The Time magazine article naming John Paul II Man of the Year described liberation theology as a "quasi-heresy." The rather oxymoronic nature of that label aside, the truth is that the insights and emphases of liberation theology have profoundly altered large parts of the Christian community. Nowhere is that more true than in Brazil, Latin America's largest and most populous country.
Now photojournalist Mev Puleo has given us an insightful look inside liberation theology in Brazil. The Struggle Is One includes 16 interviews Puleo conducted in Brazil in 1990. The methods Puleo chose, the diversity of her subjects, and the structure of the book itself reflect the promise and the pain of the Brazilian church's struggle with the gospel call to transform injustice in solidarity with its victims.
Given Puleo's academic and professional background, she could have easily written a different book, one where she explains Brazilian liberation theology for a North American audience. But she apparently knew another book like that wasn't necessary. The medium Puleo chose-a creative version of oral history-is ideally suited to convey the inspiring richness of the liberation theology movement and the transformations it is occasioning in individuals and social structures.
Puleo is fluent in Portuguese and has broad experience in Brazil and throughout Latin America. Her interviewing style is an elusive blend of open-endedness mixed with focused questions that demonstrate her having done her homework. She successfully puts grassroots people in the spotlight, helping them create the larger voice they are so often denied.
We hear first from great-grandmothers living in shantytowns who began writing poetry at age 65, then from feminist organizers active in the grassroots church and union movements. These are the faithful women and men of the shantytowns who form the often unseen roots of the tree of liberation theology. Only later do we hear from the clergy and the professional theologians, the more visible leaves and branches.
The interviews are complimented by Puleo's evocative photographs of her subjects and their surroundings, making the already spirited text further jump to life for the reader.
Each interview closes with roughly the same question: "What message do you have for the people of the first world?" To contemplate the 16 answers offered here is to be invited into one's own transformation. It is also to recognize the simple yet complicating message of the book's title: The struggle is one.
PATRICK COY is a doctoral candidate in social science at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.