Some of the people from the conference I have been attending near Santo Domingo visited the Caminante centre in nearby Boca Chica that works with children “who are at risk of being drawn into prostitution as a result of the culture associated with the tourist economy in the Dominican Republic.”

Someone said that an “obstacle” in the work was the attitude of churches that opposed sex education in schools. No doubt—just as opposition by some churches to the use of condoms is a serious obstacle to effective AIDS education, and some churches avidly promote homophobia. But the Caminante centre is supported by some other churches, including the Dominican Evangelical Church (IED) and the joint Global Ministries board of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Antonio de Montesinos monument, Santo Domingo

The “preferential option for the poor”

Being here in the Dominican Republic calls to mind the story of Antonio de Montesinos, a priest who in 1511 used an Advent homily to denounce the slaughter by the Spanish conquerors of the Taino Indigenous people.

“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. In order to make your sins known to you I have mounted this pulpit, I who am the voice of Christ crying in the desert of this island….

“Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery? By what right do you wage such detestable wars on these people who lived mildly and peacefully in their own lands, where you have consumed infinite numbers of them with unheard of murders and desolations? Why do you so greatly oppress and fatigue them, not giving them enough to eat or caring for them when they fall ill from excessive labours, so that they die or rather are slain by you, so that you may extract and acquire gold every day?… Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves?”

It seems to me that part of being Christian is to stand first with those who are the most vulnerable, marginalized and impoverished. (And with the Earth, Moderator Mardi Tindal of The United Church of Canada would gently remind me.)

In 1979, Latin America’s Roman Catholic bishops affirmed the “preferential option for the poor,” insisting that the church’s work and priorities would be directed first to the impoverished and powerless in society.

Sometimes, social movements have demanded the solidarity of church leaders (as I saw in Haiti in the cathedral take-over in 1987 ). In other places, church leaders—like Bishop Samuel Ruiz in Chiapas, Mexico—have placed themselves on the side of the impoverished.

The option for the poor inspired a generation of community leaders to act boldly for justice. And today in Latin America, we see some of the fruit of their labour in the political movements that have won power through elections since 1998.

 

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