New World Outlook: September-October 1999 - Home Page Text Version

Bishop Federico Pagura: Champion of Human Rights - by Sharon Maeda
At the Unity '99 convention in Seattle in July, held for 6000 journalists of color in the United States, Bishop Federico Pagura of the Methodist Church of Argentina captivated cynical veterans and neophytes alike. He is a "walking piece of history," as one writer commented. Refer to caption for description of photo.

Bishop Federico Pagura speaks with Unity '99 journalists in Seattle. Photo by Sharon Maeda

This humble "retired" Methodist bishop has been at the forefront of human-rights struggles throughout his ministry. He has worked for peace and understanding among all peoples, particularly the indigenous peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean. In Argentina, he risked his life to support the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. At the time (1976-1983), the brutal military government that ousted Isabel Perón was carrying on what became known in Argentina as "the dirty war." Civilians were routinely rounded up and were never heard from again. No one dared to speak out against the government. But, slowly at first, a group of mothers began a silent vigil in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. Soon sisters and aunts and others joined in. Bishop Pagura took part in this silent act of defiance. The vigil became a haunting image on television screens around the world.

Now in his 70s, Bishop Pagura hasn't skipped a beat. Since he had flown all the way to Seattle from Rosario, Argentina, I was worried about his jet lag. So I wanted to let him sleep late on the morning of the human-rights panel on which he would speak. Instead, he said he had heard that Vice President Gore would address the convention. "I must see Al Gore," he insisted. "You know, when I asked President Clinton to lift the embargo against Cuba, he didn't answer me. He gave my letter to Al Gore. So I must see him." Even after I explained that security would be tight and that he probably wouldn't get near the Vice President, he was undaunted. "Yes, we must go now," he said.

At the human-rights panel, Bishop Pagura listened intently to the other speakers and took notes. Although we offered a translator for his presentation, he refused. "It will take up too much of my allotted time," he said. So he translated his speech from his native Spanish into English. Peppering his remarks with timely references to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he also quoted Chief Seattle [Seatlh] of the Suquamish tribe, the American Indian chief for whom Seattle, Washington, was named. In 1854, Chief Seattle had said to the US President Franklin Pierce: "We know something that the White man will discover some day: that our God is the same God....He is the God of all human beings....All things are connected like the blood that unites us all." After the panel, when I asked him how he knew about Chief Seattle, he said: "Oh, you can find everything on the Internet."

The convention had a huge exhibition hall where everything from cars to network news exhibits were on display. The bishop wanted to see everything. He was quick to pick up items that would be useful back home: pencils for children, solar calculators, baseball caps, and other giveaways. But nothing could match the gift he gave the journalists. It's to be hoped that they will remember his words as well as his humble smile, his deeds as well as their traditional news sources, and that they will be better journalists for having spent a moment with one of God's truly wonderful servants.

Elected in 1998 at Harare, Zimbabwe, as one of the 10 co-presidents of the World Council of Churches, Bishop Pagura will continue to carry the human-rights message on the world stage through 2004. Then he will find another venue from which to share God's word until all people have the right to speak for themselves.

Sharon Maeda is Associate General Secretary for Mission Communication at the General Board of Global Ministries.

Text and photographs copyright 1999 by New World Outlook: The Mission Magazine of The United Methodist Church. Used by Permission. Visit New World Outlook Online at

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