Earth Day: Weeping for the Land and Its People, Honoring Its Martyrs

On Saturday, April 22, we will commemorate Earth Day.  Thousands of activities are planned across the globe from celebratory festivals to prayer services, from educational events to planned trips and adventures in places not ordinarily visited.  I hope you will do something to heighten awareness that we humans have been hostile inhabitants of this nurturing Earth at the expense of acquiring wealth and luxury while relegating Earth, a suffering gift from God to the cellar where unwanted ‘things’ are sent so we can ignore them and use what we want from them on our own terms.  Yes, we mistreat Earth.  We dominate her.  We subject her to our whims and desires. We cause wars that deface and wound her; we plunder her waters and her dirt hiding our waste and injecting toxins into her veins, the system that gives us food.  So, let’s determine that today we will resolve to do more than recycle our plastic and paper; we will do some heavy lifting joining groups fighting for Earth’s survival.  If Earth survives, we survive.

One such person who did this has become a hero for the environmental movement as well as a recognized saint/martyr.  Sister Dorothy Stang was a Roman Catholic Sister of Notre Dame de Namur which she entered from Dayton, Ohio where she was born and raised.  She knew at the time of her entrance that she wanted to “serve the poor and befriend people very different from herself.”  In 1966 she arrived in the Brazilian rain forest at the same time the government began a “romance with the World Bank to develop the Amazon for logging, mining, and cattle ranching.  The Wall Street Journalcalled it the Brazilian Miracle.  The peasants called it capitalismo selvage, a savage, wild beast.”

Dorothy learned Portuguese and a spattering of indigenous languages so she could set up schools and organize lay led cooperatives that helped people spiritually and economically which had the blessing of some Latin American bishops and were called ‘base ecclesial communities.’  The center of such communities was the teaching of the Gospel in challenging local injustices.  They flourished throughout Central and Latin America through efforts of Catholic missionaries beginning in the late 1960’s and into the 1990’s.  She counseled farmers and filed legal claims on their behalf when their lands were stolen.

Dorothy was concerned to preserve the forests when the environmental movement was in its infancy.  You might say she was a prophet of environmentalism especially fighting the impact that deforesting had on thousands of Brazilian farmers in the Amazon.  Her heart took in these farmers and their families who had cultured the land and produced healthy products for centuries to local peoples.  Much of the area of her community had been devastated with strip mining.  She countered with planting “crop trees such as coffee and acai and encouraging farmers to use intensive techniques rather than slash and burn practices of big landowners.” 

By the late 1990’s Dorothy was on the hate list of ranchers and miners, and she knew it.  On February 12, 2005, she was up early to attend a meeting to strategize a response to illegal logging.  On her way to the meeting that morning she encountered two men on the top of a hill, and she knew them.  They asked: “Do you have a weapon?” “Yes,” she said and pulled out her Bible, tattered from years of use.  She read to them: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.  Blessed are the peacemakers…”  She then looked at the men standing in her way and said, “God bless you, my sons.”

They shot her six times.

To cite her many obituaries, one can get the feeling that Dorothy Stang was a ‘do-gooder,’ maybe even naïve in confronting corporations sponsoring the illegal takeover of simple farms.  But that would be a gross miscalculation of Dorothy Stang.  She had lived in the forest for almost 40 years; she knew her neighboring families intimately.  She knew how to train them in advanced farming techniques; she was, in effect, feeding thousands of Brazilians.  She loved the Earth because she saw its potential to keep human beings fed and to bring financial stability to their farming communities.  She prayed with her people and taught them that the Earth is a gift to them.  Long ago she had committed herself as a “handmaid of Christ, king of a kingdom where all people will live in harmony with each other and the Earth.”


My religious community, like nearly all women’s religious communities, is fiercely dedicated to doing more for the environment.  This is not the place to enumerate our efforts from changing to solar heat or managing a large garden to give fresh produce to the underserved in the city, etc.  I think that all of us need to be ‘doing more’– living more in the context of the environment with all its challenges and even the way it changes our lives. 

I think this is the key.  How does being a true environmentalist change the core of your life?  Not just what you do, what you wear, what you plant, but the way you live in harmony with the world God made.  This will take some deep thinking and soul searching.  In the meantime, continue to recycle and re-use, continue to eat less meat.  Continue to plant trees and cultivate your own gardens.

But I propose for this week to ask yourself: How can I promote Earth harmony?  How can I get in tune with creation—plants, animals, fellow human beings within the context of the harmony that environmentalism provides?  Think long and hard on this.

Share with us what you are doing or plan to do to live this harmony.  Pray to Sister Dorothy and ask for her guidance just as she gave it to her Brazilian family.

“All things bright and beautiful,

all creatures great and small,

all things wise and wonderful,

the Lord God made them all.”

Cecil Frances Alexander

All quotes for this blog were taken from Plough Quarterly, Summer, 2022, p. 112. 

7 thoughts on “Earth Day: Weeping for the Land and Its People, Honoring Its Martyrs

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  1. Thank you for her story and witness to our environment. I worked for years as a Climate Steward for the City of Cleveland teaching groups ways to take better care of our earth. I wrote grants to develop a community garden at our church and managed it until this year. I am a big proponent of composting and buying recycled items. I worked on the Cleveland Climate Plan on the Equity Committee. At my apartment, I collect plastic ware after events to wash and reuse. We encourage residents to bring their coffee cups instead of using styrofoam. I have written grants to plant trees, work with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy and the Arbor Day Foundation. Could go on …. The diocesan Social Action Committee has many resources to share. Other groups like the Ocean Conservancy, The Environmental Defense Group, The Sierra Club, Audubon and many more are doing excellent work. Every effort is a step forward.


  2. Thank you, Sister, for reminding us about Earth Day. On a visit to Sisters of Charity Cincinnati a couple of years ago, I was introduced to one of their ministries called Earth Connections. A center for learning about living lightly on Earth. I learned how bottle caps and lids can be recycled into many items such as benches, picnic tables, etc., and recently to build prosthetics for kids. I read in America we use 2.5 million plastic bottles each hour and all are manufactured with a cap. More information can be found at Plastics R Unique and Green Tree Plastics by googling their names or simply Caps and Lids Recycling on the internet. It’s a wonderful project for children of all ages, Boys and Girls Scouts, churches, garden clubs, etc.


    1. Thank you for a thoughtful comment that can help others. I am very pleased that you found our Earth Connections so educational and helpful. Keep up your wonderful efforts with us.


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