My Interview with Leah Casimero
The first thing you notice about Leah Rose Casimero is her poise.
Everything at the Vatican is big, and overwhelming. It is even other worldly given her home in the Amazon. But she has the poise of someone who is used to walking with prelates and the Pope.
And it is clear, she knows herself and operates from a place of deep purpose. Given that she is the youngest person at the synod, her poise is all the more remarkable.
Leah is Wapichan and lives in Guyana. She coordinates a bilingual education program for Wapichan children. Although she admitted that she was very nervous when she gave her four minute intervention in the synod hall, she was crystal clear about what she wanted to say to Pope Francis, the bishops, and the auditors and experts about the educational systems have been “imposed” on her people “along with everything else”.
She laid claim to their common destiny noting it is "time to take our future into our own hands" through education that is rooted in culture, traditional language and in the experience of the people.
DRM: Tell me a little about your work.
LRC: My work in bilingual education is perhaps one of the main reasons I am here. This is a very new project, the first of its kind in Guyana.
Secondly, I am here because this is a dialogue about indigenous people and what can the church do to help. It is the Jesuits who brought the Catholic faith to our part of Guyana. They also opened the first schools until they were taken over by the government. So, they asked us to reflect on how far we have come as a church, as a people, and where we want to go.
In the past we have asked ourselves was why aren't there any vocations?
Why aren't our children doing well at school?
Why aren't more young people more interested in church and the many problems we face?
So we thought, maybe it's the way we're bringing up our children. Maybe its the way we educate. School is taught in English. And all this time we just accepted what the Ministry of Education was bringing, maybe with very good intentions. But it was just dumped on us so to speak.
And this education is fairly new to us and someone foreign. There is no accommodation for our culture. The children have to come from the community which is very far. They come from families that farm, hunt, and fish and that time is taken away when they are at school. Our more carefree life no longer fits in this system.
People send their children to school because it is the law and parents will be penalized if they don't go. But children are not doing well academically. And when they finish school and go back to the life in the village where they have been absent from the way of life, it feels like they have lost both worlds.
So, we are not experts or educationalists, but we knew this is not working for our children and maybe we could help by creating materials rooted in our culture and language. Starting from scratch, we are trusting our instincts.
The first thing we did was to gather stories.
We also decided that we needed to include our own calendar which reflects our life. For instance, we wouldn't use phrases like summer, fall and so on. What we have is the rainy season, dry season, time to plant corn, time to harvest, etc. These are the themes that guide our school year.
Then we created two groups. The core team and a resource team. Theresource team includes people who are well versed in the language so they can help us to capture the traditional knowledge and stories. We also have children's storytellers. We all come together with a technical expert who can help us pull it all together.
From January to April we have a series of workshops where people from different villages come together. We stay together for a week capturing stories and other cultural knowledge to pass on.
When they leave, that's when my work begins. We organize it and type it up.
Church perhaps used to feel like that too. They were brought in so we had to try to adapt. However, that has changed. We have translated the new Testament into our language and our songs and prayers are in our language. And we have our church leaders who lead the Sunday services. So church feels more like home, more owned by us now. We are doing a lot in theabsence of priests.
DRM: How are women functioning in the church settings in the communities? Who is ministering, baptizing, leading the services, etc.? And what do you want to see come out of the synod in terms of the Church?
LRC: Well, women, already are leading the church. I'm hearing this over and over again. It's really true. Right now we have four extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion commissioned by the priests and they are all women. They distribute communion during communion service when the priest is not there and even when a priest is there, they assist, give communion to the sick and so on.
We women are already working in the church. They lead. So why not help us to become better, help us to grow. We need more formation.
And women comprise the church. Even in our youth group, most are females. You could literally count the number of males on one hand.
Women have a high level of commitment. They have been doing this for 40 years. So why not make it official? Why not give us the extra push we need?
And who knows, maybe we would have more vocations from our youth and our young women.
DRM: Ordination to the diaconate is being talked about at the synod. What that be of benefit to women ministers in your judgement?
LRC: When a priest comes, it's a big deal for for people in the other communities who get to see him only once in three months or in one particular area once a year or twice a year.
So, people look up to their church leaders. And since in my part of Guyana, we are a majority of Catholics, the Church announces all the community activities such as village meetings, etc. So the Catholic church has a lot of influence.
I think we should go one step at a time. So I think we should start with women deacons. And then people could look up to that example and move from there because one of the questions they ask is, "why don't you have vocations?"
So if we need help in terms of formation and so on. How can we have vocations when people don't know what it means to be a deacon, a priest, or a sister? How am I supposed to want to be like you when I don't know what your life is?
DRM: What has been your experience at the Synod?
LRC: I think it's one thing that as indigenous people we speak up, which we do, but it's another thing to be listened to, to actually be listened to, not just by thechurch, but by NGOs and governments. At they synod we want for people to speak up and for that to be captured in the document.
That entire process has been quite the journey for me because many times before, typically the priest speaking or church leaders speak.
But this is different. Everybody could say what they needed to say because thePope wants to hear what we have to say. And this is the chance that we have to talk.
And in my area, we don't have hurricanes, or people being killed for land rights. But we do have mining and logging companies in certain parts of Guyana. And we definitely have drug abuse, violence against women, and teenage pregnancy.
We have so many problems. But what are we going to do about it? Who's going to make it better? We need to start and of course we need the support ofother people.
So in this Synod, I think it is lovely that we have representatives from all theAmazon regions and we have indigenous people present and given the same allotted time as the bishops and cardinals. It's not just like a tolerance, but more of a recognition, which I think is huge.
I have been surprised as well about how well the cardinals and bishops listen in my small group. I have five cardinals in my group and I have never been around cardinals before. So I spend a lot of time listening.
Our Common Home
I think this is all about in interconnectedness, the connection between nature and humans. In our villages unfortunately, I think we have been moving a little bit into this individualistic thinking. But how can we become more interconnected because what you do will affect me? And we we live in one community. We live in our own little worlds and how can we help one another? Through the church we are trying to connect and bring children up with better values so we can support one another.
DRM: Finally, what do you want out of this Synod?
LRC: It's wide. I mean it's huge.
We must do something about the violence that is happening to our people, especially indigenous people in the Amazon. And when I say people, I mean children, women, and older people, because they're being affected the most.
And we must do something about the destruction of our natural world.
I think those, those main things. But how we do is something we have to work on.
We want to live the good life. That means something different that in first world countries. We want to have our land and be happy. In discussions some say, "I want to be able to at the end of the day come home and lay in my hammock with peace and quiet all around me. And I want fresh air, good food, and a way of life that is sustainable."
As we walked back to the synod hall together, I asked Leah how she felt being in the synod hall with Pope Francis. Her face lit up! "I just love him. He is so kind, and loving, and he really cares about our people and the land."
Yup. That's our pope.
To learn more about Leah, read Luke Hansen's interview and view the lovely video of the two discussing her experience as the youngest woman at the synod.
With Leah leading, the Amazon and the Church have a chance to not only survive, but thrive.