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An international search amongst peoples of the peripheries asking questions about God. The voice of women

Theology from the margins

 Teologia dai margini  DCM-004
01 April 2023

Lessons of Resurrection. To attend them one must, first of all, “de-centre oneself”. To come out, that is, from the narrow confines of one’s own self, one’s own role, one’s own competences, to leave the centre of certainties and to venture along the paths that lead to the margins. There, to where the rejects of the socio-economic system are expelled, those who do not conform to the standard and the rule, the non-integrated, dwell a torn humanity, limping, often brutalized by the fatigue of living. When the crowds become the faces, eyes and hands of men and, above all, of women, the light of life can be seen there.

“I have seen it. Thanks to the inhabitants of the slums and working-class neighborhoods of Santiago, I have touched Easter. They die every day and every day they rise again. Unlike husbands, partners, brothers, fathers who often leave or take refuge in alcohol and drugs, women with fewer resources take charge of their families, their neighbors, and their community. For them, they are able to carry real boulders on their fragile shoulders. With a courage and strength that is touching they face difficulties that are often enormous,” says theologian Lorena Basualto. Together with her colleagues Agnes Brazal and Adele Howard, Lorena was called by the Migrants and Refugees section of the dicastery for the Service of Integral Human Development to participate in the project Doing Theology from the Existential Peripheries, directed by Sergio Massironi. It was an innovative and prophetic international research initiative because it implied a further decentralization. This was perhaps the most difficult one because it required an emptying oneself of knowledge and convictions about Creator and creature in order to learn a new language with which to pronounce an unprecedented discourse on God.

For the project, ninety or so scholars travelled the existential and geographical peripheries of forty cities around the world to ask those who populate them - the poor but also those who, in general, do not find a listening ear in the Church - fundamental questions about God and faith. These questions included, who Jesus is, who Mary is, and what hope, sin or sorrow means. The study was divided into six regional groups, one for each “fragment of the world map”: North America, Africa, Europe, Central and South America, Asia and Oceania. These last three were coordinated respectively by Basualto from Chile, Brazal from the Philippines and Howard from Australia. The others were entrusted to male experts: Stan Chu llo, Toussaint Kafarhire, and Massironi himself, who was also the contact person for the European region. Gender equity was one of the cornerstones on which the initiative was built, on which the working group was exemplary.

From the very beginning, the two ways of seeing, both male and female, were considered crucial to scrutinize the fragments of the Gospel hidden in the margins. The same pilot experiment, carried out in January 2022 in Barcelona, was coordinated by a woman, the Benedictine nun, Teresa Forcades. From there, in the months that followed, the programme expanded like wildfire to involve over five hundred members of the “people of the margins”. “I collected various testimonies in the shantytown of La Florida, in Santiago. The community leaders were all women. They had not chosen to be so. There was a need to organize themselves to access social programs and they came forward, for the good of the community.

As Lorena Basualto states, “To defend the puppies, as we say in Chile”, we found the same strength, the same ability to weave networks with the inmates of a Mexican prison or the Venezuelan migrants in Medellín, Colombia. “I interviewed many indigenous women from Oceania. What struck me most was the passion, the determination, the frankness with which they are able to denounce the environmental disaster that threatens their families and communities. And they do so moved by faith. Their profound awareness of the presence of God, the Creator Spirit, in all that exists is the impetus that drives them to make a concrete commitment to protect our common home. This is why native peoples, and especially women, are teachers of integral ecology for all. From them we can learn how to save the earth and humanity,” says Adele Howard.

The God they turn to reflects these characteristics of caring for the other. “It is a God who embraces and holds [us] tightly to himself. A very simple God with strong maternal traits”, adds theologian Basualto. “For the Indonesian immigrant domestic workers in Hong Kong as for the street children in Quezon City, a suburb of Manila, or for the catechists in the capital, with whom we worked, God is the One who does not abandon, who saves. His action manifests itself through the priests, the religious, the other faithful in whom they find support. Family and community play a crucial role in mediating the Lord’s presence in their lives. This was very strong in some of the abused girls we interviewed. As time passed, and they found authentic figures to refer to, they were able to reconnect with God and reconcile with their faith,” Agnes Brazal points out. “In the same way, they blame their suffering on people who are not God. I was struck by one girl’s sentence. ‘The Lord sent his Son to save us but the wicked did not allow him’”, she said. “This is a theologically incorrect statement. But it is indicative of the fact that for them God is always and only good, evil is a human product”, Basualto added. Of course, sometimes they get angry with the Creator. And prayer becomes a lament and a reproach, as in the biblical Psalms. Even in times of tragedy, however, the interlocution does not stop. As Basualto reiterates, the question is not whether God is there but where He is.

Howard points out, “Western theology is influenced by rational and scientific thinking, the indigenous peoples of Oceania, on the other hand, have a spiritual relationship with all of creation.

Female energy also emerges from the ability of “women from the margins” to react to clericalism. “This is a very much felt problem by the interviewees, especially those who are active in parishes”, Brezal explains. “They fight back without fear before priests and even bishops”, her Chilean colleague echoes. “They do not wait for a space to be given to them in the Church, they carve it out, just as they are forced to do so in society. So as to have their claims in order, they try to keep themselves informed about the life of the universal and local Church. The anger over abuse within the Church community has thus reached the peripheries, especially in Chile, where the scandal has been disruptive. Nevertheless, the messages of Pope Francis have also reached there, and accurately. “A young single mother refused to feel this way because the Pope had said that there are no single mothers but only mothers. I went to check and, indeed, he had said that”, Basualto points out.

On the issues of the diaconate and female priesthood, a geographical difference is noticeable. While women from the Latin American margins do not touch upon it, Asian women emphasise it strongly. “Margaretha, an immigrant in Hong Kong, for example, told me: ‘Sometimes I wonder: Why can only men celebrate the Eucharist?’”, says the Filipino scholar. This is not a theoretical question but a cry of pain for the many discriminations that have been suffered for far too long, inside and outside the Church. “The extraordinariness of this project is precisely that it has taken us out of the books and into the stories. Listening to wounded human beings made us take a leap from the world of ideas to the world of reality. Through their lives God speaks to us and touches our hearts, to convert us”, says Brazal.

“To solve the great contemporary challenges, starting with the threat of climate change, the logical approach is not enough. We need to integrate it with mysticism and spirituality. We need, therefore, to listen to the wisdom of indigenous people in particular, in order to develop a new theology and spirituality to respond coherently to the call of the Gospel in this time. So that, as we read in John, “they may have life, and have it abundantly”.

“Thanks to the women living in the peripheries, I experienced the God who became flesh and came to dwell among us,” Basualto concludes, “the incarnate Logos of whom the Gospel speaks”.

A journalist with the Italian newspaper “Avvenire”