Poverty Scholar Summer Residencies – Jennifer Wilder (3 of 4)

Poverty Initiative Fellows Summer Residencies

Seeking to simultaneously support the work of Poverty Scholar organizations and further develop the leadership skills of Poverty Initiative Fellows, this past summer we launched a program of Fellows Summer Residencies for three of our Fellows.

In a series of blog posts, we will share reflections from each of our Fellows on their residency program experience including: Daniel Jones (an NYU student who spent 8 weeks with the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement–MST), Lenora Knowles (who spent 2 months with the United Workers in Baltimore, MD and Jennifer Wilder (who spent 2 months in Central America with the Christian Base Communities, on the Texas/Mexico border, and with the MST in Brazil). We will also post reflections from PI’s Crystal Hall on her work with Poverty Scholars partners in VT and the United Workers in Baltimore.

Jennifer is a third year Master of Divinity Candidate at Union Theological Seminary, with a specialization in Bible and Social Ethics.  She is a Member in Discernment for Ordination with the Metro NYC Association of the United Church of Christ, and her interests, studies, and work focus on the role of communities of faith in social movements.  This is Jennifer’s third year working with the Poverty Initiative, where she has participated in many Leadership Schools, Immersions, Intensives, and Bible Studies.  She works on the Poverty Scholar Program Coordinating Council and coordinated the Oscar Romero Leadership Project, which studied the leadership of Monseñor Oscar Romero and the Base Communities of Latin America.


With my Poverty Initiative Fellow Internship this summer, I got to visit three areas:  the Christian Base Communities of Latin America, the Mexico/Texas border, and the Landless Worker’s Movement (MST) of Brazil.  In each area, I interviewed key leaders and learned from the work of the organizations, always with my focus on developing the role of religion in social movements to end poverty led by the poor. 

Christian Base Communities of Latin America

The Christian Base Communities (CEBs) of Latin America formed the leaders for many of the struggles against oppression, violence, and poverty in Latin America in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.  The CEBs are lay-led Christian communities that emphasize collective critical analysis of conditions, Bible study, and strategic planning for action against injustice.  The movement of CEBs was a threat to the interconnected network of religious, political, and military authorities because the CEBs developed members’ critical consciousness of socioeconomic conditions and their Christian imperative to organize and resist injustice.  In the decades of the 1970s until today, these authorities, backed by economic elites, cracked down on the CEBs.  In El Salvador, many Base Community leaders were killed in the civil war from 1980-1992 or were forced out of the country by political or economic violence.  The Evangelical and Catholic churches responded to the Base Communities with theologies and pastoral plans that dissociated salvation from concrete everyday problems.

Even many developments after the 1992 Peace Accords in El Salvador weakened the Base Communities.  Post-1992, politics and NGOs recruited many leaders who were thus subjected to the limits of those institutions.  Some leaders immigrated north seeking economic resources not available in El Salvador due to the country’s role in the neoliberal globalized market.  Nevertheless, the Base Communities continue in El Salvador and throughout Latin America continue as a religious movement in which communities’ words and actions reflect their commitments to a liberative methodology and distinct way of being church.  The CEBs function at the intersection of the analysis of conditions and struggles, Bible study, organized resistence at the local/community level, and coordinated activity at the regional, national, and international levels.  This summer, I interviewed the leaders of FUNDAHMER, one such organization at the forefront of this work of the CEBs where I worked for a couple years prior to coming to Union.

In June, I attended the Ninth Encuentro of the CEBs of Latin American and Caribbean, a continental-wide gathering of the leaders of CEBs.  This collective has been organized since the month that Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated in March 1980, precisely for his prophetic call for the church to be more like the work of the CEBs: denouncing conditions of injustice.  This network of CEB Continental rekindles the collectivity and devises the strategy of the CEBs as they seek to be a prophetic articulation and coordination of these grassroots communities.  This year’s Encuentro focused on leadership development of younger leaders as the original and second-generation leaders of the CEBs are aging, and as the young adult generation are faced with the challenges of this age, which include dynamics of global monopoly capitalism, immigration, the import of US individualism and consumerism, the divisions between Catholics and evangelicals, and the increasing conservatism of both of these forms of Christianity.

