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Enjoy highlights from our Faith & Moral Courage event series: read the speech by humanitarian activist Bruna Kadletz, delivered at St Ethelburga’s Bridging Divides, Loving Earth Conference. To watch the full speech and discover more content from Faith & Moral Courage event series, subscribe to our YouTube channel here.

Bruna Kadletz: It was a broken heart and a burning question of “how can I be of service?” that has taken me to the poorest communities in Brazil, indigenous territories and into the heart of refugee camps. 

In June 2023, the UN Agency for Refugees released its latest report Global Trends Forced Displacement in 2022. The report estimates that more than 110,000,000 people have been forcibly displaced worldwide because of persecution, wars and human rights violations. If we were to include the numbers of people being displaced because of climate breakdown, disasters and extreme weather events, the numbers would be much higher. Behind these numbers, of course, are people. We’re talking about broken dreams and their stories.

In honour of those who are displaced from their homelands, seeking protection and finding, in many places, hostility instead of hospitality and dignity, I would like to open my talk with a quote from the late Thích Nhất Hạnh. He said this in the aftermath of September 11, but I feel his words are a prayer for our times as well:

“We are aware that there is a tremendous amount of suffering going on. There is shock, there is fear, anger, hatred and sadness, in ourselves and in the world. In this moment we invoke all our spiritual teachers to be with us, helping to embrace our suffering, to embrace the world, and to embrace humanity as a family. There are those of us trying to save, heal and support, and we are grateful to them. There are those of us who are crying, who are suffering terribly at this very moment. Let us breathe for all of them and embrace them tenderly with our compassion, our understanding, and our peace. We know that responding to hatred and violence with compassion is the only path for all of us.”

This prayer invites us to listen and embrace the Earth, humanity and especially the poor, on whom the burden of climate breakdown, armed conflict and wars fall heavily. I invite you to inwardly ask the question of whether a spiritual humanitarian response can help us navigate the crisis of our times. Please be aware of the subtlety of the response. Sometimes it’s in the silence that we can have some kind of inspiration or some kind of strength to help us move forward.

My interest in the relationship between climate change, ecological degradation, development projects and forced displacement led me to a career change, to a master’s degree in Edinburgh, and then to field research in South Africa. Before that, I was a dentist working in Brazil for five years. At one point, I moved up north to one of the poorest regions in the country located in the Amazon region. That area is disputed and marked by deforestation, illegal mining, appropriation of indigenous land and social inequality. I witnessed human suffering for the first time there and that is where my heart was broken. Back then, I was only 25 years old and I didn’t know what to do with my experiences. I didn’t know how to be in that place, how to hold my broken heart, how to relate to those feelings of despair and sadness. Now, 14 years later, I understand why I didn’t have the maturity to sit with those emotions, because nobody had taught me how. There’s a kind of power when we ground ourselves and learn how to relate to this pain. Out of this pain comes also our love for the Earth and humanity.

Today, I direct an NGO, whose title when translated from Portuguese means “circles of hospitality”. Our work aims to regenerate a culture of peace and hospitality in times of xenophobia and this growing anti-refugee or anti-migrant sentiment. Over the past few years, we have worked with more than 88,000 people from more than 45 nationalities. Since I started working in the humanitarian sector, there’s an idea that has stayed in my mind. The idea that mass displacement is a reflection of inner displacement. We are, as a community, separated from our sacred nature. We don’t recognise ourselves as sacred beings and we’re displaced from our inner place. Thus in my work I have been conscious of creating space, despite the noise in our society, to connect with a deeper place within us, to nurture this relationship and to feel nurtured by it. For me, it seems like a way forward.

At the root of the polycrisis lies an ethical and spiritual crisis that must be recognised and addressed from a place of oneness deep within us. When we connect with this sacred place, action comes to heal what is broken. Individually and collectively, we know that chaos and crisis can also teach us or can be gateways to transition and transformation. In the darkness and turmoil, it is always important to root oneself in the place where this grief meets the love for the Earth. 

