What Can the Indigenous People of the Amazon Teach Us?

by | Oct 2, 2019 | Formation, Reflections, Systemic change

The Prophetic Witness of Indigenous People.

In a somewhat polarized American church, the mere mention of the upcoming Synod of Bishops focused on the Amazon region brings forth strong reactions pro and con. The Oct. 6-27 special assembly on the Pan-Amazonian region that will discuss the theme “New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology.”

The obstacles to evangelization include the difficult terrain that makes native populations hard to reach, the great variety of languages spoken, and the resistance of landowners and business interests. The Amazon basin, according to one Vatican report, covers some 6,000,000 km2, with a population of 2.8 million divided among 400 tribes that “speak some 240 languages belonging to 49 linguistic families.” The Synod defines the region to include all or parts of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Venezuela, and Suriname, most of which are countries where most of the population is Roman Catholic.

Much of the virulent discussion outside the Amazon centers on and anticipation of a discussion of issues such as the ordination of married me to serve the need for Eucharist in an area.

A view from the ground

Fr. Joe Fitzgerald of the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission has been at the forefront of evangelization with the indigenous population in Panama. There he also faces the issues outlined above.

He was recently honored at a special Founder’s Day Convocation at St. John University. In response to the honor, he offered the Vincentian Chair of Social Justice Lecture.  His presentation addressed the theme of the Synod: Hope from the Margins: The prophetic witness of indigenous peoples.

Father serves as Executive Secretary of the National Coordination of Indigenous Ministry [CONAPI].

Highlights from his presentation

  • Although the Ngäbe people´s reaction to the mining plans of the government and transnational corporations was a surprise for some outside observers, for the Ngäbe, it marked one more incident in centuries of resistance against threats to their way of life, their “buen vivir,” indigenous “Full Life”: a worldview and practices founded on harmonious relationships with all of creation, with others and with God.
  • The Ngäbe economy is a “gift economy,” based on gratitude, where the relationships built are greatly valued over the exchanges made; where prestige is not founded in how much you have, but rather in how much you are able to share.
    The image of harmony and connectedness in this web of life begins at birth when the umbilical cord of the newborn is planted with a mango seed, a reference point throughout one´s life, as the grandparents remind the child that they grow in strength and harmony in union with the tree of which they are a part.
  • The emergence of indigenous peoples in society and in the Church has been recognized by the Latin American Bishops as a new Pentecost, a Kairos, a sacred moment of encounter for all.
  • In the forefront of promoting an understanding of indigenous ways of living and the “indigenous face of the Church,” we find Pope Francis. In his encyclical about caring for our Common Home he says that “for (indigenous peoples), land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values.”


  • Do we recognize that the problems faced by the church in other parts of the world are different than our own?
  • What would it be like to have a “gift” economy” rather than a “win/lose” economy?
  • Can we recognize systemic change issues faced by indigeneous people around the world?

This post first appeared on vincentiansusa.org