By Stephen J. Lee,
Grand Forks Herald
It took a few years of living as a missionary priest in Chimbote, Peru, before the Rev. Jack Davis learned a key distinction from a nun.
In Mexico, people were in poverty but they could and would offer a visitor a bite, however humble, to eat, the nun told Davis.
But in Peru where Davis has been a missionary for 35 years, the people had not even poverty, only misery, he said the nun taught him: a disabling lack of basic human needs that led to despair and violence and death.
A Catholic priest for 40 years, Davis, who grew up in Devils Lake, has been in Peru since 1975.
He was the featured speaker Sunday night at the symposium on human rights being held this week at the North Dakota Museum of Art on UND’s campus, at 261 Centennial Drive, near Twamley Hall. It’s being held in conjunction with an exhibit, “The Disappeared,” of victims of South American governments the past 40 years.
Davis told the crowd of about 90 people at the Museum that his first impression of Peru 35 years ago was the shock of the pervasive anti-American sentiment.
There was a priest he worked with that maybe had collaborated with the CIA, Davis said. That meant that Peruvians looked at Davis, too, as possibly an agent of political and governmental change, and the leftist Peruvian government kicked the Peace Corps workers out of the country in the mid-1970s, about the time Davis arrived.
The message he got from the people of Peru was “Yankee, go home,” he said. He learned, Davis said, to trace some of the sentiments back to the European conquest and invasion of South America that began 500 years ago.
Chimbote, Peru, was different in most ways from his North Dakota home.
Chimbote is in one of the most arid places on earth.
“It rained in 1983, and it rained in 1999,” Davis said tersely. “It does not rain in Chimbote.”
So, sand is a main theme, he said.
Davis got to see the early working-out of the controversial “liberation theology,” of the Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian priest who roiled the Catholic world with his idea that Jesus’ Gospel said that poverty was not God’s will.
Davis said it was a big change in his own thinking to realize it was not God’s will that Peruvian children would die of tuberculosis because their families were too poor to give them the nutrition and care they needed.
“This is not what God wants,” he said of what he preached at such a child’s funeral, fighting the fatalism of the Peruvian poor.
Although many leaders in the Catholic church, as well as political leaders in the West, opposed liberation theology as Marxism dressed up in church clothes, Davis said it got Peruvians enmeshed in the popular communist front groups to listen to the Bible.
“Father Gustavo said ‘Let’s talk about the Bible. What does the Bible say about poverty and justice?’”
It was putting the language of Christianity into the language of the poor in Peru, Davis said.
“Father Gustavo developed his theology using the vocabulary of the Marxists,” Davis said, arguing that Gutierrez helped bring people into the church, not into communism.
Davis said he learned, too, to fight “the culture of death,” in Peru that laughed at and accepted violence against women as the way things were supposed to be.
For the past quarter century he and Sister Peggy Byrne, the Irish nun who followed Davis from Devils Lake to work in Chimbote in the same parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, have raised money on regular trips back to the United States to spend in Chimbote.
It’s a huge parish, of 30,000 people, with great needs.
He realized years ago that his mission was a “prophetic,” one, that challenged not only destructive ideas in Peru, but the ways that American foreign policy had hurt the people of South America, Davis said.
Davis was threatened by the violent Maoist group, The Shining Path that tried to get him to join them in fighting the drug trade. He told the terrorists that while he opposed drug-dealing, he wouldn’t condone violence by anyone.
After years in which it was thought the Shining Path had disappeared, they have raised their head again in Peru, now, ironically, trying to use the illegal drug trade to make money, according to news reports.
Davis has been awarded the Peruvian Medal of Honor for his decades of service.