BEING THERE WHILE BEING HERE
By Fr. Tim Ryan
Recently, I had the privilege and pleasure of travelling to Brazil in connection with the work of Scarboro Missions' Justice and Peace and Lay Mission Offices. Most of my time was spent in that part of the Amazon valley where more than 30 years ago, young and fresh out of seminary, I went to live and work.
Not surprisingly, being back in this particular part of the world had a very strong impact on me. I was, in fact, quite taken aback by the capacity to immediately, in a rather jarring way, "fit in". On one level, it was as if I had been away a few months not more than 20 years!
Being in the midst of widespread poverty often produces a numbing psychological shock, leaving one with a certain sense of unreality and disconnectedness. This visit induced some of that, but was tempered by a recovered sense of familiarity and belonging.
One reaction to being back in Amazonia and once again experiencing its needs was to feel that, if I really cared and had the opportunity, this almost too obviously was the place I should be. It seems self-evident at first glance that attacking "Third World" poverty and injustice means first of all being where the action is; even if it is simply being there, sharing the experience of the world's poor majority and trying to do something, anything. While the evidence of significant change might be hard to see (and it almost always is), at the very least one would be participating in one of humankind's fundamental contemporary challenges from the more realistic perspective of its poor majority.
Yet, as the days went by and I accompanied the work being done often being carried back to my own experience of so many years ago I became unsettled by another, different reaction. Perhaps this first spontaneous reaction that one should be here helping was not the only obvious caring response.
So Little Had Changed
I was struck by an awareness that conditions of 30 years ago often seemed so little changed even with the continued presence and dedicated work of so many others over the 20 years of my absence. A reminder that being there, doing one's little bit at the side of the poor does not of itself bring any discernable evidence of fundamental change.
In my years in Scarboro Missions' Justice and Peace Office, I have often been asked sometimes challenged! to explain why our Society and some of its members would expend resources and energies in Canada when, as a Foreign Mission Society, our efforts are supposed to be focused on those outside Canada. Are not activities like dialogue with Canadian corporations on their social responsibility, submissions to the Canadian Parliament's Foreign Policy Review, or helping with submissions to the United Nations Human Rights Commission simply too far removed from the directness of being there, sharing personally in people's burdens and struggles? Are not the things we do here in Canada a distant second best to being there, at the side of the poor, where bringing about change is really possible?
The point, of course, is not to argue whether being there or being here is the right response. I would not trade my years of experience in Brazil and other parts of the world where I have lived and travelled.
I felt great pride and satisfaction attending the recent commitment and departure ceremony of five new Scarboro members about to begin their service in other parts of the world. I believe their "being there" will mean a great deal to those they are with. I am certain it will also change those who are going in a way which only such searing personal experience really can. I think we will always need such personal exchanges if we are to keep our bonds of solidarity with others in the world alive and human. (Let us hope that in the future we can better facilitate a reverse flow of people from churches in other parts of the world coming here to Canada to share their experience with us.)
But I am also convinced that deeply, and increasingly, we are there with one another on a world scale even as we live our very different lives here, so many thousands of miles away. For we are, in a profound and ever more penetrating sense, daily living and relating with one another on this earth, on many levels.
An Accidential Encounter
As is often the case when travelling, one of the encounters which stands out most strongly in my memory of this visit took place totally by accident. A friend and I were paying an early morning visit to three religious Sisters from another region of Brazil who are in charge of pastoral work in one of the newest, most distant and poorest suburbs of the ever more sprawling city of Itacoatiara. A woman appeared at the door to "borrow" some ice cubes from the refrigerator. (Electricity had come to the more privileged homes of this neighbourhood only the week before.) As is the local custom, she was invited in for a cup of strong Brazilian coffee. As we talked, we learned that she had just returned from working the night shift at the Carolina Lumber company.
On a tour of the town, I had already been shown the Carolina and the Ghetal lumber processing plants far away beyond their high security fences on the bank of the Amazon river. Both have been built in the period since I left. In a town which I remember as a sleepy agricultural centre, about 2,000 workers now labour in these plants. Their production is for export to other parts of the world. Both plants are linked to European multinational corporations.
The local bishop had recently accompanied the plant's union leaders to a government labour tribunal hearing which found the Carolina plant in violation of a number of its obligations under the country's inadequate and poorly-enforced labour laws. As the conversation went on, a general picture of working conditions in the Carolina plant emerged. Not very surprisingly, considering all the factors at work, they were far from ideal. Apart from still uncorrected violations of union rights, rest and lunch breaks were regularly not respected, involuntary overtime often went unpaid, etc.
