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Brazilian archbishop had unwavering commitment to the poor

9/2/1999 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

By United Methodist News Service

The first time the Rev. Dow Kirkpatrick, a United Methodist missionary, met Helder Camara, he immediately realized the Brazilian archbishop's unwavering commitment to the poor.

Popularly known as Dom Helder, the Roman Catholic cleric presided over northeastern Brazil, a poverty-stricken region where slaves originally had been brought from Africa. When Kirkpatrick visited him in the city of Recife, he found Dom Helder was not living in the colonial-style palace that traditionally had served as the archbishop's residence, but at a church in a poor neighborhood.

"He so identified himself with the struggles of the poor that he was not thought of by them as the archbishop but as the bishop of the poor," explained Kirkpatrick, a retired member of the Northern Illinois Conference now living in Atlanta.

Dom Helder died Aug. 27 in Recife at age 90. Burial was simple, as he requested, but Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso declared three days of national mourning for a man Kirkpatrick said was held "in almost a mystical regard."

As a leading advocate of what became known as liberation theology, Dom Helder's mission had an impact on both Catholics and Protestants. But it didn't always make him popular with the powers-that-be, fostering accusations of political subversion. According to his obituary in the New York Times, he once responded, "When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked, 'Why are they poor?' they called me a Communist."

Kirkpatrick and his wife Marjorie got to know Dom Helder during the 12 years, from 1975, that they served in Latin America as "reverse missionaries" for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. Instead of taking the Gospel to the people, the Kirkpatricks lived in various parts of Latin America to study the nature of spirituality among "the very poor of the earth."

Dom Helder, he said, was a leader in the Catholic Church's plans to apply the changes from the Second Vatican Council to the Latin American scene. "That released a tremendous force because it gave the laity the right to read the Bible for themselves," he added.

In 1968, the archbishop was among the Latin American bishops at a meeting in Medellin, Colombia, who crafted documents calling for the church to stand in solidarity with the poor. The Catholic liberation movement on the continent "had its impact on the leadership of Protestant churches in varying degrees," Kirkpatrick said.

In a press release from the World Council of Churches, Methodist Bishop Federico Pagura, a Methodist from Argentina, called Dom Helder "one of God's prophets and a pioneer in the social and ecumenical movement." Pagura, who first met the archbishop while welcoming him to the Methodist seminary in Costa Rica in the 1970s, is one of the WCC's eight presidents.

The archbishop also made a contribution to the musical world. With a Swiss composer, Pierre Kaelin, he wrote the lyrics to "The Symphony for Two Worlds." Kirkpatrick managed to get a copy of a recording of the symphony and played it one Easter for friends from the University of Wisconsin. Eventually, on April 24, 1983, the work was performed at the university with Kaelin directing the orchestra and Dom Helder providing narration. Kirkpatrick called it "one of the greatest nights of my life."

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