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Two years ago, I visited a charismatic woman known as Mama Grace in Soweto. She ran a South African community organization that serves meals to children in her cinder-block garage-turned cafeteria. She led us in a prayer before lunch and everyone bowed their heads—except me. I was watching Mama Grace pray. After we all said “Amen,” Mama Grace pointed at me and said “That one was looking at me and not praying!”
I was looking at Mama Grace because I am fascinated by the strength people find to carry out their mission. I have a lot of respect for those whose faith guides them to work in poor communities. I always wonder: What drives them?
I think about this a lot when I travel in Latin America, especially in El Salvador, where Catholic clergy have paid an especially heavy price. Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in 1980 while saying mass, is still a constant presence in the country. His public criticism of war-time violence and repression cost him his life. In 1989, six Jesuits who had criticized the government were murdered by the military in the middle of the night at the University of Central America in San Salvador. Just working in poor communities was sometimes enough to get killed: Three nuns and a missionary from the US “disappeared” in 1980. Their bodies were later found buried in shallow graves. But the faithful persist. Last year, I met a Salvadoran nun who runs a shelter for domestic violence survivors in San Salvador, a violent city for women. When I asked her what motivated her, she told me that she simply wanted women to know “that they have rights, that they can find happiness, and that they are human beings who deserve respect.” She said God led her to this work. She was only 23.
Just this past November, I spent a day riding around in the back of a pickup truck with Catholic priest Marco Arana, zigzagging around the mountains and dodging rain showers in Cajamarca, Peru. He is one of the founders of the environmental watch dog organization known as GRUFIDES. GRUFIDES is critical of a large gold mine in Cajamarca, and this has proven dangerous. Father Arana and others have been under surveillance and received anonymous death threats. In the front of the truck was Arana’s armed body guard, provided by the Peruvian government as ordered by the United Nations. So of course I asked Arana why he continues to do this dangerous work.
“It would be shameful to live a peaceful life while allowing other people’s lives, the mountains, the valleys, and the rivers to be destroyed,” he said.
Myself, I am not a religious person, but I do believe in people. And I think that the courageous ones working to end injustice must need as much faith in themselves as they do in any higher power.