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Interview: Paulo Ueti Brazilian theologian and activist

17 January 2014

'As a teenager, I asked questions about inequality, violence, why people disappeared'

I've been involved in a range of different social movements since I was 14. My parish was very much involved in projects for social and economic transformation. And I've been passionate for the Bible, and particularly the kind of reading that groups in Latin America were doing.

This is a "popular" reading of the Bible, with groups in communities. "Popular" here means politically engaged, in order to transform unjust structures of the society and us. Currently I am very much involved with Via Campesina Internacional and contextual Bible-reading initiatives in the world, supporting groups in South Africa, Sweden, Holland, Guatemala, Brazil, and Mozambique. And I am part of a larger project, called the Global Network on Contextual Bible Reading, based in the Netherlands. I am also working with capacity- building on development projects, and feminist hermeneutics and theology.

I teach New Testament and contextual Bible reading, and I also work for Anglican Alliance, as regional facilitator for Latin America and the Caribbean. I collaborate with the National Office for Health of the Landless People's Movement. As regional facilitator (Latin America and the Caribbean), I facilitate communications among the Anglican provinces, help them as a theologian when required, and work together with my other colleagues in London, Bangladesh, Kenya, and the Solomon Islands in the Anglican Alliance developing projects.

I was born in 1969, during the dictatorship period of my country, from 1964 to 1985. I saw horrible things happening to people. I was born in a middle-class family with no connections with religion or social movements. I was very shy as a child, with almost no social life at all. When I got connected with church groups as a teenager, I got myself involved in the dangerous place that was to ask questions about inequality, violence, why people "disappeared". I remember reading Brasil: Nunca Mais, a shocking and disturbing moment. [Brazil: Never More, eventually published in 1986, detailed 1800 incidents of torture.] I was somehow connected with those who suffered a lot during the military period.

I decided to be a theologian, to help people to read the Bible in a way that brings liberation and consciousness of the love of God. I moved from nuclear physics to philosophy and theology. My parents were not happy about that.

Biblical stories and, most important, the way we got into them helped shape my commitment and my militancy.

When I was very young, to speak in public was a tremendous task. I was very, very, very shy. I couldn´t do it. I promised that never in my life I would go public again. . . This promise I did not keep. Being part of a youth group helped me to overcome it. And I think I do well in public nowadays.

I cannot say why I got more focused on women's issues. I had plenty of them influencing me, and I used to say that my feminist colleagues, especially the feminist theologians and feminist Bible scholars, saved my theology and myself from becoming sterile and geeky. I always worked closely with the most vulnerable communities, and living and sharing with those women gave me the perspective I have. I found that being a feminist was - is - a good way to be a Christian and to fulfil God's will. Feminist theology is actually what theology must be.

Feminism is not about only women. Being feminist is something that connects all of us, me as man, also oppressed by the same patriarchal systems that undermine and kill women in the world. Feminism is about changing the system; it is a political movement.

I think the increased media interest in violence against women is because there is an acknowledgement this is no longer something happening to "others". Real people are suffering.

Also, the reality of violence against women cannot be invisible anymore. Society and Churches are aware of the importance of upholding life-giving values for Christians. Also, there are lots of networks working to overcome all kinds of violence.

My work involves lots of travel, workshops, and meeting different people. Here in Brazil with the Episcopal Church, I am very connected to SADD [the Anglican Service for Diaconia and Development]. Also, I have connections with Christian Aid.

I was also very involved during more than eight years to get the discussion, building, and implementing of the National Public Policy on Health for Forest and Rural people in Brazil.

Travel, and the possibility to meet new people and places, gives me most joy. But I must say that, for the past 12 years, I have been blessed to live in a large community composed of couples and singles in Brasilia. Two boys were born in our community, and it is for me a huge joy to be part of their education and growing up.

I really would like to learn two or three languages more, and have the opportunity to work in a francophone country. And have more connections with the Eastern part of the world. And keep my agenda filled with service to others.

I have Japanese and Italian blood in my family, but I like to say I am very, very Brazilian, mixed or "half blood". I was born in a huge metropolis, São Paulo. Today, more than 20 million people live there. From when I was seven, we started to move around, and I lived in nine different cities. When I turned ten, I got more brothers and one sister: my youngest siblings are triplets.

I consider myself very cosmopolitan. I can adapt quickly to places and people. Of course, I love my immediate family, and they are a very important part of my life. But, to be honest, I found the reality of extended family more important. I left my parents' home when I was 16 to live with colleagues. I like to live with others, and I can bear testimony that community is possible and it is a good way of living: sharing spaces, resources - including money, friendship, happiness, sadness. I like to be a parable of the Kingdom of God.

I wanted to be a dentist at first, but the first time I saw blood I was sick. Then I decided I would be an intellectual: I would use my skills and my privileged position as a white, geeky, middle-class man to serve as an agent of transformation, to stand with and among those who were suffering. I grew up surrounded by books. My home had a huge room with lots of books, and I read almost all of them. From the age of eight to 12 I was the person who read most books at the public library.

My most important choice was to become a theologian and Bible scholar. To my family, this was not a career; so I did not have their support. Another important choice was to become a Benedictine monk connected to an ecumenical monastery here in Brazil. I am no longer officially connected, because the community closed, but I still keep that as my way to live.

My favourite places are quiet ones. But if I have to pick up one to bein right now it would be Greece. Waterfalls are my favourite sound.

Favourite books: all of Tolkien's, and Isabel Allende, but especially Afrodite. The Song of Solomon 8.6-7. My least favourite part of the Bible is 1 Timothy 2.9-15.

I don't get angry often. I've learned to be in control. But I got angry during the general synod of my Church here in Brazil regarding stupid and uninformed comments on sexuality issues by some priests.

I'm happiest when I am with Gael, now eight years old. Gael lived with us for seven years. He was born and grew up in our community, and I could participate deeply in his education and care.

I pray for peace and reconciliation. I pray for strength and a good spirit to continue my own conversion process. And I pray to be faithful to my ideo-theology, and that my speech, action, and thoughts be coherent.

So many people have influenced my life. Two in particular: Elaine Neuenfeldt, a Lutheran feminist Bible scholar, a close friend who works now in Geneva; and Marcelo Barros, a well-known writer and theologian here, a good friend, and a Benedictine monk. I'd like to be locked in a church with them.

Professor Ueti was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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