On Monday, Jan. 16, four of us left Rochester to visit our Sisters of St. Joseph in Brazil. Sisters Marilyn Pray and Mary Lou Mitchell, members of the leadership team of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester, represented the congregation. I was continuing a series of triennial visits begun in 1981. My niece, Grace Early, traveled with me for the third time ‚Äì as adviser, fashion consultant, bodyguard and friend.
We were a day late leaving. On Sunday, high winds in Newark forced the cancellation of our flight from Rochester. The day of travel was long and seemed slow. I won’t go into details. It’s enough to say that we entered the Uberlandia home of Sisters Marlena Roeger and Ireny Rosa da Silva (who is called Nega) 27 hours after we left Rochester. Sleep on the overnight flight was hard to come by.
Following is an account of some of our activities and a few thoughts about the experience:
Tuesday, Jan. 17: Marlena and Nega knew that the four they greeted at the airport would be tired from long travel and little sleep. There was no evening schedule except for settling in, a quiet meal and some catching up on news of common interest.
It is a peaceful and relaxing experience to be here, just as it was when I arrived at the same house on my first visit to Brazil 25 years ago.
Just being here brings back memories of earlier visits and an awareness that certain elements of life remain the same even amid the changes Brazil has experienced in the past quarter of a century. I think of the commitment of our sisters to the people among whom they serve. It is a commitment of solidarity and support they enter in a spirit of partnership — always ready to share what they have; ever open to the gifts and goodness of the Brazilian people.
Marlena is a veteran here. She came to Brazil shortly after I arrived in Rochester and has been here ever since, save for a recent stint of service to our migrant community in the Brockport area.
Nega is one of four Brazilian women who have become professed members of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester. Nega celebrates the 13th anniversary of her final profession this month. She had her first visit to Rochester a few months ago, and all reports indicate that she enjoyed the visit a great deal. I hope that we’ll have a chance to talk about her experience before we part company.
The women decide to take an evening walk. Unable to keep up with them, I head directly to bed.
Wednesday, Jan. 18: After an early lunch, all of us except Nega hopped into a jeep driven by Jose de Oliveira who is coordinator of pastoral support to urban and rural encampments. We were off to visit three communities where Marlena has just begun to serve. Through a land-reform program sponsored by the federal government families in these communities are about to realize life-long dreams to own property. Each family will receive about eight acres of land.
The program has involved giving to those who qualify land that formerly had been unused or underused. The benefits to be realized were greater productivity for the nation in general and stronger economic security for the families who received the land.
It all sounds peaceful and easy in the writing; the reality has been quite different from the beginning. Although landowners and their families have been compensated for the land that is being reallocated, many have resisted this reform from the beginning — even to the point of violence and bloodshed. They judge it to be communist-inspired and the destruction of their way of life.
The church in Brazil has supported land reform, and our sisters have been very much a part of that support. They have stood them at the side of the poor and come into close contact with the violence that has marked resistance to the movement. I remember the pain of their deep personal loss when their friend and co-worker, Wilmar Jose de Castro, was murdered because of his involvement in land reform.
The recent murder of Sister Dorothy Steng, SND, for the same reason is a reminder that the pain is not over. Jose told me on our drive that the year 2005 saw the highest incidence of murders connected with land reform in the history of the movement. While Sister Dorothy’s murder caught the attention of the world community, the brutal truth is that the murders of hundreds of Brazilians have not.
Marlena is present to these communities as catechist and pastoral minister, as one eager to walk with and support friends as they follow their dreams. And who can argue with those dreams — peace and security for their families, economic stability, education and health care for their children?
Peace to all.
Look for the continuation of Bishop Clark’s mission journal throughout February.