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 Writer's Desk 

March 21, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 45



Dennis Coday For more on that ...

Dennis Coday, NCR staff writer

Space is always a constraint that journalists battle against. Print reporters have to fight for column inches. Broadcast reporters fight for air time. They ("they" being those ultimate newsroom gatekeepers, the editors) never give us ("us" being the unjustly constrained writers) enough space.

After awhile we come to realize that the loss of a few inches of copy here and the excising of a few lines there is included the job description. After a show of protest and a grumble or two, you move on to reporting and writing the next story.

Sometimes, though, pieces of a story get lost that you wish could have been saved. Not because your own writing is so grand, but because the subject of the report is so compelling. I've had that experience twice in the last few weeks.

The miracle of the Internet is that it frees journalists of the constraints of space. And that gives me the chance to reprise -- with the missing pieces restored -- a couple of stories that have already appeared in the print edition of NCR.

Dorothy Stang: Modern Martyr

Stang, a 73-year-old member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and native of Dayton, Ohio, was an outspoken advocate for Brazilian peasants and the rainforest. On Feb. 12 on her way to meet government officials to discuss the demarcation of land for peasants, she was shot six times in the chest and head an died. It is believed the gunman were hired by ranchers who wanted to claim the land for timber and pastures.

Stang was buried Feb. 15 on church-owned land near the Anapu River, where she had created an environmental project for peasants of the region.

'We knew that some day they would shut her up'

Dorothy Stang came from a close-knit family, the fourth of nine children. She drew her brothers and sisters into her mission work. They visited her in Brazil and persuaded their home parishes to support her work. They are pained by their sister's death but not surprised.

"Our family is still devastated," Marguerite Hohm, Stang's younger sister, told NCR. "We knew eventually that it would come about but we didn't know when. It really hurts me to know that they did that to her and that she lay dead on a dirt road."

At the end of her junior year in high school, Stang joined the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the order that had educated her. She taught in inner-city schools in Chicago for two years and then became a teacher and principal in Sunnyslope, Ariz. On weekends and summers, she taught children of migrants in camps around Phoenix. "I think maybe that is were the seed was planted to go to the missions," Hohm said.

Notre Dame Sr. Joan Krimm is a lifelong friend of Stang. They attended high school together, joined the convent together and went to Brazil together. Krimm told NCR that Stang was a woman of conviction and courage.

"When I talked to her at the end of January, I said to her, 'Dot, please be careful.' But she said, 'My safety is not important. The safety of the people is what is important.' I think that sums Dot up. Her love of God and love of the people of Brazil was just so obvious."

She went to Brazil's northeast in 1966, first working in education and catechesis and gradually getting more involved with peasants and land and agricultural issues.

Krimm said that in the early 1970s, the government began offering land to families who would settle in the Amazon area. "Many of our people began to move up there," she said.

"Dot told us that one of us should be up there with them to give them spiritual help and any help they may need. She said, 'I will go.' That is when she moved up. She went alone and she went into the interior with them and she has been there ever since."

Hohm, the nun's sister, said, "Every several years she would move further into the woods," as she called the rain forest. "Eventually she got to Anapu. My husband and I visited her [there] maybe eight years ago. At that time it was just a bus stop. Now that the loggers have moved in, it has become a pretty large city."

Krimm said, "In the 1980s she began to realize what was happening in the rain forest, that the loggers were just stripping the forest as fast as they could." That is when she began working with people to try to save the forests. "She began studying ecology and law," Krimm said. "She taught sustainable farming so they could still farm and not ruin the rain forests."

Krimm, who served 10 years in Brazil is now at the order's provincial house in Ohio, said Stang embodied the charism of the Notre Dame Sisters. "We were founded to educate the poor in the most abandoned places. We were told by our foundress [St. Julie Billiart] that we should teach people anything they needed to live good lives, to live lives with dignity. So what she was doing was definitely in line with our charisma."

Stang's friends and family knew that her work was dangerous.

"Many years ago, when my sister Mary and I were visiting, we were sitting in a restaurant and some man came up. He said, 'I know who you are. We're going to get you some day,' " Hohm said. The man was a cattle rancher and wanted land.

"She told the bishop that she had been threatened many times" Hohm said. "The bishop told her to just go about what she was doing and the Lord would take care of things. And that is what she did. She was never afraid. She knew, and we knew, that some day they would shut her up."

A memorial service was held for Stang March 19 at the provincial house of the Sisters of Notre Dame in Reading, Ohio. Hohm said 50 to 60 of Stang's brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews were expected to attend. Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati was to preside.

On the same day in Phoenix, former students of Stang were hold a memorial service at the Most Holy Trinity Church. Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix was to preside.

(Editor's Note: NCR editor at large Arthur Jones also write's about Stang in the March 25 issue of NCR. That story will be available online tomorrow.)

