A Hero for the People

Arthur Powers

(Pará – Northern Brazil, 1987-1988)

Old Father Gil refused to leave the Barreira das Almas mission on the Araguaia River. The Belgian priest was eighty-seven and as stubborn as a fence post. He would die, he said, serving the people he had served for twenty-five years.

Officially, the Council of his Order could have required him to return to the provincial house in Rio de Janeiro where most of the retired priests lived. But the superior, who was little more than half Father Gil’s age and had been his student many years before, could not see his way to invoking the rule of obedience.

What could the Council do? Both the rules of the Order and common sense dictated that they couldn’t leave the old priest alone. But Barreira das Almas was an out-of-the-way, decaying place in the eastern Amazon, never important but even less so now that road traffic had replaced boats: a slow, lifeless village on the banks of a slow, meandering river, plagued by periodic floods, its population moving out, so that a third of its houses stood empty and gradually disintegrating under the heavy rains of the wet season and the dusty winds of the dry season. How could the Order spare men needed for the teeming slums of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo?

It was then that someone remembered Brother Michel. The Belgian brother had taken care of the Order’s library for the twenty-some years since he had arrived in Brazil. But a young Brazilian brother had just earned a degree in library science and was updating the old collection of books and periodicals. Brother Michel was at loose ends.

It was a perfect solution. Brother Michel could go up north and be a companion to the old man and then, when Father Gil died, they could close the mission and they would find something else for Brother Michel somewhere.

So, on a hot, dry afternoon in July, when the bus from Paraiso do Norte stopped on the dirt main street of Barreira das Almas, a short stocky figure got out: balding, thick glasses, barely five feet tall. After the bus conductor handed him his heavy black bag, Brother Michel turned to look at the bedraggled houses of his new home, his face wearing a look of utter bewilderment.

*

In Rio de Janeiro, Brother Michel had developed the custom, unnoticed by his superiors, of walking out in the late afternoon or early evening, after his tasks in the library were finished, to visit the poor in the neighborhood around the Order’s center house. These were not the poor of the community movements and the unions, the poor who are struggling for the reign of God and justice on earth. These were the complaining poor, cramped into the rooms of old run-down mansions, one or two families to a room—the poor with aching backs and rheumatism and drunken husbands, who remembered a lost chance early in life, whose greatest dream of change was being offered a job by someone rich. To these people Brother Michel brought nothing but a willingness to listen—he had nothing else to bring—but it seemed to the people that peace rested for a moment around the hard wooden stool where he sat.

In Barreira das Almas it was soon apparent to Brother Michel that there was nothing for him to do. Father Gil’s routine took him from the rectory to the church, where he said mass daily, twice on Sundays. At other times, people dribbled into the rectory for confession or for wedding and baptism preparations, which the old priest insisted on doing himself. An elderly cook took care of the meals and housework. Turning to what he knew, Brother Michel organized the numerous, miscellaneous books in the house into a little library, but what then?

He fell back on his habit of visiting the poor. He would go from one thatched adobe or wattle house to another, and would be welcomed as anyone would be welcomed, sitting in the shade of the house on a square stool as the people themselves sat, saying little and listening a lot—ten minutes, half an hour, an hour—then would stand up with the rituals of leave taking:

“But it’s early, Irmão Michel.”

“Yes, yes. It’s always early when one leaves friends.”

“Come back again, Irmão.”

He would pass on to the next house. And at each place people would pour out stories—stories of their lives, their loves, their fights, the deaths of their children—stories that in Belgium you would hear only from a close friend in utter privacy—told openly in front of sitting neighbors and staring children, staring not at the speaker but at the strange squat figure of Irmão Michel.

