From July 7 to July 15, the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice and Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary hosted Paulo Ueti and Gislei Knierim, leaders of the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST), the largest social movement of the poor in the Western Hemisphere.

Paulo Ueti is the Facilitator for Latin America and the Caribbean for the Anglican Alliance for Development, Relief and Advocacy. He is a Bible Scholar and has studied theology and development, especially in program evaluation, and traveled and worked in Latin America, Europe and Africa. His practical experience in development has included working with programs in women’s literacy, health, and programs for landless people and people of the Amazon. He is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), the Brazilian Association for Biblical Research (ABIB) and the Steering Committee of the Global Network on Contextual Bible Studies.
Gislei Siqueira Knierim is a member of the Health Sector of the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST). She also works with the Land Group of the Brazilian Health Ministry, the Rural Areas on Public Health Policy for Forest and Rural Populations, and FIOCRUZ (Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a scientific institution for research and development in biomedical sciences).
Along with smaller conversations, The Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice held a strategy session on the role of religion and the Bible in social movements with leaders from Union Theological Seminary, the Kairos Center and Poverty Initiative, Poverty Initiative alumni, Poverty Scholars and other grassroots activists. We also held a strategy session on health and health care where leaders from the Vermont Workers Center, Put People First – PA, the United Workers of Baltimore, Health Care is a Human Right Campaign in Maryland, health professionals, church leaders, students and Poverty Initiative and Kairos Center members exchanged experiences, posed questions and learned from Paulo, Gislei, and one another.
We covered topics such as practices and techniques of contextual bible study, the evolution of the use of the bible in social movements in Brazil, the perils of traditional interpretations of “the poor are with you always”, the lepers, demoniacs, women and other poor and marginalized New Testament leaders as role models of discipleship, the importance of reading the Bible with the poor who are organized, the public health system of Brazil, policies and structures to include people living in rural areas and the forest in the health system, and the principles of Brazilian public health care of prevention, promotion, recovery, rehabilitation, among other important topics.
There were many lessons learned from the discussions and the Kairos Center will strive to regularize this type of discussion and exchange among global social movements focused on ending poverty. There were important themes related to the role of the Bible in the promotion and advancement of social movements as well as health as a human right that rung true in this exchange and our larger work of uniting and organizing the poor.
Paulo spoke to how they do bible studies (called contextual Bible study because of the connection to reading the Bible with the community, with the poor) not to learn about the bible but to learn about transforming society. The aim of contextual Bible study is to make people more aware, conscious, and committed to what’s going on and help get people affiliated with a social movement. We read the Bible with a political lens: do good will, assess theology and exegesis, and try to get the community involved. When doing a training in contextual Bible study, we understand that even the bible is a political site of struggle.
On the topic of health, the Landless Worker’s Movement broadens the discussion from “health care” to health. They are having discussions about pesticide, agro-ecology, quality of water, the conditions of fisherfolk—not just medicine, hospitals, and doctors. Among the many accomplishments in the past 15 years, they have a forest and rural public policy. The MST helped form a committee to address the issues and concerns from people in rural and forest areas. The MST asserts that talking about health means talking about politics and economics. They insist on talking about every human right – not just violence and displacement. In Brazil, you can sue the government for not having enough food to eat. As it relates to health, you can petition to government for particular treatment, medicine, etc.
Brazil’s health system is a network of public services that is responsible to help any person who comes, from a broken nail to brain cancer. Especially in Brazil, the public hospitals are the ones most qualified to treat complex problems. In the decades after the dictatorship health professionals and popular movements waged the fight for a public health system and won.
In the work of their health sector, the MST has fought for the right to intervene in the curriculum in doctors, nurses and health workers, bringing rural and forest issues to the table. The landless people’s movement is committed to training people in the framework that health is a basic human right and that local groups must lead this process. They assert that health is an obligation by the state and that cultural differences must be accounted for in the treatment of diseases. Therefore their work includes training people to be activists and training people to take care of their own health. Throughout the years, they have been involved in very different struggles – struggle for HIV/AIDS treatment, now struggling against the privatization of the system.
Our discussion with Paulo and Gislei included a larger analysis of social change and social justice. Paulo and Gislei suggested that based on their experience in Brazil and with the Landless Workers Movement, society can be transformed by organizing people. Taking decision-making positions can help, but it doesn’t change society. In their social-transformation approach, the movement brings broader issues to the table and sees how all the issues are connected.

It is from this position and out of our collective experience that we concluded our strategy sessions with a call to build a global Poor People’s Campaign for today. We look forward to more exchanges, conversations, actions together as we work to put people first and end poverty for everyone.
Audio from strategy session with Paulo Ueti on the role of religion and the Bible in social movement organizing on Wednesday, July 9, 2014:

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Audio from strategy session with Gislei Siqueira Knierim on health and health care on Thursday, July 10, 2014:
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Bios:
Paulo Ueti is the Facilitator for Latin America and the Caribbean for the Anglican Alliance for Development, Relief and Advocacy. He is based in Brazil and has a formidable track record in ecumenical and social organization. He is a Bible Scholar and has studied theology and development, especially in program evaluation, and traveled and worked in Latin America, Europe and Africa. His practical experience in development has included working with programs in women’s literacy, health, and programs for landless people and people of the Amazon. He is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), the Brazilian Association for Biblical Research (ABIB) and the Steering Committee of the Global Network on Contextual Bible Studies. In the past year, he has also facilitated workshops for the Ecumenical Centre for Biblical Studies in Mozambique, South Africa, Brazil, Guatemala, Colombia, Costa Rica and Cuba.
Gislei Siqueira Knierim is a member of the Health Sector of the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST). She also who works with the Land Group of the Brazilian Health Ministry, the Rural Areas on Public Health Policy for Forest and Rural Populations and FIOCRUZ.