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Spiritually, Everybody’s Hungry

Claudio Carvalhaes has sat at tables with people around the world, listening to their communal expressions of joy, lament, and doubt in worship.  From these experiences he shares ways to lead worship in solidarity with communities experiencing suffering. Claudio is the author of “Liturgies from Below” and he has a PhD. in Liturgy and Theology.

The following is a transcript of Season 5 Episode 5 of the Do Justice podcast.  It has been lightly edited for clarity.  Listen and subscribe on your favourite listening app.  

Chris: Well, hello, friends, and welcome back to another episode of Do Justice.

Chris Orme here with you again. And okay, full disclosure—I have to say this. I think I say this a lot in some of our episodes, but I am a total fanboy of our guest today. I'm excited to have the conversation. 

And if you've been traveling with us for this season, you know that our arc is to talk about that nexus point of worship and justice. How does worship inform our praxis as a community of faith? And we've explored that in a lot of different ways.

And so today, man, I was so stoked to have our guest, Dr. Claudio Carvalhaes He is an earth thinker. He is a theologian, he is a liturgist, he is a professor. He is a performer, he is an activist, he is a pastor. Dr. Carvalhaes has a PhD. in liturgy and theology. He's taught at a number of seminaries across North America, including Union Theological Seminary in New York, New York is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church. He's father to Libi, Cici, and Ike and Amore, the pup and partner of Katie. Dr. Claudio Carvalhaes, thank you for being with us today. 

Claudio: What a joy! This is so good, so good to be with you. And I follow what you're doing, and I think you are giving us such richness with these interviews. And so I'm deeply honored to be here. So thank you. 

Chris: wow. Thank you so much for taking the time. So we've set this up as a conversation. about worship, liturgy and sort of how that connects to the justice work that we do as a community of faith. Really, I think I use the word praxis in my in my preamble there. But before I get into that,before we get into meat, let's have a little bit of an appetizer.

Let's talk about—you've sat at a lot of tables. And you have shared food and stories with a lot of communities. Just for our listeners—and maybe this is an opportunity to reveal a little more about who you are—but what's a meal that stands out to you?

Claudio: ooooh, I already love this question, the creativity that it brings, because it already ties worship with meal and being together, and being with. You're already setting up for—this is a question also of the unfolding of justice as well. 

But anyways one of the—there's so many, oh! But I think I would say it was this meal I had at a restaurant at the border in Mexico in the Sonoran Desert. I was there learning Spanish, and I was doing some work at this restaurant. And then there's a kid that came to me and wanted to sell me some candies. And then we started a conversation. And then I bought the box of candies, and I say, “you can keep the box.” And so she ran away, happy. And then 5 minutes later, she comes with two others. And then they come, and they offer me the candies. And so I knew that I had to do the same thing. So I did the same thing, and they ran away, and then they came with like—it was about  kids. And one of them wanted to shine my shoes. And that was something very close to my heart, because I was a shoe shining boy. And so I asked them, “have you eaten?” And they had not eaten. And so then we ordered food for all of them. 

But then they had to go out and say “just a minute.” Then they came with three others who were also hungry. And so we had this fantastic meal together with these kids I had never seen in my life. And then all of them didn't eat all of their plate because they were saving it and wrapping it up with their own napkins. And I ask one of them, why are you doing this?” 

“Oh, this for my mom. Well, this is for my brother, this is for my sister.” And that meal was… And then we spent two days together. And we went, and none of them had shoes.

And so from that meal we went to get shoes. And I remember the store. The people didn't want them to go in. I said “No, they are with me.” And so that that meal—it was, It was more than  a meal. It was a symbol of something else. It was a reminder for me to always remember in my life who are with me and who are not with me. And they still fill my heart. Just to tell you now my heart goes into this fullness of joy for these kids and concerns with them as well. So this is a very precious meal that I remember and I carry deeply in my heart.

Chris: What a beautiful image. Yeah, it's such a powerful image. And I was just gonna say you seem full, telling that story, you know. Like we're on Zoom. We're on video. We're looking at each other and I'm like you seem full.

Claudio, I want to pick up on something that you pointed to in that story, and sharing that with us. Because communities of faith, Christian communities of faith for two millennia have been actually shaped around a table. And in that story, you point to it. But what happens when we sit at a table, with people who are different from us, or people who are like us, or just when we sit at a table with them? What happens in that moment? 

Claudio: Huh! Your question is again so rich, because it already asks for the theological, the ritual, the biblical understanding, the ethical, the pastoral understandings of that, right? Your questions already— it's the question of the fullness of our faith. And then that has to do with what we have learned.

See, rituals are ways of helping us to pay attention. And when we do worship, what are we paying attention to? So in one of the articles I’ve written elsewhere, I use Augustine: “what do I love when I love my God?”