“…then he started to beat me so I joined up with another man—he’s the father of that little brown one over there—but he went off to Mato Grosso and never came back, so…”

“…well, when I met her she was twelve, working down at the cabaret, and I thought—’this one has a nice fanny’—so, after I’d had her a few times, she moved in, and there’s nothing for an old man like me to complain of…”

“…but that third baby, from the time he was born, I said to my sister—didn’t I, Fatima?—that one’s an angel—and sure enough, he was eight months old—when was it, April? no, May, and he started wasting away and died…”

*

Slowly, out of the stories—the drunken husbands, the abandoned wives, the children eaten away by malnutrition—a pattern began to emerge.

“It didn’t used to be like this, Irmão. There used to be fartura—abundance, plenty.”

Then they would tell of a time—long ago?—not so long—when there were fruit trees—oranges, lemons, guavas, papayas, mangos—when crops of rice and corn grew tall in small fields, when sugar cane and squash and coffee and melons abounded.

“The old people—the old people are strong, Irmão, not like those youngsters who never eat.”

“What happened?”

“The men came…”

“The men?”

The men came, out of the south, in jeeps and carrying (though the people did not see them at first) guns, men with documents that they waved in front of the people’s eyes. “This is our land,” the men said. “You’re trespassers invading our land. Get off.”

“How long had you been on the land?” Brother Michel asked.

Fifteen years, thirty years. Sometimes their father had settled it, sometimes their grandfather.

“Didn’t you know your rights?”

Rights? Who had rights against men from the south with jeeps and guns?

“But if you were twenty years on the land, you owned it.” Brother Michel had gone and looked this up. “Even ten years, in some cases. And if you’ve been on the land even a year and a day, you can’t be taken off without a court hearing.”

“Yes, Irmão.” Shrugs. What are rights when the police, the judges are working for the men from the south with jeeps and guns? And with money.

“What did you do?”

At first the people hadn’t known their rights; many accepted a tiny indemnification and left their land. Then a few of the farmers started to find out. One group of families hired a lawyer, but he was scared off. Houses burned, crops were destroyed. More people left the land. Those that remained were isolated, vulnerable. Threats, beatings. More people leaving. A few staying on. A killing. The others ran.

It happened, again and again, in new waves as each new area of land was taken. Two thousand, three thousand families pushed off their land.

“But there are still some small farms left.”

Yes. A few areas. Eleven families at Corrego Branco, fifteen at Santa Maria, twenty-five at Santana, a couple of dozen at Agua Fria…

*

There was an old motorcycle in the garage, and the boy from the mechanic’s shop was able to get it going. Brother Michel had never ridden a motorcycle, but he’d ridden bicycles and the idea was the same. He began riding, practicing, falling off and badly skinning one knee, but getting the hang of it after awhile.

He visited Agua Fria first, riding out in the dust, a small boy perched behind him to teach the way. When he got there, he found a tumbled down adobe house swarming with children. The woman came out to meet him. The boy explained who he was. The man was in the fields, they’d send for him. Sitting on a hard wooden bench. The man coming in from the field, tired and sweating. “Tell me about yourself,” Brother Michel said, and much later, “I’d like to talk to all of you. Can you find a day when your neighbors can come together?”

*

“Listen, Brother Michel,” the Church lawyer said over the static telephone line from Conceição, two hundred miles away by rough dirt roads. “I can defend them in court. I can keep the judge from issuing an order to evict them. But only they can keep themselves on the land.”

The single telephone in town was at the telephone post, a little plastered brick building on the main street, where people waited in line for the operator to put through their calls. Brother Michel looked around the small, crowded room. Every word he said into the telephone—nearly shouting, as everyone did—would, he knew, be heard by everyone in the room and repeated as rumor all over town.

“You mean?…” he asked the lawyer.

“I mean there are only two of us, and we cover an area the size of France. Not Belgium, France.”

“I understand that.”

“We can take care of the legal end, but most of the threats aren’t legal. Gunmen, policemen hired to do this on the side, burnings…”

“Yes, I know…”

“If the people hold together, if they stick it out, we can win them their land. But usually they can’t stick.”

