Who is Father Stanley Rother? Not a household name, except perhaps for the people in the state from which he hailed, and I knew nothing about him. My dear friend Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda, the incredibly talented and award-winning author and journalist, has done her part in rectifying our ignorance with her new book, The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run: Fr. Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma.
Given how many things are on my plate right now, it says a lot that once I picked up the book I did not put it down again until I finished it. No small part of that is simply that Maria is a gifted storyteller who paints vivid descriptions of the man and the people who he served.
A large part of what compelled me, however, was the man himself. Rother, once thought not smart enough to complete seminary studies to become a priest who seemed more at home tilling the fields or building retreat facilities than writing sermons, deserves to be remembered for his selfless commitment to his people, a commitment that led to his martyrdom.
Maria’s book takes us through Rother’s family background, his upbringing, his struggles in seminary and his early priesthood. But the most compelling part of Rother’s life begins in 1968, when he was appointed to Oklahoma’s Guatemala mission team. We learn from Maria about Rother’s growth in his life as a missionary. One commentator observed that Rother “didn’t go there to do anything. He went there to be there, with the people. And because he was there, other things happened…like the school, and the clinic, and farming the fields.” He was tireless in performance of his pastoral duties as well as developing cropland and other activities designed to better the lives of the poor in the area he served.
Alas, Guatemala during the time Rother was there began to look more and more like the El Salvador in which Oscar Romero ministered. (And much of what I read about Rother reminded me of Romero.) Violence and unheavel, massacres, disappearances, persecution of the church as well as the people. It was an increasingly dangerous situation, especially for those, like Rother, who raised their voices for social justice.
In early 1981, Rother made the last of his visits to his family. At the time it was clear his life was in danger and most people believed he should not return to Guatemala. He himself knew that if he returned he would be deported or killed.
But stronger than any fear or concern for his own safety, Rother felt, “I need to be with my people. When warned not to return he said “My life is for my people. I am not scared.”
And so he did return, much to the joy (and surprise) of the people he served and served with. And he paid the ultimate price for doing so.
If you want to be inspired, if you want to look at the life of someone who truly deserves the label hero (as well as martyr), if you want an example of what it looks to give such a complete “yes” to God that you can accept whatever consequences flow from it, read Maria Scaperlana’s book about this man, Fr. Stanley Rother, “the shepherd who did not run.”
I would also encourage you to take a look at Maria’s blog, which you can find here.