Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
May 21, 2001
Former nun brings hope to Brazil's abandoned
Maria Jose Viana is minister of education of the state of Alagoas in northeast Brazil. She was invited by Rainbow of Hope for Children and CIDA to speak at the Global Environment and Outdoor Education Conference at Kananaskis.
During her visit she spent two days in Edmonton and visited St. Joe's and St. Michael's schools, the Bissell Centre and the Boyle Street Co-op. She also visited Blessed Sacrament School in Wainwright and was hosted in Saskatchewan by Al Gerwing and the Benedictines.
The differences between our countries are immense, but Dona Maria was also surprised by some similarities. The educational resources and facilities she saw on her visit impressed her.
On the other hand she was somewhat shocked to learn about the nearly 1,000 homeless in Edmonton and the estimated 100,000 to 300,000 child prostitutes in Canada with an average age of 14 years old, according to a recent CBC documentary.
Dona Maria is an educator, raised in a middle class family, she joined a religious teaching order and taught at a private school for upper class children. The pre-Vatican II notion was to instill Christian values in the members of the ruling class and as such to indirectly influence the common good.
It was difficult for Maria to reconcile these values with her service to the rich while the poor majority remained neglected. After six years she left the convent to live in the slums with the homeless and experience the great disparity first hand.
Her first task was to organize the excluded and lead the poor in a struggle for human rights and dignity. She founded the organization Sem Teto (without roofs) and lobbied the government to acquire plots of land to grow food for the homeless to feed their families.
She also began to organize the communities to provide some basic education. More than half the population of Alagoas is considered illiterate.
Schools in rural areas are almost non-existent. Government grants made available for such purposes were controlled by corrupt local oligarchies who used these funds for their own purposes, primarily to buy votes to perpetuate injustice.
A handful of families control all the political and economic activity in the state. The police and military protect the elite's dubious right to property, rather than the people’s basic right to live. The massive numbers of poor and rejected are considered a threat to the status quo.
It is not surprising then, that Maria, when she embraced the cause of the poor, was beaten in public during one of a number of demonstrations in front of city hall and subsequently hospitalized.
By some miracle, Ronaldo Lessa, brother of the police chief who had Maria beaten, was elected as mayor of Maceio, capital city of Alagoas. Ronaldo, a populist and member of the Labour Party, appointed Maria education director for the city.
While Maria was saddened to see the spectacle of street people in Edmonton's Boyle Street Community, it does not compare with the one million homeless of Maceio who live in plastic tents near the open sewage canal that runs through the city.
Undaunted by the lack of money and a political climate hostile to reform, she began the gargantuan task of democratizing education. She renovated over 30 schools, strengthened programs and improved teacher training.
Then the second miracle happened. Ronaldo was elected president of the state and he appointed Maria the secretary of education. Maybe the real miracle is that this former nun is allowed to live out her true vocation of bringing hope to the abandoned.
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