I remember as if it were yesterday. I was sent for my missionary experience to a small indigenous community in the middle of the State of Michoacán, Mexico, to share the good news of the Gospel with the Purepecha people. It was a beautiful, almost a mystical (mythical) place, with hills covered by pine trees.
In the middle of the hills there was a small indigenous community, living with their own traditions, language and customs. I soon discovered some of the problems facing the community, like extreme poverty, unemployment, very little education, poor health care, and other difficult situations. People were getting up very early in the morning to work in the fields with their traditional farming tools. They were always hoping for a good rainy season to provide an abundant harvest so that they could have enough food for themselves, and some more to spare to sell enabling them to buy a few more things they needed for their daily life.
One of the more serious problems the community faced was the presence of unscrupulous people who were harming the environment by cutting down trees which they sold to a company that did not care about the damage done to the environment. These outsiders were stealing natural resources that the community needed to take care and protect. The people of the community used to complain, but because of fear they failed to do anything to protect the environment and these natural resources.
After living in the community for some time, together with the other missionaries, I developed several projects. One of these was a Bible study, believing that a proper understanding of the Bible would help the people to face better their problems and find solutions. Both men and women attended the Bible classes and really experienced how wonderful it was to use the Word of God to meet community needs. As a matter of fact, after a few months, some community leaders wanted to see me to thank us for the Bible classes. They said that they learned a lot and acknowledged that the study of the Bible made them aware of the unjust situation in which the village people were living. They understood that the Word of God not only made them see the problems but also the need to actively work for a solution.
As I listened to what they told me, I felt great joy as I realized how the study of the Word of God helped the people to face actively the situation of injustice and oppression they were experiencing. I asked them what they were going to do to improve their situation. They told me of their intention to stop all the trucks that were taking out of the territory the trees cut down illegally from their hills. They were determined to protect the environment and their God given natural resources. They asked me to join them in the campaign to stop the cutting down of the trees illegally and organize the whole community to denounce the abuses and injustices to the authorities.
It was amazing to see how the community started organizing itself. For a while all went well as people joined the community efforts to put an end to the indifference and fear that were destroying the community itself. But soon the traffickers of trees began to threaten the leaders who helped the people organize themselves, and among them I also was included. It was not nice to receive death threats and feel powerless confronted with such evil intentions, and some of the leaders were indeed murdered. Eventually, however, the community was able to stick together and the people were able to defend their rights and preserve their resources.
It was one of the most painful, but also one of the wonderful experiences of faith in my missionary life. It seemed that death, hate, and oppression by powerful people were winning the battle against the hope of a better life. In an atmosphere of fear that paralyzed the people for many years, confidence in the Word of the God of Life made everything possible, situations of sin were transformed in moments of grace, insecurity gave away to peace, pessimism to hope, and death was transformed into life.
At this Easter time we should remember that Christ overcame death for he came to give life, and life to the full and forever.
Fr. Jorge Ochoa