2.

As he realized the weight of power against them, Brother Michel began to have a dream.

The weight was enormous. Documents issued by the state government, highly placed politicians with a stake in the land claims, corrupt judges and police, gunmen, a law that rarely punished a rich man for killing a poor one.

A federal government that didn’t care, that saw any resistance as a danger to be put down. An uninterested press that was too far away. A people unsure of themselves, scared, living—as they themselves put it—at the far edge of the world.

The dream—it was only a day dream. It was that a hero would arise, somewhere, somehow, to save the people.

It took shape one night when he was watching television on the wavy blurry transmission that came in sporadically when the usually broken parabolic antenna functioned for a few days. There was a melodrama on about 19th century Brazil, the time of the slaves, and that stock character stolen from old American and European films: a young nobleman, disguised in a mask and cape, sweeping out of the night to right wrongs, to avenge injustice. And Brother Michel began to dream.

*

“The best proof of ownership is the improvements they have on their land.” The lawyer’s voice sounded a thousand miles away over the telephone line. “Fruit trees, fences, houses, wells…”

The next day Brother Michel squatted on his haunches, like the three farmers with him, in a field in Corrego Branco. How can we get wire for fencing? Who can cut fence posts? When can we get everyone together to put up fences?

*

Sometimes the hero would ride into town at night, masked and swathed in his dark cape, mounted on a black horse. He would stop in front of the house of a landowner’s agent and draw his sword. Leaning from the saddle, he would swiftly carve a warning sign on the door, while inside the agent sat paralyzed with fear. In the morning, the agent would come out of his house and tremble when he saw the sign…

*

“If they have a municipal school on the land, anywhere among the homesteads,” the static-filtered lawyer’s voice said, “it’s harder for the landowners to evict them.”

“The families at Santana have built a school,” Brother Michel said to the municipal prefect a month later, picturing in his mind the wattle-walled, thatched roof classroom which the people had come together on three Saturdays to build. “They need you to assign them a teacher.”

“But they’re just posseiros, Irmão; they have no title to their land.”

“What difference does that make? Where there are children there should be schools.”

“True, Irmão, but…”

“And they have eighty-one voters out there. Imagine that. I counted them; eighty-one. A dozen of them are waiting outside to talk to you now…”

“I agree, Irmão, they need a school. But I have no teachers…”

“Oh, they’ve found someone who can be a teacher. If you’ll just sign here to show that she can officially teach in the municipal system…”

“Well, Irmão……”

“I’ll just call the families in now, so that they can see you…”

*

Sometimes the hero would be hard and lean faced, smoking a cigarette and wearing a panama hat like a detective in an old French film. His car (in Brother Michel’s vision it was always an old model Citroen, though such a car had never been seen on these roads) would pull into town as the landowners and gunmen were organizing, where Brother Michel and the posseiros stood alone. The car door would open and the hero would step out, a bulge where his shoulder holster rode under his tight beige suit jacket. And the landowners’ gunmen would look up, afraid…

*

“They need to keep together, Brother Michel.” The lawyer’s voice on the telephone. “If they can keep together, they can hold out long enough for us to win the case.”

Sunday afternoon at Santa Maria. The thirty-first Sunday meeting since Brother Michel first called them together, and the fifth since they built the small wattle-walled palm thatched chapel. Sometimes he cannot be here, is off in one of the other areas, but he has helped them learn what to do. Today he is here, but the people carry on with their meeting as they do when he cannot come.

A farmer stands up and opens the Bible to the day’s gospel reading. Slowly—in the voice of a man newly practiced in reading—he proclaims the passage, pauses, then reads it aloud again so that his listeners can absorb it. The passage speaks of vines and branches, of how fruit will not grow on a dead branch, a branch separated from the vine, from the soil. Things these people understand deeply and, looking at them, Brother Michel realizes once again that these are very much like the people Jesus was talking to. The language of farms, livestock, kitchens, and small towns, is their language. The reader sits down and the men and women begin to speak, bringing their lives to the words, sharing, intertwining.

