Brother: Slain nun sought to ‘hug’ evil
Now a martyr, Palmer Lake man’s sister was missionary, celebrity in Brazil
By PAUL ASAY THE GAZETTE
The night before she was slain, Dorothy Stang phoned her brother from deep in the Brazilian rain forest. “Today’s not a good day,” the 73-year-old nun told David Stang, noting the humidity. “But right now, I’m breathing the cool air of Palmer Lake,” where he lived. She spoke of the bugs, the heat and, most of all, her hard, sometimes dangerous work with Brazilian peasants. She said she was “going down the road,” to again confront a few powerful Amazon loggers and ranchers — men who were cutting through the rain forest and displacing the families she had worked with for 40 years. “I’m going down with food and clothing and support,” she told David on Feb. 11, 2005. She added, slowly, “I’m a little concerned this time.” Later, David wondered whether she knew. He wondered whether Dorothy knew that two of the men she confronted that night would gun her down hours later, leaving her body on a muddy forest road.
He wondered why, in a village filled with friends and allies, she walked alone that morning — almost as if she didn’t want anyone else to get hurt. He wondered why, months before, Dorothy had asked him to visit her. In the 40 years she’d worked in Brazil, he’d never visited before. “She said, ‘David, would you come down? I want my family to know what I’m doing down here,’” David said. “Was there a premonition? Who knows?” David, a 68-year-old man with a weathered face and an easy laugh, wears a T-shirt bearing his sister’s image. His coffee table is covered in threering binders that hold pictures of her, letters from her. He’s always shared his sister’s passion for the poor, and now he works to keep Dorothy’s memory alive. David visited Brazil just once when Dorothy was alive, but he’s been there five times since her death. He goes to every trial to watch, he says, the “dance between good and evil.” It’s been more than a year since Dorothy Stang was killed — shot six times on the wet, empty road to Boa Esperanca. Although her body was left alone in the road for eight hours — Brazilians apparently were afraid to report the murder — her funeral drew thousands. One man at the funeral said she was not being buried, but planted — her body a seed for new life. She’s become a martyr. Her grave in the jungle, near the town of Anapú, is a white-tiled shrine. Her killers have been convicted. So has the middleman who hired them. David was there when they were sentenced, the most recent trial in late April. Still pending are trials for the two landholders who allegedly paid to silence the stubborn, gray-haired nun. He’ll be back in Brazil for those trials, too, in the steamy land his sister called home. Para, the forest-covered Brazilian state where Dorothy worked and died, is known for its corruption, according to David: In the past 10 years, David says, 876 people were killed in Para over land. None brought an indictment — until now. “My sister always knew that evil did well,” he said. “She would hug that evil and try to transform it. She would never run from evil. You can’t. You have to hug it.” INSPIRED BY OWN POVERTY David and Dorothy Stang grew up in Ohio in the Great Depression, two of nine siblings. By the time David was 6, the two earned money for their family by picking raspberries and apples. David remembers Dorothy pushing him into the back of a fruit truck. Their parents instilled in them a deep faith rooted in Roman Catholicism: Their childhood poverty fostered a radical commitment to the needy. David became a priest and missionary, serving 11 years in Tanzania and Kenya. After he left mission work — and the priesthood — he moved to Colorado, where he worked as a psychiatric and nursing home administrator. Dorothy joined the Sisters of Notre Dame De Namur, a Catholic order known for its commitment to education and service to the poor. In 1966, the order sent her to the Amazon. As peasants moved deeper into the jungle to find land, Dorothy went with them. Her home base was the dusty town of Anapú, but she spent most of her time in remote settlements, traipsing through the jungle in a T-shirt and a skirt. She carried a satchel filled with letters, legal documents and her Bible. “She traveled everywhere,” David said. “She traveled sometimes for miles alone in the Amazon.” “She was terribly focused,” said Notre Dame Sister Elizabeth Bowyer, who knew and worked with Dorothy for 40 years. “She knew what her mission was. She never wavered from that.” The rain forest was practically inaccessible for decades — a green, blank patch on the South American map — and even her family wasn’t fully aware of all that she was doing. For years, Dorothy and David rarely spoke. After Dorothy bought a phone a few years ago, the two talked more: Toward the end, they spoke about every week. “Would I be the best one to understand my sister?” David said. “Probably, because I was a missionary myself. But I didn’t have a clue as to the extent of what this woman did.” When he visited Dorothy in December 2004, he realized she was more than a missionary; she was a celebrity. That month, the Brazilian Bar Association gave her its Humanitarian of the Year award. Dorothy had started 36 schools and 21 health clinics. She tried to start a radio station, too, but her opponents burned it down. She taught people how to start sustainable development projects — lowpact family farms that wouldn’t gut the forest around them. She was contending with Para’s powerful loggers and ranchers, who salivated over the state’s sprawling rain forest. They were said to hold the state government in their collective pocket, and their hired henchmen — pistoleros — swaggered through the jungle. In the month before Dorothy’s death, 12 settlements had burned. Everyone was afraid of the landowners and their gunmen. Everyone, it seemed, but Dorothy Stang. She confronted landowners, both verbally and legally. She’d demand justice from government officials and, if politicians didn’t respond to her letters, she’d visit them in person — sometimes camping on