David Atwood: Texas advocate against the death penalty

My first contact with David Atwood came in October last year. The lawyer for Texas death row inmate Dominque Green had sent NCR an essay that Green had written. We ran the essay, More than just a rosary, about two weeks before Green was executed. It is a moving piece.

For a story that ran with that essay, Atwood gave me some background information about Green, whom he had known for about eight years, and kept me appraised of the young man's case until his execution Oct. 26. The following is what I wrote in February.

Taking a step against the death penalty

After 10 years of taking a stand against capital punishment in Texas, David Atwood took a step against it. That got him arrested and jail time.

The last months of 2004 were hard on Atwood. In the 10 years since he founded the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, more than 200 people have been executed in the state. He has stood vigil outside the execution chamber in Huntsville on the nights that more than 100 of them died.

He stood there again on the evening of Nov. 17 for the death of 20-year-old Anthony Fuentes. Fuentes' was the 27th execution in Texas last year and the third in six weeks of someone particularly close to Atwood.

Atwood stood with the Fuentes' grandmother. "It was sort of a cold evening and just beginning to get dark," Atwood told NCR. "We were standing there and she just began shaking, the grandmother. It wasn't because of the cold it was because of what she knew was going to take place inside."

"The grandfather was actually inside witnessing the death of his grandson," Atwood said. The grandmother wanted to get closer, so Atwood and Peggy, his wife, accompanied her to the yellow plastic tape prison authorities put up in front of the Walls Unit to keep people way from the building during executions.

Atwood was thinking: "Well here we go again. Another execution in Texas. We are up to 338 now. Anthony's was the last one in 2004 and he was number 336. So anyway, we were standing there with our signs and I said to myself, I have to do something more this time to protest the execution.

Atwood, a chemical engineer who worked for oil giant Shell for 25 years, was introduced to the death penalty while serving on the local Campaign for Human Development board. A religious woman applied for funds to operate a newspaper written and published by death row inmates. "I started checking around," Atwood said. "I wanted to know what the Catholic church taught about the death penalty."

In his research he discovered that the United States was the only western country with capital punishment and that Texas executes more prisoners than any other state. Furthermore, he learned a quarter of Texas's capital punishment cases orginated in Harris County, where he lived.

But it was meeting prisoners that cemented Atwood's commitment to work against the death penalty.

"I went to visit some prisoners on death row," Atwood said. "I found out that these guys on death row were not monsters and animals - I am not trying to down play that they have done some horrible things and caused some people horrible pain - but that social teaching in the Catholic church that talks about the dignity of the human person, I could see that in death row prisoners. It became very real to me.

"Even though they were on death row and some of them had committed horrible crimes, they had not lost their dignity and I still believed that they were children of God and we should not execute them.

"I was not advocating that they should get out, but I knew it was morally wrong to execute them."

On Nov. 17 in the gathering dusk, Atwood handed his wife his wallet, cell phone and keys and ducked under the tape.

"I called over to the guard on the other side to tell him I was crossing. He said, 'You can't do that or you will get arrested.' I said, 'Well, I'm coming anyway. It's OK for you to arrest me.'"

He was led away, booked, fingerprinted and spent about three hours in the Walker County Jail until his wife bailed him out. "Now that is a good faithful wife," Atwood told NCR. "She could have said - we've been married for over 40 years and we have six children - she could have said David you've gone too far this time. You're on your own. But she bailed me out that night."

He was given Jan. 20 as court date for his trespassing charges. The judge gave him a choice: five days in the county jail or $500 fine. "I was told this was a pretty harsh punishment for a first time offense," Atwood said.

"There was no community service offered. There was no probation offered. I mean this is Huntsville, Texas, literally the center of the death penalty in the United States. They don't want people protesting." He chose the jail time.

"I really didn't want to put any money into their coffers," Atwood said, "and I really wanted to do something symbolic against the death penalty, more than just a simple protest. I wanted to do something more and since I was right there in Huntsville where all these executions take place I wanted to do something there."

For five days, he shared a cell, six bunk beds and two steel tables, with 11 other men. He dressed in an orange jumpsuit and had a single threadbare blanket at night.

"I was not abused or mistreated by anyone. But it is a very dehumanizing experience," he said of his time in jail. He said he did not find the guards hostile, but they were indifferent, which in itself is disrespectful.

During his stay, an article about him appeared in The Huntsville Item. "I could tell some of the guards had read it," Atwood told NCR, "because they treated me a little differently. When they addressed me, all of a sudden it was 'Mr. Atwood.' Before that it was no name."

He found two benefits to his time in in jail, he said.

"Our movement really needed some energy, and I think it gave the movement some energy in terms of people wanting to do more It got people pumped up."

The experience also broaden him, he said. "I have always supported the concept of life without parole as an alternative the death penalty -- which I still do -- but one of the things that came through to me is that if we are going to have life without parole, or any long prison sentence, if we are not treating people humanly and really trying to help them out and become rehabilitated, it is very counter productive."

Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer and coordinates the NCR Web site. His e-mail address is dcoday@ncronline.org.
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