*

Sometimes it was not a hero but a heroine. Drifting off to sleep, Brother Michel would see the posseiros, his posseiros, drawn together and a line of gunmen and police moving in to beat and burn. Suddenly, out of the rainforest, on a white horse, glistening in her armor, rides a woman, and all eyes turn to her but only he knows her, and his lips silently form the word, “Joan…”

*

The young policeman stood, hat in hand, large but bashful, like an overgrown boy, the young woman, pretty, dark-skinned, tiny beside him.

“We’re supposed to be married tomorrow,” the policeman said. “We came for the preparation. Father Gil is sick. He said that you…”

Me? Brother Michel had never prepared a couple for marriage in his life. He hesitated a moment, then reached deep down inside himself; he knew so many families, what they were going through. He knew the theology, the Bible passages, the teaching of the Church. He knew what it was to vow your life to something and stay with it through all kinds of disappointments. He searched through his mind to remember the policeman’s name.

“Ivaldo…” Brother Michel began.

3.

The first death threat came three months after he started visiting the posseiros. It was an innocuous looking note left at the telephone post, which served as the nerve center for rumors. “The little priest will be killed,” the note said, which was inaccurate, as Brother Michel pointed out to the three townsmen who rushed to bring him the news. “I’m not a priest.”

The three men were poor, men who had lost their land and now lived by fishing and planting rice on the floodlands and little islands that emerged from the river during the dry season. They looked at him with a mixture of puzzlement and concern: these fine ecclesiastical distinctions lay beyond their realm of interest.

“But the note was meant for you, Irmão,” one of them said.

“Yes. I suppose it was.”

It wasn’t an empty threat, he knew. A priest had been murdered in the neighboring state a few months ago, another out west last year. Several sisters had been killed, a Baptist minister, a number of lawyers and union leaders, and many, many small farmers. But no brothers, he reflected wryly. Yet.

He went to bed that night and couldn’t sleep, listening to the mosquitoes buzzing outside the mosquito net, his stomach in knots. The electricity, generated by a municipal diesel motor, was turned off at 11 p.m., so there was nothing much to do except lie there in the dark until 3 a.m., when he got up and stumbled to the bathroom where he sat on the toilet, his stomach cramped with diarrhea, waiting for the morning to come.

His fear—and he knew it was fear—was strange to him. The world is a dangerous place, and he had known general fears before—airplanes and heights and sudden panic when walking across the crazy traffic streets in Rio. But never before had he been the direct target of a threat—never had he felt that someone wanted him, specifically, Michel, to die.

And the fear was a funny one. He didn’t think he was afraid of being dead. He had had his doubts as all men do, but his faith was deep: he believed that he would be with God in the afterlife. The fear he felt was like when he had to fix an electric plug—that suddenly 220 volts of shock and pain would shoot through him. He had always, he knew, been a timid man—wary of bangs and bursts and making messes. He almost felt guilty, a small boy playing with explosives that he wasn’t old enough to handle, afraid they’d go off and scare him, hurt him, hurt someone else. He wished with all his heart that someone strong would come who could carry this burden, lift it from his shoulders, really help the people.

*

“Never travel alone,” the lawyer’s voice said. “Never open your door until you know who’s outside. Never…”

But who had time to think of those things? He was busy now, not only in the country but the town: burying the dead, visiting the sick, helping Dona Angela with the rosary group or the five teenagers who came to him wanting to form a youth group. What time was there to be thinking of fear?

*

Two months later, the second threat was nailed to the Church door. “Brother Michel will die,” it announced in crudely printed letters. More accurate, he pointed out to the women from the rosary group who brought it to him, and really not a threat, only a statement of fact.

