Coming of Age
Lorna Gold visits Brazil
on the occasion of the
twentieth anniversary of the
Economy of Communion.
Returning to Sao Paulo, it is impossible not to be struck by the dramatic change which has taken place in this country. As the airport bus makes its way along the congested highways, it is clear that much has changed in this megalopolis, still one of the world’s largest cities.
On previous visits, the road was choked with old trucks and Volkswagen beetles belching out black soot. Now it bustles with shiny new vans and cars. Back then, only seven short years ago, the side of the road was lined with ramshackle shanties for miles on end; now, there are smart apartment blocks as far as the eye can see. Brazil is on the move and brimming with a sense of youthful optimism.
Microcosm of humanity
This sense of optimism grows as the bus makes its way slowly towards Mariapolis Ginetta, on the outskirts of the city, where delegates are gathering for the highly anticipated twentieth anniversary celebrations of the Economy of Communion (EOC). Twenty years ago to the day, Chiara Lubich launched an innovative idea geared at resolving the massive inequalities which existed – and still exist - in Brazil. Her idea was to promote new businesses which would create jobs and generate capital. The profits from those businesses would be shared in common. Since its start, around seven hundred businesses have responded to this challenge, a hundred of which are in Brazil.
As I descend from the bus with my Irish friends who have also made this trip, we are greeted with big Brazilian bear hugs. It is more like a large family reunion than an international business conference! In all, around six hundred and fifty people from forty seven countries have gathered to mark this important anniversary. As I enter the hall – that famous hall where it all began – I get a glimpse of this microcosm of humanity. All colours and races are represented, with a good showing from Africa. There are high-flying business types in suits, stay-at-home mums, prominent academics, religious sisters, and many students. In fact, the presence of young people is quite striking. It occurs to me that each of these people has a story which brought them here and is a protagonist for a new economy – the title of the event.
Go and see
This visit to Brazil, in fact, is more of a pilgrimage than an ‘assembly’. The tone is set with a powerful talk by Luigino Bruni. He stresses the importance of being here in Brazil and returning to the place where it all began back in 1991. He underlines the fact that the EOC does not represent a technical fix for today’s economic problems – but rather a vocation, a radical calling to live the Gospel, also in the economy. His words make me recall the start of my own story with the EOC back at college in 1995. I felt called to be a protagonist of this new kind of economy and to do research on it. Unsure of how to proceed, I wrote to Chiara Lubich to ask her advice. Her response was immediate: ‘Go and See’. In other words, go to Brazil and see how they live. Since then, I have kept coming back.
That evening we watch a deeply moving slideshow of EOC pioneers who have fulfilled their vocation over these twenty years. They are now like guardian angels, real patrons of the project from heaven. Amongst these, is Francois Neveux, a French inventor who donated his technology and helped start a business in Brazil. There is Siobhan Coyle, a personal friend from Glasgow, who believed passionately in the EOC and died at twenty two whilst working for an EOC company in the Philippines. Their stories capture the essence of the EOC – about people who dare to believe in a different kind of economy based on Gospel values and are prepared to throw themselves heart and soul into building that, whatever the cost.
The next day, we continue our economic pilgrimage to the nearby EOC business park, named ‘Spartaco’ after another EOC guardian angel. We hear that business parks are now a cornerstone of the EOC, with six currently operational across the world and many others being planned. We visit the businesses currently based at the park. Many of these are by now well established companies, which have gone from strength to strength over the past decade. There is Rotogin, the plastics company set up by Francois. There is EcoAr, a factory producing ecological cleaning products. The last time I visited here it was just getting started and had limited outlets. Now, it has a wide range of products made to the highest environmental standards which are sold in major supermarket chains across Brazil. It is a real success story. It also provides employment for around thirty four local people.
A big ideal
I am particularly struck by the newest business to make its home here. It is a rising star in the EOC: Della Strada (from the street) and is really opening up new directions. Della Strada started just a few years ago as an initiative in Recife to take teenagers off the streets. ‘Street children’ are still a major problem in Brazil’s cities, despite the rapid development, and the Focolare has been working tirelessly to give these children a better future. Joao Bosco Lima de Santana had the idea to involve these teenagers directly in the EOC. He offered them professional training in sewing. Trusting in ‘providence’ and using whatever was donated, they started to make handbags and other items. The result: a new EOC business which makes the most fabulous recycled, ethical handbags (which would not look out of place on Oxford Street!) and at the same time, gives many disadvantaged young people a bright future. This optimism is written all over the faces of the young people we meet that afternoon. This story reflects some of the new thinking around how EOC businesses can alleviate poverty – a theme which is discussed throughout the week.
As I walk round the business park, I am also aware that one business I knew well is no longer there: La Tunica. This clothes manufacturer was one of the very first EOC businesses. I find the former owner, Maria do Carmo, and ask her what happened. She tells me that La Tunica just couldn’t survive when cheap imports flooded the market from the Far East. Faced with mounting debts, they had no choice but to close quite rapidly. Her story of having risked all, and also lost, is not unique. Those painful stories are also a precious part and parcel of this twentieth anniversary. Over the years, the project has matured and come to realise it is not a ‘magic bullet’, but subject to the same rough and tumble faced by other small businesses. The strength of spirit and belief in a big ideal, however, gives these businesses resilience and the ability to pick themselves up. ‘La Tunica will be back soon!’ she assures me with a big smile.
The week in Brazil passes all too quickly. As well as the many talks and experiences, the assembly makes an important start on some key pieces of work for the development of the EOC. There are working sessions on new business guidelines for EOC companies; there are sessions considering how the profits are used to help people living in poverty; there are academic seminars looking at priorities for research into the EOC. There are also groups looking at web development and how to build a stronger global business network. edc-online.org There is a buzz of activity. There are also many opportunities to meet with our local groups and discuss our plans. With the Irish group, we recommit ourselves to being pioneers of the EOC. On leaving Brazil my heart is full. I have the impression that since my last visit, the EOC has matured and become much stronger. I see a very bright future for this fascinating, revolutionary economic project. It is an idea which, twenty years from its start, seems now to be coming of age.