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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

360 In all of nature and the universe, everything tends toward interconnecting and interrelatedness

Day 360: Thursday, March 11th, 2021:

In all of nature and the universe, everything tends toward interconnecting and interrelatedness

From her mission deep in Panama's rainforest, Sr. Melinda Roper embraces a human rights focus much broader than the one that thrust her into the international spotlight nearly four decades ago.

Roper was at the helm of the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic on Dec. 2, 1980, when four U.S. churchwomen — two of them Maryknoll sisters — were murdered in El Salvador. She was just 40 when elected two years earlier to lead the congregation, which had missions in Asia, Africa and the Americas and traced its history to 1912.

Under her leadership, the Maryknoll sisters fought for justice, for the churchwomen and for those they represented. At a time when Americans were mostly unaware of the U.S. role in training and financing right-wing death squads terrorizing much of Central America, the Maryknolls awakened the faith community in particular and the country in general.

The churchwomen became a symbol for a system that was repressing and killing tens of thousands of innocents, many simply for the profession of their faith. Their deaths helped inspire Central American solidarity groups throughout the U.S. and a sanctuary movement that gave shelter to refugees fleeing the violence.

For the past 32 years, Sister Melinda Roper and three other sisters have been building a pastoral community in the remote tropical wilderness of Darién province in Panama, an area of dense forest between Panama and Colombia. Her human rights focus and spiritual growth have expanded to encompass the connection between environment and spirituality.

It was 1985 and an adventurous group of Maryknoll sisters started to work with almost nothing.

At that time, the tiny settlement was at the end of an arduous eight- or nine-hour journey — "if you were lucky." The road was terrible; there wasn't a church, or even a ranchito to use as a chapel. Once a year or so, a priest would come to baptize the new babies.

"We had to find water, we had to find food; there was no electricity, no communication — it was very challenging and wonderful for me. Just surviving took a lot of our time and energy."

The people living there knew nothing about the civil wars that had been raging throughout the region. "They'd never heard of Archbishop Romero; they didn't know anything about Central America, the violence — that was another world. As Conchita Hojilla, another sister-friend of mine, said, 'Oh my God, where are we? This is a whole other situation. Now what are we going to do?' "

The government had recently opened the frontier to settlers, promising 50 hectares to anyone who wanted to stake their claim. They began carving out spaces among the Afro-descendants and indigenous people already living there. There was no connection to each other or to the land. Helping to build that sense of community would be a big part of the Maryknoll mission's work.

But it wasn't until the mid-1990s, Roper says, that it dawned on her what was happening: The surrounding tropical rainforest and wetlands were being systematically destroyed — by the logging companies, small farmers and cattle ranchers.

It had seemed necessary to create sustenance for the farmers. But as the sisters learned more about the critical role of tropical rainforests for the health of the planet, they began to pay attention. Industrial agriculture firms had begun to come in and buy out the subsistence farmers and drain the wetlands on a much larger scale.

The Pastoral Center they created began to learn and teach about organic farming, composting, rainwater harvesting and agroforestry. They purchased and preserved a 100-acre forest — the only forest left in Santa Fe, which is now a hub of commerce for the region.

Learning to live respectfully in a complex ecosystem changed their own lives as well, says Roper. Increasingly their emphasis was on wellness — not just of the human community, but also the environment, which they had come to see as integrally connected.

"The ecological crisis is really a spiritual crisis because it has to do with values, with quality of life, with the ability to consider the common good against the individual good," Roper said.

She sees Darién as a microcosm of a planet out of balance, where the human community has lost its sense of itself as a part of a complex and harmonious web of life, to disastrous effect.

"I believe that the alarms that are being set off by climate change are based on scientific evidence; also the disappearance of biodiversity is scary," she said

"I encourage all of us to try to understand more of what science is telling us today. … Science and spirituality are not contradictory but complementary; they're the principles on which the universe functions."

"In all of nature and all of the universe, everything tends toward interconnecting and interrelating. Another word would be to be 'in communion' with everything."

Recently, together with other sisters in Panama, she launched a program called "Web of Life," an educational retreat focusing on faith, science and the ecosystem.

Here's an excerpt from the retreat:

The universe story: We always walk forward. Evolution is always one direction. Sometimes we can go back and visit a point, but it's never the same — we always walk forward in the cosmic journey.

Today, I invite all of us to touch the Earth ... I invite us to walk in intention to carry evolution forward with our bodies and with gratitude.

- Sr. Peg Dillon, Web of Life walking meditation

(Maryknoll sister leads the walking retreat)

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