It came as tensions were growing. Each year, during Lent, the Church had a national campaign focusing on a particular social problem, and this year it was land reform. Father Gil had not been feeling well and increasingly had been depending on Michel to assume more pastoral tasks. About this time, the old priest asked if Brother Michel would be willing to prepare and deliver the homilies at mass; Father Gil would celebrate but would sit in his chair by the altar resting while Brother Michel—dressed in the gray habit, which he only wore for religious functions—spoke about the readings and the message they brought. Because of this, the people identified the Church’s position on land reform with Brother Michel, thinking it was “the little priest” who was stirring up an issue that meant trouble.

In the days after the threat was nailed on the door, Brother Michel noted the people watching him whenever he walked through the streets. In this dull little, decaying town, the threat created drama, a new source for rumors, and he sensed that the people—even those who wished him no harm—tingled with dreadful anticipation, waiting for something to happen. He even half suspected that the note had not been written by a landowner or a gunman, but by some bored townsperson desperately in need of excitement.

*

“You should have a jeep, not a motorcycle,” the lawyer’s voice recommended, “and always travel with half a dozen people. You need to be very careful…”

*

He was careful.

Diesel pick-up trucks and jeeps were the only viable transportation for the rough dirt roads, and they almost always belonged to landowners or their allies. He learned to be jumpy when he heard one coming. If he were out on his cycle and heard them in time, he would pull off and hide in the bush. But only if he were certain he would not be seen—he instinctively knew that it would be dangerous to let them see he was afraid. If he could not be certain of hiding, he would keep riding his cycle as the large vehicles swept by, intensely aware that they could swerve and run him off the road, maiming or killing him with the mere flick of their steering wheel.

He would be safer with a jeep, but how could he afford one? If the Order in Rio de Janeiro knew of the work he was doing, they might buy him a jeep; more probably, they would close down the mission and call him and Father Gil back to Rio, deeply concerned for their safety. After a few months, when the Church lawyer made a visit to Barreira, Brother Michel explained the problem and the lawyer spoke to the bishop about it. The bishop had to write to Germany, but a jeep would be coming, Brother Michel learned, in about six months. In the meantime, “Be very careful…” the lawyer’s voice repeated.

*

The third threat was not a note but a drunken gunman in the Diablo Bar, announcing to all the world that he was going to get the little priest. A couple of farm workers heard him and came to the rectory. It was Sunday evening, just before mass.

“You shouldn’t go to the Church, tonight, Irmão,” one of the farm workers said. He was a straightforward, intelligent man, about Michel’s age, and he twisted his hat in his hand as he spoke. But, of course, Michel went to mass, small groups of women, old men, young people flocking around him as he walked the half block to the Church.

Irmão Michel, did you hear…”

The mass was more crowded than usual, with an air of expectation and an unusual number of men, so Michel preached about marital fidelity, which the Lord knew they needed to hear about, but was not the titillation they hoped for, and reflected wryly to himself on the value of death threats in increasing attendance at mass. “Go right home now,” Dona Angela from the rosary group said kindly at the end of mass, but he stayed to talk, to listen, for a few minutes.

*

“Brother Michel.”

Father Gil’s voice called out from the sitting room as Michel entered the rectory, and Michel went into the room. The old priest had hobbled home right after mass, leaning on the arm of a young parishioner. He sat now in his big, wooden-armed, padded chair, his eyes bright behind glasses.

“Sit down, Michel.”

Michel sat on the red vinyl couch and leaned back.

“They tell me there is a gunman who says he is going to kill you.”

“He’s drunk,” Michel said, dismissing the matter.

“The most dangerous time,” Father Gil answered. He paused for a moment, his face stern. “It is only now that I learned that there were some notes, some threats…”

“I didn’t want to bother you about those…”

“Bother me! Am I that old that you can’t tell me you are in danger?”

“They weren’t really anything. Besides…” He stopped.

“Besides, we wouldn’t want Rio to know.” The old man completed Brother Michel’s thought, then chuckled at the surprised expression that flitted across Michel’s face.

