Reflections on a missionary experience in Umburanas, Bahia, north-east Brazil.

Margaret Ann(USA) visiting a preschool in a rural village
 
How it started.
A brief historical overview of the presence of the Anglo-Celtic Province (as it was then called) in the semi-desert region of Bahia, North East Brazil, shows that over a period of 11 years, in the town of Umburanas the Missionary Community of Umburanas had a total of 11 lay volunteers working with one LSA Bride Counihan.
 
Some of these were Brazilian lay missionaries, married and single, and some were Irish volunteers from a sending organization called Viatores Cristi. The Missionary Community was an initiative of the Anglo-Celtic Province in partnership with a local Lay Missionary Association of Brazilians.  The initiative was preceded by two years of research and networking in 1999-2000 through visits to Umburanas ,discussions with the local Bishop of the Diocese of Bomfin, LSA Brazil Province and Conference of Religious of Brazil ,and the Association of Lay Missionaries (Brazilian).The outcome of all this was the birth of a new partnership between the LSA & and the Lay Missionaries. Together we assumed a new mission in Umburanas, which we had identified as officially rated the poorest least developed area of the region, without any Church personnel such as clergy, religious or lay missionaries present there at the turn of the millennium in 2001.
 
A time of expansion.
Over the years since 2001 as the project became known, the Missionary Community grew from initially just one LSA and 1 lay missionary to a total of 7 in community. This included a lay missionary Brazilian couple with their little boy who arrived when he was just 3 years of age and left us when he was 11 years. This couple were lay missionaries who had participated in the 4 year programme of Formation for Lay Missionaries, pioneered by Padre Jose Comblin, a well-known Liberation Theologian working in Brazil for over 45 years.  The common mission which united all of us was a passion for the Reign of God among the poorest. Each missionary who came was highly motivated, with a sense of personal call from God to this mission. Their coming to Umburanas often required a lot of personal sacrifice of home, family, employment etc. Some of these lay missionaries were very gifted in offering religious formation to the lay people of Umburanas, thus deepening the sense of a common mission among all of us who worked together day by day.
 
We were blessed in the early years also, to have had the support of Sr. Franca Sessa LSA who lived in the north-east at that time, and who visited several times to facilitate our evaluations.  Several other Brazilian LSAs also visited over the years.
After two years, the Missionary Community was well inserted into the local community, and together with the local people, spear-headed the setting up of two non-governmental organizations which are recognized legal entities. One was a local Association which aimed to respond to some of the most immediate needs of families and took responsibility for the development of services for the most disadvantaged children and their families through the setting up of Childrens’ Centres. The second organization aimed at working to conscientize people about their rights and to support social justice work, and this was called the Citizens’ Forum of Umburnanas. It did this mainly through organization of courses on Citizens’ rights in rural villages, and through support to direct actions for social justice, such as the Campaign against the Privatization of Public Water in Umburanas. 
 
 Children in the Children’s centre in a rural village run by local women
 
A time of discernment:
After 10 years, the lay Missionary Association which had assumed missions in other parts of the region also, found that they had no more personnel to continue the partnership in Umburanas. This led to the start of a process of discernment regarding the future of the Missionary Community. Over a period of 18 months, a series of discernment meetings were held with local people, outlining the present situation and looking at ways of moving forward. It became obvious that the time had come when there would no longer be missionaries from other places in the Missionary Community and that the future Missionary Community would comprise of the people themselves, in a changing non-residential form. The culmination of this process of succession was the selection of a local man as Project Coordinator, who had worked with the Missionary Community as a volunteer and later as an employee.
 
The prospect of the ‘external’ missionaries leaving Umburanas permanently was very daunting for the local people. Perhaps the fundamental crisis was that the people felt that their only real support in their struggles had been the presence of the Missionary Community. Unfortunately they never had the active support of either the local Church run by Polish priests, or the local authorities of the Municipality in their work on trying to improve the quality of life for the poor. The very nature of the social justice work, in the context of a social situation of wide-spread oppression of the poor, was always problematic for these institutions. This is well documented in the External Evaluation Report done by a professional in 2014. So the people had very real fears of how things would be when they no longer had the visible support and the active presence of the Missionary Community among them.
 
I was the last of the ‘external’ missionaries to leave Umburanas at the end of 2011 when the running of the social projects of the two local non-governmental organizations was completely taken on by the local people themselves. I had been present since the beginning in 2001, and returned to Ireland to take up work as the Mission Development Officer, representing the Congregation in its negotiations for funding for LSA projects in the developing world from the Irish Government. I do this through a body called Misean Cara. In this role, part of my brief is to visit the projects overseas which receive funding from Misean Cara and I make a monitoring visit to Umburanas on an annual or bi-annual basis.
 
A time of change:
Over the three years since these changes, there have been some very good things happening and also many difficulties which the people have had to deal with. Some people have really developed now in the new situation and have shown more of their leadership potential. Some people have assumed the initiative for things and taken more ownership of the projects. However also some people have had difficulty in accepting a local coordinator who is ‘one of themselves.’ This has caused serious conflicts at times within the local leadership team of the project. The people have sometimes lacked the skills to be able to deal with these conflicts themselves and in some cases this has led to people leaving the project. The fragilities became more apparent with the absence of some ‘outside’ people as reference points in these situations. Such reference points could also be people within the community such as a local priest or Town Hall worker, but unfortunately these sources of support do not exist at present. So the sense of isolation in the projects has been difficult to cope with, for the local leaders. The challenge to keep working on the social justice agenda has been very demanding on people. 
One way to deal with this sense of isolation of the project in Umburanas was to bring together 6 social projects throughout Brazil which were initiated over the years by the Brazilian LSAs. During 2012-2013 a series of trainings were organized, attended by an average of 25-30 people comprising both LSAs and laity engaged with them. This was a great source of animation for the team from Umburanas and helped to generate a sense of connectedness to a larger picture. Each module of this training included a section on LSA Spirituality given by Sr. Dirce Pontes. The participants found a good sense of ‘common treasure’ here, meeting other people who held the same values and struggled with the same commitments.
 
Recommendations for the future:
Misean Cara visited the projects in Umburanas in 2013 and the major recommendation from that visit was the need for more training for local people, and the question of the long-term sustainability of the work. These have been ongoing issues which have been difficult to address due to the lack of availability of professional people to offer training in such an isolated region such as Umburanas. Providentially an experienced facilitator, well known to the project, retired recently from her job in Salvador, the state capital and is now available to run training in Umburanas so this has opened up new possibilities. It is a very welcome development and promises to give a new impetus to the life of both organizations. A programme of leadership development including how to draw up a project and how to access funding is planned for 2015. There is also an opportunity to deepen again the spirituality of LSA especially around what sustains us in our commitment to working for justice for the poorest. It seems that when things are at their lowest point, light shines through from some unexpected source! Such is our God of Surprises.
 
Bride, Litllte Sister in Dublin
13th February 2015
18/02/2015
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