I’m nearing the end of my scouting trip to Bahia, Brazil, to see the various people, communities, and destinations that will make up our gathering and bearing witness retreat starting on April 30
On Wednesday I wrote about our visit to the Luiza Mahin Community School and other projects here in Salvador. Listening to Jarila’s vision for what is possible for the impoverished neighborhood of Uruguay, I told her she reminded me of Bernie, who called southwest Yonkers a Cathedral City back in the mid-1980s, seeing transformation everywhere.
Yesterday, having gone to the countryside, I saw a very different cathedral city.
It was the monastery of San Sebastian do Paraguacu, which sits on a beautiful hillside overlooking the Paraguacu River. Built in the 17th century by sugar plantation owners, its construction took 9 years and the labor of 2,000 slaves..
“They had no beds or places to rest,” said our guide, Antonio Goncalves Garcia. “They slept on the ground and ate hand-outs like animals.”
Luiza Mahin has its ingredients: a school, a future child care center, a community center, a community bank and credit association, and an interfaith center, all run by women of color, wise and wizened beyond their years, full of enthusiasm and excitement unmatched by most younger women I know.
San Antonio is now empty. A plantation owner had donated the land and promised 50 bags of sugar, or its money equivalent, to the church every year. You can still see the room where the wealthy owners met to discuss the running of the church. Right next to it is a “punishment cell” for priests and novices, at least one of whom we know was locked in there for 10 years.
The church floor, now cement, was once the wooden tops of crypts for the wealthy families; you can still see the number at the top of each crypt; the richer ones, of course, lie closest to the altar. Adjacent was a novitiate for training young priests, with a long, rectangular dining room, kitchen, and dormitories. The entire compound was served by a network of culverts that brought in water from the river and took out sewage to empty into the river.
Food was delivered by slaves who carried large sacks of corn and beans from the plantations all the way up to the church. They were not permitted inside. For a time there was even a small infirmary opened by a priest who learned something about medicinal herbs, though this ended with his death. Worship, training, food prep, financial support, even Portuguese art on the walls.
And death, too, a place of execution for slaves. The river flowed into the bottom of the church, height depending on low or high tide. There was a wide and deep well at the bottom where slaves were chained upside-down by their feet, waiting for the high tide, to drown them.
The average lifespan for slaves in that era was 20-30 years.
Indigenous people fared not much better. When the Portuguese first arrived, they promised to share the land, but Portuguese soldiers, equipped with legal authorization (Antonio mentioned that explicitly), destroyed some 100 indigenous villages to make room for sugar plantations. He said the bodies thrown into the river stretched in a line of 3 kilometers.
Legal authorization. Torture and killing right under a novitiate and church. A very different kind of Cathedral City indeed.
We returned to Salvador and headed to Pelhourino, the Old Town, this morning, and I took a photo with Odara and bought gifts in beautiful traditional stores. Odara was very gracious, even whlle wearing 5 layers of clothes in 90-degree Fahrenheit heat.
Leaving this evening, and looks like I’ll be heading into a major snow storm in Massachusetts. But it’s fine. I need time now to sit in my office, isolated by snow, Aussie pressed against my knee, taking it all in.
This was my bearing witness retreat, no doubt about it.