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"Go As Far as Your Courage Will Carry You" by Sister Diane Zigo, CSJ
February 12 marks seven years since Sister Dorothy Stang, SNDdeN, was killed in the Amazon village of Anapu. I write this after attending a weekend retreat led by Sister Nancy Murray, OP, an Adrian Dominican sister known for her dramatic presentations on the life of St. Catherine of Siena. She was commissioned by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur to develop a similar presentation on Sister Dorothy.
Dorothy had been a missionary in Brazil for 40 years, becoming increasingly one with the poor. In response to high unemployment in the coastal cities, the Brazilian government offered land to those willing to relocate to the Amazon Basin. Dorothy moved with them. She helped them build faith communities, emphasizing education and training in emerging methods of sustainable agriculture that would offer them a livelihood while preserving the biodiversity of the rainforest.
Unfortunately, others also covet this land. Brazil is the global leader in beef exportation, and the Amazon region has become a primary grazing area. When trees are removed, grass can grow in the poor forest soil. Although the relocated farmers are the legal owners of small plots of land, more powerful ranchers frequently produce falsified deeds and resort to intimidation and violence to drive vulnerable farmers away. The forests are then razed to make room for more cattle.
Sister Dorothy was deeply grounded in the Gospels. In helping the poor build more stable communities and pursue their legal rights to farm their lands, however, Dorothy became a marked woman. The threats began: “Be careful, Sister. Go back to the United States.” Nonetheless, Dorothy’s faith in God sustained her. “Go as far as your courage will carry you,” her local bishop told her.
On her way to a community meeting, Sister Dorothy was shot six times by two hired gunmen. At her funeral, another sister honored Dorothy’s devotion to Brazil’s people and its forests, declaring, “Dorothy is not buried! She is planted!”
What could Dorothy’s life mean for us? I have three reflections to share.
First, the consequences of rainforest destruction are dangerously real. Dorothy often wore a T-shirt bearing the message, “The Death of the Forest is the End of Our Life.” Called “the lungs of our planet,” the Amazon forest recycles carbon dioxide into 20% of Earth’s oxygen. Deforestation causes extinctions of 50,000 species per year; loss of the tree cover contributes to further ecological damage when rainfall cannot be maintained during droughts, causing further die-offs. Numerous spiritual leaders, from Teilhard de Chardin to Pope Benedict XVI, have called us to recognize our sacred oneness with all creation.
Second, Dorothy is not alone in risking her life on behalf of something greater. In the Amazon region, there have been over 800 land-related murders in the past four decades. In November, Sister Valsa John, SCJM, was killed in India for her work on behalf of communities displaced by mining operations. A visit to websites such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, or Doctors Without Borders give us an idea of how many people throughout the world are committed to the common good at great personal cost. Unfortunately, their stories are often unknown to us, rarely told in mainstream media.
Finally, Dorothy fully knew and lived out her life’s call. She thrived where God wanted her to be. She died reciting the Beatitudes to her killers.
What God desires from us is our own attention to God’s call and the willingness to be true to that call. No sane person looks for martyrdom. What we do choose are our convictions. Acting on them may indeed lead us toward sacrifice. What matters to God is that we choose our commitments with integrity and passion and keep on choosing. The images Jesus gives us in Scripture are not of punishment for falling short, but rather images of life constantly growing—mustard bushes, fields of wheat, vines with many branches. The invitation to keep becoming is always open.
(Sister Diane is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet and associate professor of literacy education at Le Moyne College, Syracuse, New York.)