Paul Farmer is the Kolokotrones University Professor at Havard University and cofounder of Partners in Health.
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TWO OF MY greatest teachers were Latin American men, both ordained as Catholic priests. One, Archbishop Oscar Romero, was assassinated in 1980. I never met him, being a 20-year-old American who’d never set foot in El Salvador or anywhere else in Latin America. But Romero made me, a lapsed Catholic, wonder why his views—our views, if Christian social teaching means anything at all—would be viewed with murderous hostility by the Salvadoran elite. After all, it was all right there in the Book. Wasn’t it?
The truth was, I didn’t know. Was it worth looking at books about these matters? That’s what we believed in medical school: Look it up! So Romero led me to the second of these teachers who, I’m happy to say, is alive and well and living (mostly) in Lima, Peru. Gustavo Gutiérrez, a diminutive and humble Dominican priest and a great friend of Romero’s, taught me through his books, from The Power of the Poor in History toWe Drink from our Own Wells, and later through his friendship and his almost mystical (to me, in any case) optimism.
Over the course of my 20s, the slender, frayed thread of my own faith, which I had believed cut, slowly came back into view. There was a filament a bit stronger than imagined, made visible in part by my Haitian hosts and patients and friends, and in part by Catholic social activists working against poverty in settings as different as tough neighborhoods in Boston, the farms of North Carolina, and the slums of Lima.
Some were nuns or priests, some were engaged laity, from many professions. Most were people living in and struggling against their own and others’ poverty. Their activism taught me a lot about a space in the Catholic Church I’d not seen clearly before, and about the promise of long-term engagement in the monumental struggle against poverty and discrimination in all its forms. That includes gender inequality, no stranger to the institution. Most of the most inspiring activists were women.