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Hoping Against All Hope

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

Dom Helder Camara in Toronto 1985. Photo credit Bill Wittman

The phrase "hoping against all hope" has been with me a lot lately, especially on the many days when I cannot see hopeful outcomes in the circumstances we find ourselves in.

We will find our way through to the other side of covid-19, but it is not clear when. We are approaching 500,000 deaths here in the US, with all of the suffering and losses associated, and no end in sight.

We are nearing the end of the Senate Impeachment Trial of Donald J. Trump, and it appears that the trial will confirm that the US Constitutional Republic, this "nation of laws" is broken, calling into question if it ever really existed. A majority of Senators in the Republican party seem determined to tie themselves to Donald Trump, in spite of his legal and constitutional criminality, validating what black, brown, and indigenous people have always known... this "nation of laws" does not apply to all.

These are todays big stories that grab our attention, but there are so many other quiet, invisible stories, of poverty, loneliness, isolation, and violence, that go unseen, for generations. There is the slow erosion of life on this planet, species becoming extinct, sea levels rising, ice caps melting, water sources contaminated.

Despair makes sense. It is understandable. It is just not helpful.

"Hoping Against All Hope" is the title of a book written in 1984 by Dom Helder Camara, the Archbishop of Olinda and Recife in northeast Brazil from 1964-1985. It was a time when Brazil was ruled by military dictatorship, when poverty was rampant among the people of his diocese. He was a leading voice in the liberation theology movement of the era, and the faith based "preferential option for the poor". He is famously remembered for his quote:

"When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist."

Dom Helder had transformed the Bishop's palace into a community place, a place for gathering and organizing for the poor who lived in the diocese. He was targeted as the "Red Bishop of Brazil". His life was threatened on more than one occasion. It was an era of profound political tension, violence, and economic disparity.

I had the opportunity to meet him in 1985, just after he had retired as leader of the Olinda and Recife Diocese. He had published "Hoping Against All Hope", a combination of poetry and prose in the year before.

He had endured the political volatility of Latin America, backed by the force of the military and economic superpower of the United States, and the increasing opposition to Latin America's liberation theologians within the Catholic church under the leadership Pope John Paul II.

What was most profound in the experience of meeting and being with him, was his joyous, light, presence. A man small in physical stature, at 5 ft 1 inch tall, he was a big soul. He carried himself lightly, but his experience enabled him to dip into a deep well of wisdom that was filled with strength and compassion.

Dom Helder Camara Toronto 1985. Credit Bill Wittman

“If you have hope: This will make you cheerful!” Paul to the Romans 12: 1–2. 9–18

Dom Helder's hope was not naive. He was fully aware of the structural forces that create and enable violence. Hope and non-violence were positions he chose to center himself in, choices he would make in the face of what would seem to be hopeless, energy he would tap for his commitment to be an ally, to live out his faith that professed a "preferential option for the poor", and speak out, confronting those who would oppress and maintain their poverty. His hope and cheerfulness would be disarming.

Hope, would remain as a source for him to organize and rally people together. It was his hope that fueled his capacity to dream, and invite others into dreaming. Words from Dom Helder have inspired an organizing principle at the center of my thinking and practice since that time.

"When we are dreaming alone it is only a dream. When we are dreaming with others, it is the beginning of reality.“

It is easy to view situations as hopeless, (and believe me I have... often). But as disabled activists remind me that they are not dead yet, neither am I. Now is not the time to act as if I am done.

Dom Helder's model of hope provides a way of being that can sustain the process of creative change. The echo in my mind of the phrase "hoping against all hope", reminded me of Dom Helder's powerful presence, his capacity to see the big picture, and his playful wisdom to know that how we show up matters, our position matters, our attitudes matter.

In the heavy hours when solutions do not come, go spin a top: it counterfeits a game, it is a prayer: the discovery that not so very different is the merry-go-round of life and we know not when it will run down and stop. Often a confident and childlike attitude— mixture of play and prayer— brings God’s enlightenment. “Dom Hélder Câmara: The Violence of a Peacemaker” (Orbis Books, 1970)

Hoping against all hope makes it possible to find the energy required to move forward, to lift one foot in front of the other, as we walk alongside each other on life's journey to wholeness and justice.

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