Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sister Eugenia Russián, Missionary of Christ: "God speaks through the community, from the sweeper to the Pope"

by Clodovaldo Hernández (English translation and additional information by Rebel Girl)
Redes Cristianas

She is a nun, a human rights advocate, and simply and quietly leads Mass in her small community in Caracas, without even seeking ordination. Sr. Eugenia "Sister Jenny" Russián is currently president of the Fundación Latinoamericana por los Derechos Humanos y el Desarrollo Social ("Latin American Foundation for Human Rights and Social Development" - Fundalatin) and has been a Missionaries of Christ nun for 20 years. She also directs the Instituto de Desarrollo Humano y Economía Social (IDHES) which works in various working class areas of Caracas and in the interior of the country in community organizing.

Sister Jenny has worked in the peasant communities in the state of Sucre, Venezuela, in the Yaruro indigenous community in Apure, and she currently works as vicar ("vicaria") of the Santa Ana parish in a poor area of Caracas with groups of families, youth and children of the area. She leads Christian base communities and gives workshops on ethics and human rights to the Caracas police. She has a program on Saturdays called "Llegó La Hora Hacia una Cultura de la Solidaridad" ["The Time Has Come: Towards a Culture of Solidarity"] on Radio Comunitaria Senderos de Antimano.

Hernández: We are in the Christmas season and in revolution, but the values of capitalism, selfishness, consumerism seem to be getting worse, don't they?

Russián: The birth of Jesus was the emergence of a new human project against the imperialism of those days. This project was justice, solidarity, peace, and making the poor visible. In times of revolution, Christmas should remind us that we have a commitment to peace, solidarity, love, justice, and family unity.

But capitalism has put into our heads, through its media, that Christmas is spending money and consuming. We suffer from the "Sambil* effect". It's amazing to see the masses waiting for the malls to open to go in to shop like desperate people. Even in our Metro, the ads are about consumerism, such and such clothing line, this and that brand. How interesting it would be if it were to have messages of solidarity, that Christmas is sharing.

Hernández: And, beyond Christmas, as a grassroots Christian living in a barrio emblematic of Caracas (Santa Ana, Carapita), how do you see the population's response to this change in values? Are we moving forward or are welfare, patronage, and waiting for handouts predominant?

Russián: We're moving forward in the economic sphere, in access to health care, education, housing, with all the weaknesses that can be noted. But some symptoms worry me. For example, when RCTV's license ended, in a month everybody in the barrio had cable TV. I asked why and they told me, "it's that we have to watch the soaps." That persuaded me that we need to work harder at formation because we have placed emphasis on money and a revolution that can't be sustained through oil revenues. The first mission I would create would be the Family Mission, because when you produce change in the family, you achieve change in society. For example, it seems to me very dangerous that the good life means to equip your home with a plasma TV, an air conditioner, a refrigerator and a stove. As long as the idea that the good life is materialism grows stronger, we will continue to have capitalism.

Hernández: How is that change achieved?

Russián: By walking with people. It's useless for me, from an office, to make an analysis and try to explain how a neighborhood is, as the officials at the Ministerio de las Comunas ["Ministry of the Popular Power for the Communal Economy"] do.

Hernández: Speaking of which, is there a popular Church and a corporate Church or is this an invention to divide Catholics?

Russián: Jesus' movement wasn't born as a formal church, but as a reaction against an empire that used God. The apostles began to organize themselves into communities and were the first to speak of communism in Acts 2:42, when they said that they held everything in common. Then, when Constantine legalized Christianity and ordered everyone to be baptized, we were screwed because the empire got mixed up with the salvific plan of Jesus. Today there is still a conservative Church that makes arrangements with the empire, that sells the sacraments, and there is another, committed to the poor, that calls us to solidarity. The Venezuelan Church is one hundred percent hierarchical, sexist and conservative. They're upset that the nuns are living in the barrios and going around dressed as civilians. The hierarchs love to be in the cathedral; they want nothing to do with the barrios.

Hernández: Aren't there any exceptions?

Russián: Well, we have Monseñor (Arnulfo) Romero in El Salvador, Monseñor (Leonidas) Proaño in Ecuador, Monseñor (Pedro) Casaldáliga in Brazil, who are at the grassroots, with the people.

Hernández: And in Venezuela?

Russián: There are no bishops in Venezuela committed to the people. There are bishops settled in the archiepiscopal palaces, committed to the powerful.

Hernández: Have you gotten into any conflicts over such opinions?