Leaders gathered at this year’s CEB Continental Encuentro from 17 different countries in South, Central, and North America, and the Caribbean to call for and execute the “relanzamiento” (relaunching) and re-articulation of the CEBs. This relaunching of the CEBs is necessary because of the increasing polarization between those with wealth and the millions in poverty, and because of the increasing degradation of the Latin American communities and countries by neoliberal economic policies, which include free trade agreements, retention of national debt, immigration, violence related to drugs and arms trade, etc.  The CEBs oppose how the church is often a tool for elites to make the people passive in the face of their oppression.

US/Mexico Border

On the US/Mexico border, I can see, smell, hear, and feel in the tension in the air the effects of a global system gone bad.  The problems seem to “meet” here at this border in a very visceral and embodied way:  industrialization and deindustrialization and the failing rights of workers; violence due to trafficking of arms, drugs, and people; separation of families; racism and fear-mongering; and domestic and international policies that favor profit over life.  One key in this dynamic is fear:  The fear associated with the immigrant experience:  the journey, the crossing, and life on the US side.  Fear associated with the separation of families who have been together for generations.  Fear experienced by immigrants who are the most marginalized and exploited workers in our country. Fear generated in poor and working class whites throughout the country towards immigrants.  The poor and working class whites therefore support the reapportionment of funds to policing of the border rather than to the changes that would benefit the poor, regardless of their color.

In El Paso and the surrounding area, the Border Network for Human Rights has committees in which leaders educate immigrants on their rights given in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights and address the immigrant-specific concerns and campaigns.  In the lower Rio Grande Valley and across the border in Reynosa and , the women leaders of Comités de Apoyo (founded and led by Ed Krueger) educate workers in the maquiladoras (assembly line factories) about their rights as workers according to Mexican Federal Labor law.  The work of these organizations can contribute to a movement to end poverty led by the poor in the following two most important ways:  The Border Network is constructing a narrative of the border region by the people who live on the border and thus thus depend significantly on the way the border is perceived in national and international politics.  The  maquiladora workers in the Comités de Apoyo demonstrate how the problems of global capital have no boundaries and thus emphasize the importance of international partners in movement building.


Landless Worker’s Movement (MST) of Brazil:

During Brazil’s military dictatorship, which lasted until 1985, the only space in which resistance was able to take place was within the church, in Christian Base Communities.  This organized resistance fought for a clause in Brazil’s constitution that provided a legal way for land that is not socially useful to revert to the property of landless peasants.  The MST was officially formed thereafter by leaders from the Base Communities, in order to organize and occupy for land reform and to form economically sustainable communities on the land they liberated. When it formed, the MST declared itself independent of the church and labor unions, choosing other symbols and songs that are relevant to the rural struggles to be their movement’s mística.

Today, the MST faces the following challenge: Only 15% of Brazil’s population live in the rural areas due to the green revolution of the mechanization of rural work, which made jobs more scarce in the rural  areas.  The industrialization of Brazilian cities also caused people to move to urban areas for low-wage factory jobs.  Since the MST’s base has long been landless rural workers, it now faces the question of its relevance to the other 85% of the Brazilian population living in cities.  While there, I visited one urban settlement, but with my interest in background in the importance of religion in social movements, I wondered if the MST’s initial option to acquiesce religion and religious symbols has hurt them ultimately being able to relate to the consciousness of the Brazilian masses. The majorities of the Brazilian masses remain very religious, and very religiously divided between Catholics and Evangelicals, with a strong presence of African diaspora religions as well.  In Brazil, like in the US, religion continues to be a tool of setting up the binaries of self vs. other and good vs. bad that reinforce the status quo of economic exploitation.  Without their own consciousness-raising work about God, faith, and Bible-based justice, social movements like the MST are negatively characterized according to the dominant binaries and thus marginalized.  Will religion be an important consideration as MST meets next summer in its Congress to plan future strategy?

The people of the MST were excited to hear I am a “liberation theologian” because they recognize that they need a new liberation theology for today.  It is their very experience, however, that provides the necessity and the opportunity for their own formation of a liberative theological praxis.


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