News this week of three deaths moved me as I also mourn the passing of my father this past Feb. 17—a reason (not the only one) for the dearth of blog posts this month.
In the 1990s, Felipe Toussaint was the vicar general of the Catholic diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas. An email message on a different topic mentioned a recent “memorial lecture” given in his honour, and that sent me to Google and to the news that Felipe died at the age of 54 on April 9, 2011. I also learned that Felipe had left the priesthood and married, and that he was still involved in a range of NGO and human rights initiatives in Chiapas and was living in Comitán at the time of his death.
While working in Mexico in the mid and late 1990s, Felipe was my guide to the complex intersection of church and politics in Chiapas in the wake of the Zapatista rebellion in 1994. His mentor was Samuel Ruiz, the bishop of San Cristóbal from 1960 through his retirement in 2000.
In early November 1996, I took a group of U.S. college students to talk with Felipe in San Cristóbal about his own “option for the poor” and the ways that the diocese accompanied Indigenous and peasant farmer communities.
Felipe, who had come from a middle-class family in Mexico City, had served for five years in a parish in Sabanilla in the northern part of Chiapas. By the time of our 1996 conversation, the state and federal government were fomenting the creation of paramilitary groups to limit Zapatista influence. Sabanilla was one of the affected communities. “Justice is not present there,” he said.
“Now there are new armed civilian groups which not controlled. They defend the traditional order. In the northern part of the state, the government allowed the problem to grow and now cannot control it,” Felipe added. (Fourteen months later, such a squad carried out the massacre of 47 women, children and men in Acteal.)
“The state and federal governments are divided internally about what to do about it. The northern side of the state is important because the government doesn’t want the Zapatista movement to grow among the cattle ranches or the oil fields of Tabasco. The cattle owners don’t want the Zapatista mentality among their workers. So the government uses the armed civilian groups as a border to limit the Zapatistas.”
Sad as I am about Felipe’s premature death, I was shocked by the murder Feb. 26 of Robinson Cavalcanti, a controversial Anglican bishop in Brazil’s north-east. Cavalcanti and his wife were apparently killed by their adoptive son.
Cavalcanti had broken from the Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil (IEAB) in 2005 in a dispute related to the global Anglican Communion’s debate over sexual orientation. When Cavalcanti left, he took 32 clergy and their congregations with him. (The IEAB Diocese of Recife in 2006 elected Sebastiao Armando Gameleira Soares as bishop.)
As conservative as Cavalcanti was on questions of homosexuality, he was progressive on economic justice issues. And so, we found ourselves making presentations at an ecumenical conference in Buenos Aires in April 2003.
I re-read Cavalcanti’s presentation last night. He spoke of the election the previous year of Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva to the presidency a few months earlier.
“You can see that the history of Brazil has been, on the one hand, circulation among elites, and on the other, the great struggles by citizens to change social exclusion,” he said.
It was scandalous when, soon afterward, Cavalcanti divided his church over a tired prejudice. Social exclusion is social exclusion, whether provoked by one’s gender, sexual orientation or social class. Still, his death saddens everyone, including his former IEAB colleagues who sent their condolences.