North, meet South

The Rev. Dr. Cláudio Carvalhaes joins Leading Theologically while visiting his mother in São Paulo, Brazil

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

At right, the Rev. Dr. Cláudio Carvalhaes sits with his mother, Esther, at her home in São Paulo, Brazil. Carvalhaes was interviewed last week by the Presbyterian Foundation’s Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty, at left, during Leading Theologically. (Screenshot)

LOUISVILLE — People will come from north and south to view the Facebook Live event Leading Theologically, as last Thursday’s broadcast confirmed.

With his 90-year-old mother Esther at his side, the Rev. Dr. Cláudio Carvalhaes, a native of Brazil and associate professor of Worship at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, joined the show’s host, the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty of the Presbyterian Foundation, from São Paulo.

The main reason for their across-the-hemispheres conversation was to discuss Carvalhaes’ new book, “Praying with Every Heart: Orienting Our Lives to the Wholeness of the World.” But before they could do that, Carvalhaes first paid his respects to the woman at his side.

“I haven’t seen her since before the pandemic,” he told Hinson-Hasty. “I am blessed to be back and to give her a hug and to pray with her,” a practice she demonstrated at the end of the 30-minute program by praying in her native Portuguese.

It’s easy to see where Carvalhaes gets his concern for the care of God’s Creation. Click here to witness Esther singing to and caring for her plants.

“It’s a joy to be with you,” Carvalhaes told Hinson-Hasty, “and to be with my mother, who taught me to pray.”

Asked by Hinson-Hasty what’s making him come alive, Carvalhaes replied it’s “enormous gratitude for life and to be alive. Looking around and saying, ‘thank you,’ that keeps me alive. Also, to actually learn to breathe with other beings and give my breath to others to make sure others are breathing … Just to be alive is what keeps me alive.”

So much of God’s Creation “can’t breathe right now,” Hinson-Hasty said.

“COVID is a way of the Earth telling us, ‘I cannot breathe,’” Carvalhaes responded. “Our foot is on the neck of the Earth, and the poor are dying from COVID because they cannot breathe.” In Brazil alone, he said, 20 million people are going hungry.

What is prayer, Carvalhaes asked aloud, if it’s not breathing? “To be alive is to breathe, and to breathe is to pray,” he said. Mathematician and philosopher René Descartes once declared, “I think, therefore I am,” but Carvalhaes says that thinking is “too limited.”

“It is in the mind only,” he said. A better declaration would have been, “I dance, and therefore I am,” he said. “We pray with our whole body, with drums and not just the organ.” When we pray, “we are praying with a thousand other beings” alongside us, he said — not all of them human beings.

When he was a boy, Carvalhaes couldn’t go outside the house — even to go to school — without praying. If he was in a hurry, his mother would slow the prayer down a bit, he said. “She taught me I cannot go out into the world without praying,” Carvalhaes said. “My mother sold perfumes in the street” and cleaned homes and businesses, “and so I prayed there.” Prayer, he said, “gave me shape” to the various situations in which he found himself while growing up.

Hinson-Hasty wondered: What kind of prayers did his mother offer?

“She would pray for protection, for the blessings of the day,” Carvalhaes said. “She’d pray I would pay attention to people and be honest and present where I was, sending me with the Holy Spirit.”

Prayer “expands the waves of our attention,” Carvalhaes said. “You see that your prayer is not only what you can see but what goes on that you don’t pay attention to.” When he takes his daily walk, Carvalhaes has a habit of nodding at every tree he passes as “a way of loving and honoring them.”

Prayer is of course powerful. How powerful? “It has the power to expand ourselves to 1,000 times bigger than that discrete little doubt we have,” he said, pointing to his head.

With a foreword by the Rev. Dr. Daisy L. Machado, a professor of Church History at Union Seminary, and an afterword by Dr. Marc H. Ellis, a Jewish liberation theologian, “I feel like your book is your ears listening to the pain, to the joy, to the hope and to the promise of the past and present and the future,” Hinson-Hasty said, “not just Christian prayers — and not just human prayers.”

“I’m so glad you caught that,” Carvalhaes responded. “This book has liberation theology at the heart of it. It is my way of making sense of disasters, making sense of the absurd. How do I deal with that lump in my throat? I have to write it down to figure it out.”

People struggling to pray can simply start with the language of a really good prayer. A good place to start, Carvalhaes said, is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Hinson-Hasty noted that Ellis has called Carvalhaes “a late-style prophet.”

“You are calling us to solidarity,” Hinson-Hasty told Carvalhaes, “calling us to walk alongside those who are marginalized, particularly in public places. … And there you are with your mother, who brought you to the Presbyterian Church! Thanks be to God.”

When Hinson-Hasty asked Carvalhaes to pray or to give hearers a benediction, Carvalhaes deferred to his mother, who offered up a beautiful prayer in Portuguese. Asked for a bit of a translation or summary, Carvalhaes said, “the feeling in which she prays conveys the prayer. Whatever people perceive is the gift given.”

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