their front porches until they returned. “She knew the law better than they did, and she confronted the government day after day, year after year, to do their job,” David said. Landowners called her a witch and accused her of terrorism; she was a renegade from her order, they said, and was smuggling guns to people in the forest. For the last two years of her life, she reportedly had a price on her head. Many Brazilians thought that, despite the threats, Dorothy was safe. Who, in this overwhelmingly Catholic country, would shoot a 73-year-old nun? She requested protection several times from authorities, including the day before she was slain, according to David. “They just laughed at her,” David said. AT THE END OF A GUN To the peasants of Para, Dorothy Stang is a legend. Shortly after his sister was killed, David spent two weeks in Para, talking with Dorothy’s friends, walking the road on which she was killed. During the trial, he heard testimony from friends, eyewitnesses and even the killers themselves. Through those accounts, this is what David believes happened. On Feb. 11, 2005, the same day she talked with David for the last time, Dorothy traveled to the village of Boa Esperanca — a name that means “good hope.” There, she met two pistoleros — Rayfran das Neves Sales and Clodoaldo Batista —who worked for a local landowner they called Tato. This land, they supposedly told her, was Tato’s: Her people had no right to it. David believes Dorothy said to them, “Children of God, God bless you. Sit down and let me educate you.” They talked for 30 or 45 minutes, and the pistoleros left. But Dorothy’s “education” went unheeded. Tato had given these pistoleros nearly $25,000 — money allegedly provided by two other wealthy landowners — to kill her, according to Brazilian news services. They were just looking for a chance. The next morning, Dorothy woke up early, drank a cup of coffee, slapped on a baseball cap and headed to a community meeting, where she would speak to villagers about their rights to the land. As she walked through the forest to Boa Esperanca, David said, she met a man on the road. He said he’d walk with her to the village. The man said later in court that Sales and Batista were hiding in the thick forest, waiting for Dorothy. They confronted her. Dorothy, David said, citing court testimony, pulled her Bible out of her satchel. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” she read to them in Portuguese from the book of Matthew, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” “It wasn’t the first time she pulled out the Bible when she felt in danger,” Bowyer said. She finished Jesus’ Beatitudes, closed the book and, according to David, turned to walk away. The first bullet ripped through her stomach, the gun barrel less than a foot away. The pistoleros shot her five more times and then fled into the jungle. The man who had walked with Dorothy also disappeared — running, he said, for his life. It was 7:30 a.m. The nun’s body remained there, in the road, until 3:30 p.m. — her nose and right cheek pressed into the mud, her gray hair slick with blood and rain. A NEW CRUSADER That same morning, David was online, scouring the Internet to find organizations that might help Dorothy. “I was totally engrossed in how can I help Dot,” David said. “And then I hear the phone ring.” It was David’s sister, Barbara, with the news: Dorothy Stang had been killed. He sat, stunned, for hours. Then, around 5 p.m., he and his wife, LaHoma, left for Denver to tell their three daughters. “We drove there and just all broke down,” he said. But there was little time to mourn. David — no longer a priest and retired from his work in the nursing home — had a new job: to bring his sister’s story to light and, in his own way, further her work. David flew to Anapú, tailed by a news crew from CNN and dozens of representatives of the Brazilian press. News crews from as far away as Germany and Finland caught up with David along the way. He met with Brazilian politicians, walked the road where his sister had been killed, visited her grave that was watched, according to Cox News Service, by 300 armed guards. It was an odd experience, he admits, grieving and investigating his sister’s death in front of what seemed to be the entire world. Thousands wept over Dorothy’s death. They took him into their homes and showed him the rudimentary water filters Dorothy helped them use. One man took him into a room where Dorothy slept when she visited: The walls were lined with pictures of Dorothy’s brothers and sisters. “Wherever she stayed, she’d leave something behind so that people would think she’d come back,” David said. David will return to Para again for the next trial. He’ll talk again to Brazilian politicians and American allies. He’ll tell Dorothy’s story wherever he can. And he hopes that, partly through him, the work she started will survive and grow. “Sometimes we think of nuns as gentle women with habits on, and (say) ‘Aren’t they nice servants,” David said. “She was not that. She wasn’t that at all. She chose to be a servant — not a slave.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0367 or firstname.lastname@example.org
“Many times, pistoleros would come out of the bushes to kill one of her people. And she would go up to them and say, ‘No, no, no. Not today. These people have rights.’” DAVID STANG — on the work of his sister, Dorothy, left, in Brazil
CAROL LAWRENCE, THE GAZETTE - David Stang of Palmer Lake wore a shirt given to him by Brazilians, bearing the words: “The blood of Dorothy flows upon the Earth. We seek justice and agrarian reform.”
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS - Above police and others looked at the body of Dorothy Stang in Anapú, Brazil, on Feb. 12, 2005. The American nun was shot on the road to the Boa Esperanca settlement, where she worked with poor families. She had started 36 schools and 21 health clinics.
COURTESY OF DONALD STANG - Left the funeral procession for Dorothy Stang. Her funeral drew thousands. Her brother, David Stang of Palmer Lake, said, “She chose to be a servant — not a slave.”