A black wooden ring on his finger—what could it mean? A sign of mourning, as in Victorian times? I noticed it during a conversation with Bernard Lestienne, a French Jesuit who works in Brazil at the Instituto Brasileiro de Desenvolvimento. He was in New York for a conference, and as he rose to leave my room in the rectory where he was staying, I asked him. “The ring is made from a tree that grows in the Amazon,” he explained. “It is a sign of solidarity with the poor and the struggle for justice. Some of the Brazilian bishops wear it too, instead of a gold episcopal ring.”
Bernard had much to say about the stark contrast in Brazil between poverty and wealth. Roughly a third of the people are poor, with 23 percent living “in misery, on one meal a day and not a very nourishing meal at that.” The rich, on the other hand, are very rich indeed. “There is no inheritance tax, and so huge fortunes are accumulated,” he said. “It is scandalous.” He went on to note that 5,000 of the wealthiest families possess half the nation’s wealth and, as a group, stand against efforts at reform.
Not that reform has not been attempted. When President Luis Inácio da Silva, a man from the working class, became president in 2003, he called for a program to eliminate hunger completely. But that goal has not been achieved, and in any case the issue concerns not just hunger or even poverty as a whole, but the larger question of inequality. Part of this inequality is reflected in the lack of jobs. “The unemployment rate is about 20 percent,” Father Lestienne said, adding: “About half the people who actually do have jobs work in the so-called informal sector—that is, with no job security, no health insurance or retirement benefits. Even some government employees find themselves in this situation,” he noted, “and many do not receive the minimum wage, even if they work in municipal, state or federal government offices—and the minimum wage is not enough to live on.”
Over the past decades, the church in Brazil has shown itself strongly on the side of the poor. Mentioning great figures like Bishop Helder Câmara and Cardinal Paolo Evaristo Arns, Bernard spoke of the prophetic character of the Brazilian church. It has been especially forceful in areas like land reform. Just as the growing gap between very rich and very poor has been scandalous, so too, he said, is the concentration of land in the hands of a few. Calling it a huge problem, he spoke of the way the bishops have tried to address it in statements like their land pastoral, the Pastoral da Terra, and through the church’s relationship with a lay group—the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (the Landless Workers Movement)—which Bernard described as “strong and dynamic.”
The land issue took on tragic implications on Feb. 12, 2005, when Dorothy Stang, of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, was killed in a remote part of the Amazon, where for three decades she had been working with indigenous people in an effort to stop logging interests and ranchers from pushing them off the land. Her two killers were armed with guns, and Bernard said that for many in Brazil, carrying firearms is part of daily life, increasing the overall violence. The church’s Pastoral Land Commission issued a biting statement after Sr. Stang’s death, to the effect that the killing had been ordered by the same powerful economic and political interests that she always resisted.
In terms of wider issues, the church has been part of an ecumenical movement, CEBI (Centro de Estudos Biblicos), which promotes Bible study. Every Sunday, Bernard said, one-page explanations of the day’s readings in simple language are distributed, along with questions—a method that helps poor people realize that the Bible speaks about their own lives. “So a whole family, parents and children, learn about Scripture in this wonderful way,” he said. Overall, the church has been open to cooperating with other sectors of society that are seeking to transform it through the struggle for justice. “We work together,” he observed, “and this is part of the richness of the church in Brazil.” He added that the church is still seen as one of the more credible institutions there, especially since people have lost confidence in the political process.
On at least one front, its approach to AIDS, Brazil has moved ahead of neighboring countries. “Brazil now produces generic versions of anti-retrovirals and even exports them,” Bernard said. “The government realized the danger of a huge expansion of the disease, and so has given priority to dealing with it through large-scale efforts.” As for the overall question of justice for the poor, however, the wearing of the black rings is likely to remain a disturbingly relevant symbol for years to come.