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Sr. Melinda Roper: From Death Squads to the Web of Life

By Tracy L. Barnett
For Global Sisters Report

In February 2017, while researching the impact of hydroelectric dams on the rivers and rural communities of Panama, I happened across Melinda Roper, a Catholic sister who had played a part in history as the leader of the Maryknolls at the time the four American churchwomen were killed by US-sponsored Salvadoran death squads. Roper became an outspoken critic of US policy in Central America, helping turn the tide in that bloody war. I found Melinda three decades later in a Panamanian jungle, organizing an ecospiritual retreat and working to raise consciousness with an ecological community of women religious. Here’s her story.

From her mission deep in Panama’s rainforest, Sr. Melinda Roper embraces a human rights focus much broader than the one that thrust her into the international spotlight nearly four decades ago.

Roper was at the helm of the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic on Dec. 2, 1980, when four U.S. churchwomen — two of them Maryknoll sisters — were murdered in El Salvador. She was just 40 when elected two years earlier to lead the congregation, which had missions in Asia, Africa and the Americas and traced its history to 1912.

Under her leadership, the Maryknoll sisters fought for justice, for the churchwomen and for those they represented. At a time when Americans were mostly unaware of the U.S. role in training and financing right-wing death squads terrorizing much of Central America, the Maryknolls awakened the faith community in particular and the country in general.

The churchwomen became a symbol for a system that was repressing and killing tens of thousands of innocents, many simply for the profession of their faith. Their deaths helped inspire Central American solidarity groups throughout the U.S. and a sanctuary movement that gave shelter to refugees fleeing the violence.

Global Sisters Report sought out Roper in Panama, where she has spent the past 32 years building a pastoral community in the remote tropical wilderness of Darién province. Her human rights focus and spiritual growth have expanded to encompass the connection between environment and spirituality.

“I encourage all of us to try to understand more of what science is telling us today. … Science and spirituality are not contradictory but complementary; they’re the principles on which the universe functions,” she told GSR. “In all of nature and all of the universe, everything tends toward interconnecting and interrelating. Another word would be to be ‘in communion’ with everything.”

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