What scares me is, despite the scale of the human suffering and humanitarian need, is the global narrative in which refugees and vulnerable migrants are portrayed and treated as a threat to national security, cultural heritage and the social order. But if we open ourselves to recognise the human being behind the headlines, if we open ourselves to recognise that they’re potential friends, that they can contribute to the development of our societies, then we can create programs to integrate these people into our societies. An ethical and spiritual response to the crisis is to open our hearts instead of contracting it into fear.

As some of you may know, Brazil was severely impacted by the pandemic. The lack of leadership and political response worsened the socioeconomic and health crisis, which triggered a lot of suffering and put the country back on the UN hunger map. Marginalised populations such as indigenous people, the black community and refugees were the most impacted by the crisis. In mid-March 2020, I started to receive an overwhelming number of desperate messages from refugee families who were supported by the organisation I run.

During that period, our projects focus on legal advice, on integration programs and Portuguese classes, multicultural gatherings, but not on donations. But then the refugees started to send me photos of their empty fridge saying they had lost their jobs and they didn’t have any savings which meant that they didn’t have anything to eat. I knew that the need of the moment had shifted so I had to be attentive. I remember this one night that I spent crying because I had a list with about 100 families on it and I only had 50 food packets to deliver to them. I had to choose from a worksheet, those who would receive food on the following day and those who wouldn’t. Again the question emerged, what can I do? How can I respond? I asked God to guide me because I had no idea how we were going to face that crisis.

Even though we had limited resources, the call to respond or the call to delve deep into the cracks of people’s suffering spoke louder. So I wrote a proposal, applied for an emergency fund and we received enough funding to feed people for a couple of years and to donate food and personal hygienic kit items and money for the families so they could pay for their rent and expenses. But because of the sanitary measures, public transportation was suspended so they couldn’t come to us, we had to go to them. We had to map the region, organise a team of volunteers who would be willing to drive to people’s place to deliver food and visit their homes. We always carried more food packages when we were driving to those places to give to Brazilians as well as ways to prevent conflict and tension in the communities because we were aware of that narrative.

I was responsible for an impoverished area with one of the lowest human development indexes in my home state. After a few months of work that seemed endless, I was exhausted and on the edge of a breakdown. But I didn’t have time to feel that because there was so much happening and so many people who relied on me. I couldn’t feel the exhaustion. I couldn’t allow myself to breathe and have the space.

I remember the day that I paused, in mid-spring 2020. A tropical storm hit our region. It hit during a food delivery day. The rain and wind started when I was in the market buying more food packages. I went back to my car and thought I could first deliver for a few families. On the highway back I was driving more attentively than I ever have, because I knew that a moment of distraction could cause an accident. While I was driving, on one side of the sky it was really dark and heavy with rain, but on the other side was sunlight and bright clouds. This came as an ‘aha!’ moment. In that moment, the sky revealed a deeper layer of the work that needs to be done. There is an invitation to witness and feel the pain but also an invitation to build bridges.

Circles of Hospitality is a small organisation, yet it carries the seeds of a different way of relating to the world and to one another. We value self care and community care and we try to infuse love and dedication in everything that we do. We create spaces in which people from different cultures and religions meet and interact as ways to promote social cohesion and peaceful existence. We are just one step, one small deed, one drop in the vast ocean. This is my invitation for each one of you to just create inner space, to ask yourself what you can do and hold on to this small deed.

Why faith and moral courage? 

This content is a segment of an extensive event series exploring what faith and moral courage look like in an age of polycrisis. Where does extraordinary courage come from? What can we learn from people who’ve risked everything to live up to their values? What forms of courage are especially needed in our age of unravelling, uncertainty and risk? How can we inspire ourselves and each other to grow our capacity to brave our limits? Are there insights from the world’s spiritual and faith traditions that can help us grow our courage?

Chen has a background in art history and the creative industries. She supports the Faith and Moral Courage project, Contemplative Practice event series, and various creative endeavours at St Ethelburga's. Along with her regular meditation practice, Chen enjoys exploring different contemplative practices and experiences. When she is not on her yoga mat, she can usually be found in the kitchen, experimenting with culinary art and completely immersed in the mesmerising sound of Sanskrit.