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A journey for those left behind

São Paulo, Brazil

Pushing his child in a stroller, the man seemed undaunted by the 60 mph traffic whizzing by less than 10 feet away. Ahead a few hundred feet, leading the crowd, a nearly 300-pound man waved a red flag on which was printed in yellow lettering “Aparecida.”

A woman paralyzed below the waist pounded out a steady rhythm on the pavement with her crutches. It seemed to match the song to Mary that a young Afro-Brazilian woman sang over the portable sound system. A religious sister, an 18 year-old mother and a pastoral worker danced joyfully. A grandmother, also with a child, swerved on the shoulder of the highway trying to manage her broken-down, tattered, faded pink baby carriage.

These were just a few of the cast of characters on a seven-day religious pilgrimage/social justice march to Our Lady of Aparecida, one of Brazil’s biggest churches located 100 miles northeast of São Paulo.

The walk was called “The Pilgrimage of Those Without” -- without employment, without a home, without education, without health care, without land. The group would walk during the day, carry banners, sing and pray in the streets and highways of São Paulo State, principally along the Dutra, São Paulo’s Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Each night the group would stop in a new town and listen to people from that area share their political, economic and church realities.

It would end Sept. 7, Brazilian Independence Day, and of late, a day dedicated by the Brazilian Catholic church to be the “Grito dos Excludos,” the Shout of the Excluded. The “Grito” gathers thousands of believers in virtually every capital of every state to pray and protest against government policies that create a class of excluded people. The church of Our Lady of Aparecida was a natural choice as a place to end this pilgrimage, since the church is so large and so many here have a strong devotion to Mary.

When we first heard about it, we thought it was an interesting idea: a walk motivated by a desire to speak out against the ills of Brazilian society; and a walk inspired by religious faith and a belief that prayer makes a difference. But to walk along major highways for eight days, to sleep in church halls with complete strangers and to eat God-knows-what, no thank you! We’ll read about it in the papers.

But the more people talked about it, the more we were swept up into the excitement. And what better thing for a new missionary couple to do than accompanying people in their faith, learning something about Brazilian economics and politics, immersing ourselves in Portuguese and getting to know folks at the grassroots level?

So one early Monday morning, after a prayer service and a blessing from the local bishop, Dom Angelico, 70 some of us set off for Aparecida. In spite of the great enthusiasm and energy for the pilgrimage, the first day was actually quite difficult with all of São Paulo’s traffic and pollution. And none were accustomed to walking hours on end. By 6 p.m. that night, the Dutra got the better of us. We all just wanted to eat and go to bed. We stopped in a suburb called Guarulhos where we politely sat through a couple of talks given by local people. But fatigue shut down our language skills and we didn’t catch much. Didn’t want to catch much. We ate and were happily in bed by 9:30.

The second day was a little more tranquil. The traffic eased up as we began to leave the metropolitan area. The landscape transformed from concrete to lush green hills. The decrease in noise also gave us a chance to talk more with folks. We met a state delegate, Paulo Teixeira, who was taking time out from campaigning for office to walk with our little group for a few hours. We were impressed that he would spend time with us, especially given that elections were less than a month away.

In a small town called Bom Sucesso, we ate with the pastor of the local church. We learned that the town gets water only once every 15 days. It is not a question of water shortage -- the state receives plenty of rain -- it is a lack of infrastructure, money and political will.

O bicho vai pegar,” Padre Acio warned us of the third day. The phrase literally means, “The beast will get you.” A 10-hour day of walking. Indeed, the beast, or some sort of creature, got us that day. The day began well enough. We were sore in the beginning from the previous two days, but that wore off. As the sun evaporated the morning fog, the temperature rose, and we quickly shed our jackets and sweaters. After five hours of walking, we finally stopped for a well-deserved rest and lunch break.

The lunch of rice, beans and beef was a little heavy, but we figured we would have it all burned off in a few hours anyway. We were wrong. The lunch and whatever critters were in it remained. Angel was the first to get sick. Since we didn’t really know what it was or how serious it was, we decided it was best to return to the city. We called Dan McLaughin, a fellow Maryknoller, to pick us up. What took three days to walk took an hour to return by car. We later learned that 24 other people went to the hospital and were treated. All continued the walk. Whatever it was passed and Angel was fine after a couple of days.

It was a disappointment not to finish the walk. Partly it felt like failure. Angel later wrote in her journal, “In reflecting on why I got sick, it seems to me that God was trying to share some of life’s wisdom with me. The experience of not finishing, not succeeding is quite humbling, especially as an American. I didn’t do the American thing -- didn’t make it to the end, hang tough, stick it out. I feel like I failed, I’m weak. But this has strengthened me in the end. I’m human, I realized, and humans fail.”

Chad wrote, “As we didn’t finish the walk, we were given in a sense a firsthand experience of being among the excludos, the ones left behind, the ones who couldn’t keep up with the pace. This was just a walk -- how much more disheartening and dehumanizing to be excluded daily in the walk of life.”

On Sept. 7, we decided to catch a bus to Aparecida to participate in a liturgy and the “Grito” afterwards. We were able to find our companions in the crowd of 6,000. They were united under the banner they had carried for over 100 miles. It said, “The Pilgrimage Of Those Without.”

Under the banner sat one of the little girls who had been on the march, clutching a statue of Our Lady of Aparecida. As we exchanged hugs and congratulated our friends, it seemed that Brazil, to the contrary, was a country of those WITH -- with hope, with courage, with faith, with love.

Angel Mortel and Chad Ribordy, a young American married couple, are Maryknoll Lay Missioners assigned in Brazil. Their occasional column for NCR recounts their experiences.

National Catholic Reporter, December 11, 1998