Russián: What I may be looking to get is that they'll excommunicate me, not just for my opinions, but because I support the right of women to be priests. I believe in a church where women are not just for performing services and being quiet. It's not easy because they are values that are very established in everyone's mind. For example, the Ministry of Women called to ask me for a priest for the Women's Day Mass. I said the few priests committed to the project were very busy, but I would be at their disposal to do a religious service. And in the ministry that should be ensuring gender equality, they responded, "No, sister, what we need is a priest." Damn, what can you expect from the rest of society?

Hernández: You don't seem to fear excommunication, but other priests and nuns have yielded...

Russián: They excommunicated Father Roy Bourgeois (USA), who has fought all his life for the closing of the School of the Americas, for ordaining five nuns as priests [sic]. He took a chance and broke the fear and so must we. I don't go on and on about offering my Masses.** I offer Mass. I don't know if the cardinal has heard, but I don't care. How long are we going to go on thinking that God speaks only through the priest? Who said so? God speaks through the community, from the sweeper to the Pope.

Hernández: In the chapel, you have the image of our frustrated national saint, Jose Gregorio Hernandez, something the hierarchy also doesn't accept. Haven't they reprimanded you?

Russián: Carapita is the only church that has an image of him. Why? Because the community wanted it that way, because he is a saint of the people, even though the Vatican doesn't recognize him. The bishop once came for some confirmations and asked me what that image was doing there. I told him the people put it there and that if I took it out, they'd lynch me.

Defending Julián Conrado

Eugenia Russián, Sister Jenny, is the successor to Father Juan Vives Suria and therefore president of the Fundación Latinoamericana por los Derechos Humanos y el Desarrollo Social ("Latin American Foundation for Human Rights and Social Development" - Fundalatin). This entity is responsible for defending Guillermo Enrique Torres Cuéter, known as Julián Conrado, the singer/songwriter of the FARC.

"In a revolution we don't have the luxury of handing this citizen over to a government like that of Colombia, which is the true sponsor of terrorism in that country. Venezuela has the right to not grant him asylum, but it could make it easier for another country to give it to him. Handing him over to Colombia would mean his death," says Russián, who was born in Puerto Ordaz and has been a Missionaries of Christ nun for 20 years.

Russián has spent this time with peasant communities, indigenous people and in the barrios of Caracas. Therefore, she has a very clear vision of reality. "We must strengthen the communal councils, but it can't be that people attend the meetings because they are going to be given money," she says.

She has other criticisms of factors in the process. "We see people screaming 'out with the empire', who then go eat at McDonald's. Damn, if you're against the empire, reject this gringa culture!"

The Caracas experience has moments when the hand of God helps a lot. "I have to go to pray at the funerals of crooks. Of course, I tell them to give me a helmet because they start shooting in the air and I have yet many things to do on this earth."

Julián Conrado's Song

To pay back her efforts to get political asylum for him, Julián Conrado, who has been called Colombia's answer to Alí Primera (the revolutionary Venezuelan folk singer), composed a song for Sister Jenny from jail:

Canción a Eugenia

Viviendo con amor
No sé cómo son tus ojos pero sé
que son limpias tus miradas, a quien ves
sólo puede ser feliz con tu mirar

No he sentido latir tu corazón
pero puedo asegurar en mi canción
que más dulce no se puede palpitar

No son cosas de adivinación
no tengo el poder de adivinar
pero es de muy fácil deducción
que así se debe manifestar
quién vive viviendo con amor:
Hermana Eugenia Russian

No he escuchado el sonido de tu voz
pero quién sinceramente sirve a Dios
dá la más hermosa nota musical

Y aunque nunca te he mirado sonreír
al hacerlo en tu alma se puede medir
el tamaño exacto que tiene la paz

No son cosas de adivinación
no tengo el poder de adivinar
pero es de muy fácil deducción
que así se debe manifestar
quien vive viviendo con amor:
Hermana Eugenia Russian


* Sambil is a shopping center chain in Venezuela and its Caracas mall is the fourth largest in Latin America.

** The term Sister Jenny uses in this interview is "doy misa". It isn't clear whether this means she is actually celebrating the Eucharist or simply leading a Catholic liturgy in the absence of a priest and distributing pre-consecrated hosts. The brief biography of her on the SOAW website calls her a "vicar", though her role may be more akin to what would be called a "parish administrator" in the United States. This still begs the question as to why a woman with so much faith, initiative, and commitment to meeting the spiritual needs of the faithful in her poor community cannot be considered for ordination as a priest simply because of antiquated, sexist and man-made rules.

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