While I was there, another quite different, but not unrelated incident took place in Itacoatiara. An international team from Greenpeace who arrived in town to demonstrate against the lumbering practices of the two local lumber mills had their planned protest upstaged by a counter-demonstration allegedly orchestrated by the State governor. (After further demonstrations downriver, the Greenpeace ship was ordered out of the country by the federal police.)
I do not describe these two incidents to advance any simple position: to imply, for example, that global firms and consumers should simply stay away and leave the people and the forests of the Amazon alone. As someone who experienced life in Itacoatiara during its "natural", more isolated, but also poorer and more brutish past, I do not find very compelling the position that people in Itacoatiara would be better without any jobs than with jobs which don't meet adequate standards. Nor does it seem reasonable to suggest that there simply should be no lumbering of the Amazon's forests clearly one of the area's principle resources.
Particularly those in Canada with working class roots have some sympathy for ordinary people's need of work to survive, even while they struggle tirelessly to improve basic rights and exercise environmental responsibility. Canadians as much as any people in the world are still wrestling with how to define, monitor and enforce standards of "sustainable," "environmentally responsible" forest management.
What these two incidents did reenforce for me was the importance of moving beyond the symptoms of unacceptable forest management and unjust working conditions. In addition to responding to these symptoms the day to day human problems and suffering it is also imperative that communities like Itacoatiara in every corner of our world be encouraged and supported in their struggle to make their social, economic and political structures better incorporate fundamental human rights and environmental responsibility.
More than this, what these two different experiences in Itacoatiara confirmed for me was the real, direct connection between this struggle in places as remote as Itacoatiara and the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of individuals in Scandinavian or other European countries who participate in the ownership of the lumber mills in Itacoatiara, and the many people in all parts of the world who are the consumers of their production.
Working With Canadian Corporations
Over the last 15 years, along with other Canadian churchpersons, I spent considerable time and energy working with Canadian corporations to better incorporate social and environmental responsibility into the ways in which they operate. I am firmly convinced by such experience that if the facts of this situation a thousand miles up the Amazon could be properly established and brought before management, directors, shareholders, customers and other corporate "stake-holders", an impact could be made on the lives of these workers and forests so many thousands of miles away. I am also firmly convinced that we are only at the very beginnings of what we can and must do to manage our increasingly globally integrated economic and social lives in a more just and responsible fashion. Thus, while there certainly remains much merit in some Canadian Christians going out to directly share and accompany people's lives and to help them do what has to be done, it is clearly an increasing priority to work here at our end of these global relationships because what happens there is so clearly linked to what we do and are here.
And so I am back in Canada now reconfirmed in my sense of the connectedness between what we do here and the daily lives of those who are there. I am more than well enough aware that our solidarity work on international justice issues does not show evident signs of great breakthroughs any more than does the work being done at the other end.
A Lesson In Humility
Looking back on more than 20 years of struggle on such global issues here in Canada, quite honestly one of the strongest lessons I see us having learned is that of humility. Not only in the face of results, but in the face of the objectives we embraced and the strategies we pursued to advance them. We have seen ideological frameworks and development models which we embraced with such certitude fail repeatedly, often miserably.
Our commitment, ideals and values were and remain compelling, but the practical struggle of finding effective ways to achieve them has proven to be a hard teacher. In our quest for greater justice in the world, we are all too human. We have some grasp of the goals, but we must struggle in ignorance and against human sinfulness to work towards their realization.
For over 30 years, we have embraced a concept of "development" based on the assumption that we were equipping emerging nation-states to take their place within a global family of relatively autonomous countries. Today, while it is true that national governments continue to be the only political institutions with the power to effectively redistribute wealth and impose some social justice goals on financial markets, it is clear that they now do so under the rapidly expanding constraints of globalized market mechanisms. While global integration continues apace, the multilateral forums for imposing wealth redistribution and prompting greater social justice have yet to be effectively established.
We have our work cut out for us as we face these challenges. The reality is that, with dramatic speed, our lives here are being tied even more closely with the lives of others there even in the remote Itacoatiaras of this world. The Good News of God's Reign being alive in our world challenges us and empowers us to make these increasingly expanded and diffuse global relationships more loving ones. May we seize upon this grace even as we live our lives here surrounded by our more easily seen and understood interpersonal relationships.