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The beloved Amazon

Michele Gierck  |  18 May 2020

Australian Divine Word Missionary Priest Fr Manh Le spent five years ministering to remote communities in the Amazon region. In the wake of the Pope’s latest exhortation, Querida Amazonia, we spoke to him about what he learned among the peoples of the region.

Fr Manh Le sat on a bank of the Madeira River in Brazil as the sun cast the last of its rays for the day over the wide turbid waterway that snaked its way through the Amazon rainforest – a region known as Amazonia.

This part of the world spoke to Fr Manh’s heart. It wasn’t just the rainforest and the river, but the ‘river people’, their communities, their way of life and their connection to nature that impressed him.

Fr Manh recalls, ‘It was about 6pm one evening and we were playing soccer – a sacred time of day! Suddenly, everyone stopped. Then, they run to their houses getting guns, knives and hunting tools. Bewildered, I asked what was going on. “Father”, they said, “Can you smell something? There’s wild pigs in the bushes.”’

 The visiting priest knew that the river people hunted at night, listening to animal noises, but on this occasion it was a revelation to discover that ‘the masters of hunting and fishing are those who also use their nose to smell the animals on land or even the fish in the river – and where they are.’

REMOTE COMMUNITY

This remote community was home to about 50 families, one of around 200 communities along the river. It was two days and two nights from Manaus (the capital of the state of Amazonas) by boat.

Fr Manh would spend as much time as he could with each community. Usually he’d celebrate the Eucharist and stay the night before heading off to the next community along the river – by boat or canoe.

After 20 days travelling in one loop, Fr Manh would return to Manaus, wash his clothes, refuel, rest and then begin another almost three-week journey.

Once when visiting a community on the river, he asked if he could buy a kilo of meat. ‘Father, you can’t buy meat. We don’t sell it. But you are welcome to take what you need.’

Fr Manh reflects, ‘The river people of the Amazon only kill the animals they need. They don’t sell meat or fish. They share it.’

What was it like to be among people who live simply, in community, share what they have, and whose connection to the natural world is integral to who they are, how they live, and how they see themselves and God?

HUMBLING EXPERIENCE

‘It’s a humbling experience’, says Fr Manh, who spent five years visiting river communities in Amazonia. ‘The first bible for them is the Amazon. They see God, meet God and experience God in the Amazon. They really become one with nature…. They live Eucharistically – communally with a strong sense of spirit among them… They live in the full knowledge that God is already there, among them.’

Fr Manh believes the Church should not impose structures on indigenous communities, but celebrate Eucharist with them, and encourage their own way of expressing their faith and spirituality, without rejecting the goodness of what already exists.

Sometimes as he sat by the river reflecting, Fr Manh must have pinched himself. Born in Vietnam soon after the war, and growing up poor, family reunion brought him to Australia at 20 years of age (in 1991) – without a word of English. Three years later, he joined the Divine Word Missionaries.

‘It was working with the homeless, seeing the poverty and violence, and knowing this is the reality for so many, that woke me up’, he recalls.

After final vows, and a Masters in Theology, the young priest was sent to Brazil, living in a poor area about 200 kms from Sao Paulo. Ten years later his life in the Amazon began. 

GOOD SHEPHERD

Fr Manh is not surprised that Pope Francis – who he refers to as a ‘good shepherd and prophetic voice’ – strongly supports the Amazon communities in his recent document (an apostolic exhortation) called Querida Amazonia – Beloved Amazonia. (It was released on 12 February 2020)

At heart, it’s a cry for justice for the 33 million who live in the region, including the indigenous river people. It’s a demand for protection for their lives, cultures, and the land and rivers they inhabit.

‘There’s a lot at stake because of powerful economic interests, both national and international, that threaten the destruction of Amazonia – the people and the rainforest – with their profits at any cost approach’, say Fr Manh.

At heart, Querida Amazonia is about caring for creation, and the need for emphasising the preferential option for the poor. After all, it is the poor, including the Amazonian river people who rely on the natural environment, who are most likely to pay the price of ecological degradation.

Querida Amazonia is a call for the rights and dignity of indigenous people, and the preservation of their distinctive cultures.

A CHALLENGE

Irrespective of which part of the world we live in, Querida Amazonia challenges us, advocating a personal and communal conversion away from consumerism, to a world view and actions that value nature and are in right relationship with it.

‘We’re all inter-connected’, says Fr Manh. He also adds that the current COVID-19 pandemic is proof of that.

What Fr Manh and Pope Francis share is a great love of the Amazon, its people, the rainforest, the rivers, and the sheer beauty of it.

Although Pope Francis addresses Querida Amazonia to the whole world – those of his flock, and people of ‘Good Will’ – and focuses on the Amazon, the spirit of that document is applicable to indigenous populations around the globe and to all of us in Australia.

Michele Gierck is author of 700 Days in El Salvador.

 

 

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