The Lenten Story of Sister Dorothy Stang

[Sister Dorothy Stang was a 73-year-old Sister of Notre Dame, a native of Dayton, Ohio, and an outspoken advocate for Brazilian peasants, living and working in that country for over four decades. On February 16, 2005 she was assassinated. According to eyewitnesses, she held up her Bible and told the assassins it was the only weapon she carried. She was reading from the Scriptures as the bullets struck her.]

In what I think can be termed the era of the shrinking Gospel, Sr. Dorothy Stang summons us to a more robust Christianity. Her public "religion" is dramatically different from that we witness in the United States. Here, our public religion has become concerned mostly with personal sin and with judgment of individuals; our church has become transfixed in too many instances with the minutiae that would have fascinated the "tamed Jesus" but which was soundly rejected in his "wild holy" state.

Some years ago during a retreat, I heard the story of the tamed Jesus, the little boy who so worried his parents with his delusional notions that they rook him to a local wise man. The man proceeded to work with the boy, eventually curing him of his "wild holy" tendencies. The story ends with the boy returning to Nazareth where he became a good carpenter, a good citizen, a threat to neither religious nor civil authorities. It is a good Lent story, for all of us can recognize the taming to which we've subjected ourselves.

Stang, on the other hand, in her work in Brazil, took the path away from a tamed Christianity and towards an expression of faith (a lived faith) as big and broad and complex as the world itself. She somehow avoided or overcame the cultural and religious influences that work to put the brakes on most of us. In fact it was probably the very same influences : the desire for security and comfort, the conviction that we're helpless against great forces, the yearning for respectability and power : that she turned to her advantage, into service for others.

When someone conquers these desires, she comes in touch with the most essential matters. In the case of Dorothy Stang, her security clearly became tied to the security of the marginalized; her courage in the face of great odds and threats of violence was tied to the survival and courage of those without connections and leverage; and her respectability and power emerged from the fact that she challenged the respected elites and the powerful who live at the literal expense of others.

She connected parishes in Ohio with the realities of Brazil's poor. Wherever she went, new life occurred in new farms and orchards, in cooperatives and in a center for Scripture study. The designation is worn thin from overuse; but in this case the term prophetic regains its power and distinction. Hers is a prophetic life.

This is a Lenten story in uncanny levels of detail. Sr. Dorothy poured herself out not only for the poor with whom she walked. She was also insistent on connecting the dots back to systems and organizations, land barons and powerful economic interests that are destroying the Amazon jungle as well as the lives of indigenous inhabitants.

Her approach to ministry was evidently seamless in its concern for all creation. It was certainly courageous beyond measure. Where she brought life, she also drew threats. Hers is a story almost tedious in its predictability. Why so often does life have to be sacrificed in order for the human endeavor to inch forward? In the end she paid the price, Scripture held high as her only weapon.

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