“I know,” Father Gil said softly. “I am old, and often it is convenient to pretend I do not know, but I know.” He paused and Michel wondered for an instant what the old man was referring to. “They will close this place when I am dead.”

It was a dry statement of fact, demanding no answer. The two men sat in silence for a moment.

“What you are doing is important, Michel.” He smiled. “For my part—I will stay alive as long as I can. I wish I could do more, but that I can do. You do it too—take care of yourself.”

Michel nodded. He was wishing in a blurred, exhausted way, that God would answer his dream, his prayer, and send a hero to help the posseiros.

*

That night, drifting off to sleep, thinking of the masked hero riding into town, his sweeping sword marking signs on the land agents’ doors…

Signs on doors. The hero was no longer a masked man but a tall, strong, bearded Moses, a prince of the people who had seen God burning in the jungle bush. Signs not on doors but on door posts, not threatening but protecting the anawim, the little people. Dark clouds over the houses of the rich in distant cities—Belém, Goiania, Brasília, São Paulo—and Moses lifting up his strong arms: “Let my people live on their land… Let my people live…”

4.

Morning brought one of those comic denouements that so often strike when danger threatens. The drunken gunman, sallying out of the bar at midnight, swearing to kill Brother Michel, met a former cohort who had called him a son of a whore the week before, took a full force swing to punch him and, missing, slammed his fist into a pick-up truck, breaking his hand and wrist. By morning the threatener was holed up at a local ranch, his trigger hand bound in bandages and the danger, for the present, had passed.

But afternoon brings its own challenges, and it came in the form of a small boy running to tell Brother Michel that he was wanted at the telephone post. The call, the girl at the post said when he got there, had been from the lawyer, who would call back in half an hour.

“We’ve just learned that they got a court order to oust the families from Agua Fria,” the lawyer’s voice said over the line.

“But that’s illegal,” Brother Michel protested.

“Of course it is. We’ll get it reversed in a few days. But in the meantime we can’t let them take the people off the land. Once they’re off the land, it’s almost impossible to get it back.

“They’ll move quickly, probably tomorrow at dawn. They’re gathering police here, and will pick up a few there…

“The police will burn the crops and houses…

“Keep the people on the land.”

*

The police did not make it by dawn. It was 10 a.m., the sun high and hot, when the first truck in the convoy of seven vehicles rounded a bend in the dirt road to Agua Fria: seven drivers, three men in sports shirts and sun glasses, thirty men in police uniforms—half of them real policemen—and thirty more hangers-on with guns in their belts. The first truck slowed, then came to a halt, and one of the men in sun glasses, riding in the cab, swore under his breath. A hundred feet in front of them, barbed wire stretched across the road. Behind the barbed wire stood a hundred men, women, and children, and, this side of the barbed wire, three or four men, a dozen ladies holding rosary beads, a group of teenagers from town, and a damn little friar in a gray habit. Singing. All of them singing some damn church song. And the convoy motors turning off one by one, truck and jeep doors slamming, men climbing down from the trucks to look, the little man in the gray habit calling out to some of the police by name—”Good morning, Ivaldo; Good morning, Edivan,” thick glasses catching the sunlight above a ridiculous squat figure with a silly foreign accent.

*

Three nights later, exhausted, Brother Michel falls into bed: two nights sleeping with the others by the fence — even after the convoy had turned around that first morning and driven away, sleeping by the fence to be prepared, in case, until the message came from the telephone post in town. We beat them off this time. But this will go on and on, forever, and Dear God, how long can we hold out? Drifting and, suddenly, as he is half-asleep, dreaming the dream again: This time it is a strong figure, gleaming and translucent, walking boldly through the tall grass to stand beside them, facing the police, facing the gunmen.

And Brother Michel prays with his last waking thoughts as his head nestles into the pillow: Oh Lord, send a hero for your people.