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With the Poor: Making Soup and Carrying the Cross

Ferrugem would vanish for months at a time, traveling around Brazil looking for work, trying to survive, but he always came back to Sao Paulo for Holy Week. It was his promise to carry the cross in the Good Friday procession in our ecumenical street ministry. Looking old and tired, Ferrugem with his red hair—the nickname in English means rusty—struggled in dignity along the way of the cross, from one station to the next within the huge city, ending up at the steps to the cathedral in the central square.

I have never seen such relevance for Good Friday as among the dispossessed of Brazil when I was a missionary there. The people feel that God is coming to us in the passion, is on our side, shares our suffering, and will rise again, and through Him we will also rise again. Three days of grief and, then, new life. In Holy Week, Ferrugem was renewed to face another year of uncertainty.

My experience in Brazil made real to me the petition of Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “Make us worthy, Lord, to serve those throughout the world who live and die in poverty or hunger.” Ferrugem and his homeless friends ministered with—alongside—the missionaries, priests, and nuns, who were also part of the street ministry. They showed me a reverence and humility that has deeply affected my sense of mission.

The sense of being together was nowhere more dramatic than in our soup-making every Wednesday. Everyone brought what he or she had or could find: leftovers from street markets, fish heads, wilting vegetables. Some brought salt or oil. We sat around together preparing the gifts, cooked the soup over an open fire, and ate it together in a large circle. Then we worshipped.

We were careful that the worship came after the food so that no one felt they were forced to listen to the Gospel and pray so they could eat. The people always stayed for the spiritual nurture that came after the soup.

Ferrugem and friends were part of the ministry’s advocacy for health care for the homeless, safe shelters to live, and job opportunities. They wrote the slogans on the signs we carried in demonstrations. One I liked most was: “Entre a vida e a morte, a vida e mais forte.” In English: “Between life and death, finally life is stronger.” They knew first-hand the fears and pains, frustrations and disappointments that go with poverty.

We must share the experiences and hopes of the poor to be in ministry with them. John Wesley knew this as he set about his ministry in England. He shared the meager existence of those on the margins. He encouraged early Methodist preachers to live among the poor; he insisted that Methodists of all economic stations interact with the unemployed, the imprisoned, and the destitute—to share their suffering in solidarity with Jesus.

Are Methodists today ready to take up our crosses, like Jesus, alongside the poor--in ministry with them?  Are we worthy to walk with Ferrugem along the way of the cross? Prepared to share with him the struggles of life?  Willing to make common soup with those who can bring only a fish head?

Yes, through the gift of God’s absolute, loving grace, we can be in ministry with the poor.

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Thomas Kemper

Thomas Kemper is General Secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries. Before joining Global Ministries, Thomas was Director of the governing boards of the Evangelischer Entwicklungsdienst (Protestant Development Service), the largest Protestant development agency in Europe, and Director of Brot für die Welt (Bread for the World). Thomas was a missionary in Brazil for eight years, working partly with an ecumenical street ministry in Säo Paulo.

About This Blog

Read and comment on a range of personal reflections and perspectives about poverty and Ministry with the Poor. Our goal is to attract diverse voices and points of view from United Methodists and friends, including people and communities living in conditions of poverty, other experts, religious leaders, community organizers, advocates, policy makers, volunteers, and all engaged in Ministry with the Poor.

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