Dot also loved her conscience. How do we know this? Because she used it!! She acted from it. She dared to live from it. And, like her model Jesus, she died prematurely because of it.
Today, her legacy is honored at the Sister Dorothy Stang Center for Social Justice and Community Engagement, on the campus of her alma mater, the College of Notre Dame de Namur, where some of her sisters still teach. It is a rich tribute, because a school for young adults in particular is a place, a space, for vocations to gestate.
We all have a vocation–that is just one of the profound lessons learned from today’s science. Our existence as a species after a long journey of 13.8 billion years, the existence of this special and unique planet that has birthed the rain forests that Sister Dot so loved and the diversity of cultures and peoples and music and dance and foods and languages and religions–all this is in jeopardy today and all this is calling us.
And that is what a vocation is – a calling, calling out to the young people especially to stand up and be counted. To not settle for the trivial. To live lives of generosity and adventure.
Sister Dot is also calling–by her example, her generosity and life of adventure and her courage are calling and modeling: What is it you will give your lives for? A laying down of one’s life is not just a thing for martyrs: It is a choice we make daily in whatever field we choose to serve others–as scientist, as nurse, as teacher, as doctor, as business person, as artist, as parent, as grandparent, as citizen–wherever we are called the choice of conscience is ours.
Do not settle for just loving your spouse or family or children or country. Anyone can do that. Think bigger; love larger. Be like Sister Dot: Alive, joyful, determined, in love with both truth and justice, in love with the future, an eschatological hope that has not happened yet, such as Jesus spoke of and Sister Dot invoked as her final words. When her two assassins appeared, as she walked on the muddy road in the jungle, she had just enough time to pull out her Bible and this is what she read to them: “Blessed are the peacemakers….”
May she rest in peace. May we not rest until there is peace (with justice).