Hélder Câmara was an unlikely folk hero. Standing barely five feet tall and weighing about ninety pounds soaking wet, he was a tiny person – entirely unimposing. But more so than his physical stature, what made him an unlikely folk hero was after he began his ministry as a young priest in Brazil as part of the far-right Integralist Party.

As an Integralist member, Father Câmara 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. But, 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. However, 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 do 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 to say, Father Câmara’s campaign was an abject failure.

This campaign succeeded in bringing Father Câmara face-to-face with the poorest of Brazil’s poor for the first time. And he was forever changed by it. Because of this experience, he left the Integralist Party and began to talk about “unjust policies of poverty” and how the Church needed to work not just for the people but also with the people. He took this perspective with him when he was appointed archbishop of Olinda and Recife, a particularly impoverished area of the country.

Discarding all the usual trappings of that office – a palace to live in, bright-colored robes to wear, and gold jewelry to enhance himself – he chose instead to live a life of solidarity with the poor. He took 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 construction workers and alcoholics. That same year Câmara was appointed archbishop, a fascist military dictator took over the Brazilian government. Câmara observed that the poor were suffering even more than before under their rule.

In response, he instituted social programs to help meet the primary 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. Furthermore, 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 this ministry engendered a great deal of love among the common people, it produced a great deal of hatred among those in power.

At first, Father Câmara was simply blacklisted. He was labeled a communist by the regime, and censors forbade the media from interviewing or quoting him. Yet, every Sunday in the pulpit, 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, he announced matter-of-factly. “I have come to assassinate you, Dom[1] Hélder.” With Mahatma Gandhi’s calmness, 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.”

It’s not often we get the opportunity to say this, but: that assassin was RIGHT! Hélder Câmara belonged to God. He was a faithful follower of Jesus who told us not to be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.[2]

In a day and time when so many portray themselves as victims 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 those struggling under poor economic conditions and powerless to bring changes. And for it, Câmara was hated, just like Jesus had said his followers would be. In his famous words, Hélder Câmara said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. But, when I ask why so many people are so poor, they call me a communist.” The world would be a better place if more of us were hated for those same reasons! 

[1] Dom in Portuguese is a title of honor

[2] Matthew 10:28

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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