Introducing Hélder Câmara

Hélder Câmara was an unlikely folk hero.

Standing at just under five feet tall and weighing about 90 pounds soaking wet, he was a tiny little guffer – entirely unimposing.

But more so than his physical stature, what really made him an unlikely folk hero was the fact that he began his ministry as a young priest in Brazil participating in the Integralist Party, a far-right, fascist political organization

As a member of that organization, Father Camara spearheaded a campaign to eradicate the shanty-towns located on the hills around Rio de Janeiro and forcibly relocate their residents to new housing in the city.

Had Woody Guthrie wrote a song about Hélder Câmara’s early years in ministry, hands down Câmara would have been the villain! Here he is pictured speaking at a meeting of the fascist Integralist Party. 

Campaign Against the Poor

Father Câmara’s campaign did not go quite as planned.

Yes, the Integralists managed to bulldoze down those shacks and shanties and move their inhabitants into the city. But once there, the folks they uprooted were reeling from the forced relocation and without jobs to support themselves.

Backed into this Câmara-made corner, they did what they had to in order to survive. Namely, some pulled the electric and water fixtures out of their new abodes and sold them. Others moved their families out onto the streets and sublet their apartments so that they could have money to buy food.

Suffice it is to say Father Câmara’s campaign was an abject failure.

One of of the Brazilian shanty towns that a young Câmara would have wanted to bulldoze

Transformation into a Man of the People

What this campaign DID succeed in doing was bringing Father Câmara face-to-face with the poorest of Brazil’s poor for the very first time. And he was forever changed by it. Out of this experience he ended up leaving the Integralist Party and began to talk in his sermons about “unjust structures of poverty” and how the Church needed to work not just for the people but with the people.

This is the perspective he took with him when he was appointed archbishop of Olinda and Recife, a particularly impoverished area of the country.

Eschewing all the usual trappings of that office – a literal palace to live in, bright colored robes to wear, all manner gold jewelry with which to bling himself out in – he chose instead to live a life of radical solidarity with the poor. He took up up residence in a small house behind a church, wore only a brown cassock and a wooden cross around his neck, and ate his meals at a bar on the corner surrounded by constructions workers and alcoholics.

As it so happens, the same year that Câmara was appointed archbishop, a fascist military dictatorship took over the Brazilian government. Câmara observed that under their rule the poor were suffering even more than before.

In response, he instituted all sorts of social programs to help meet the basic material and spiritual needs of the masses living in poverty in his archdiocese. He initiated feeding programs and various housing projects. He established a permanent campaign of charity for the needy. He even advocated for industry to move into that area of the country to create jobs with which people could support their families.

At the same time as he worked to alleviate the suffering of the poor, Câmara also became an outspoken critic of the regime. In weekly radio broadcasts, he would speak in favor of governmental reform.

While he started his ministry as the enemy of the poor, Hélder Câmara was later dubbed the “bishop of the slums” for all the work he did on their behalf 

Assassination Attempt

While this ministry engendered a great deal of love among the common people, among those in power it engendered a great deal of hate.

At first, Father Camara was simply blacklisted. He was labeled a communist by the regime and censors forbade the media from interviewing or quoting him. Every Sunday in the pulpit though, he persisted in agitating for reform. His sermons were described by those who heard them as “lyrical cries for social justice.”

Then one day Câmara opened the door of his little house to find a man standing there – a hired killer with his gun drawn. “I have come to assassinate you, Dom Hélder,” he announced matter-of factly (FYI: Dom is a Portuguese honorific).

With all the equanimity of Gandhi, Câmara responded, “Then you will send me straight to the Lord.”

Astounded by this reply, the assassin – himself from the impoverished classes – lowered his gun and let loose his tears. “I can’t kill you,” he sobbed, “You belong to God.”

Hélder Câmara proved unflappable even at gunpoint. 

Hated for All the Right Reasons

It’s not often we get the opportunity to say this but: that assassin was RIGHT! Hélder Câmara belonged to God. He was a true follower of Jesus.

In Chapter 10 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples that everyone who persists in following him by carrying on his ministry of mercy and compassion will find themselves hated by the nations.

In a day and time when so many try portray themselves as martyrs rather than accept responsibility for their poor decisions and  bad behavior, Hélder Câmara shows us what it looks like to be hated for all right reasons. His ministry was a bold testament to God’s special care and concern for the poor and the powerless. And for it, he was hated just like Jesus had said his followers would be.

In his own famous (and often misattributed) words, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

The world would be a better place if more of us were hated for those same reasons!