In other words, I think your question, Chris is: “what do I love when I love my God when I'm eating this meal?” And then, you know, we are shaped by theologies. So are we looking inward? Are we looking outward? What does it make me pay attention to? And it's all about God, and the Trinity and Jesus, and all of that. But what does this remembering of God's love—which is thanksgiving. It’s a thanksgiving that has to come along with story, not only a story of salvation that we have in our liturgies, but I think it should come with the story of colonization also along with it. Yeah. It should come with the morning and the celebration, the ones we have lost and the gratitude. So it is this place of a multitude of feelings that I have to go through. So when we are there at that table, it's not only about the table. The table is just the arrival of a journey much longer, that starts with our ancestors, with the cloud of witnesses, and continues with those around us, and with those who we are not inviting.

So every table has to ask this question, “who's not here yet and why?” And so it's also about—when we are at that place—it's about our connection to the earth. Because you know, those gifts are from the earth. It's from the soil. It’s from the seeds. It's from the undocumented people who have harvested those seeds, the wheat that we called the the most sacred aspect of our of our faith.

So in that way that sacred place—the ground and the table—it's already tainted by injustice.

And so how do we deal with it? Do we name that? Or do we just take it as a spiritual thing, as if detached from the earth, from the toils and snares that go along with the production of the very elements that now we are raising? 

And who's at that table? I wish it would be all of the hungry people. Yeah, spiritually, bodily, emotionally: everybody who's hungry. There's this Sri Lankan Catholic theologian who says that “I don't understand why people go hungry when there is a eucharist being celebrated  in the church.” And so the table is that place. It should be a full meal, because it's—we say it’s the feast of God and then we have this tiny thing that we can barely feel in our mouth. 

But at the Feast of God—I understand. I get that it is the symbol of it, but I wish it was a full meal where everybody could eat together and create that space, and then open up. There is a space in between us when we listen to each other. When we say something, and I can pay attention to you, Chris. And perhaps if you're next to me, even hear your heartbeat, and then you're gonna be much more precious to me because of that time together. So there's so many things that I engage in there.

Chris: Wow! yeah, like again, the imagery, it's very compelling. And it leads us to a space of imagination. And one of the things we've really talked about over this season is like—so we're operating under a particular conviction here. We’ve come to the table with something that we think. This is how we're operating here at the podcast. One of the things that we talked about was that we acknowledge the act of worship—and that means a lot of things to a lot of people, but we'll paint with broad strokes right now—that worship shapes our imagination. And it broadens our understanding of who God is, and it broadens our understanding of the world that God loves.So the question that we are wrestling with—and we wanna hear from you on—is how, then, can we shape corporate worship, or our liturgy, so that it orients our hearts toward justice? That's a huge question. 

Claudio: But you see, I wish we would learn a class “Intro to Worship” with that statement, Chris. Imagination. Let's start with imagination, because imagination is not a threat to traditions.

It shouldn't be. But it is a way of you know…If it starts with God—liturgy starts with God, then in the end, God is the wonder of everything. And there's no other way to start if not with wondering. And in awe. And with the sense of “I don't know what to do. It's too much. This wonder. This awe. We have to figure out together, because it's too much.” 

If we arrive in awe and leave in awe, I think our worship was full. But we do that if we are free. But we are so afraid of losing our identity that we have to almost hold our breath to do exactly the way we learn. And there's beauty there and I'm not saying that we have to go away from that. No. But there is something about the pause, the wonder, the ungraspable, the unspeakable, that goes along with the singing, with the hearing, touching. 

I think if you are just starting with the imagination, Chris, you would have to start with the fullness of our senses, our full bodies. You know, what we touch, what we smell, what we hear, what we, what we see. And then it depends with whom you are, and with what you are, that calls the attention of your senses for this imagination.

But I always wish that we would be free to wonder and wonder together.

Chris: Wow! So, I want to mention: the book Liturgies from Below: Praying with People at the Ends of the World has become my go-to. When I don't know what to pray, I go there, and I'd urge our listeners to check it out. I mean you will be challenged, you will be agitated. And I've always said, you know, “good theology will agitate the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”

But the idea of liturgy being the work of the people—who are the people, Claudio? 

Claudio: There you go. Your questions are never easy, because you do it at the heart of it.  Every one of them. You are going deeper into the heart of it all, I mean, of our faith.  So when we talk about the people I think there are—oh, there are layers to it! There are layers. There's the people who are called to lead the people and those, you know, those who go to seminary and carry knowledge and tradition.

But there's another knowledge—that is the knowledge of the street that we don't allow. There's the knowledge of the daily life. There is the knowledge of the simple things. There is the knowledge that is the movement of values and understanding that goes along in the lives of the people. That's why I love this book by Leonardo Boff Sacraments of Life and the Life of the Sacraments, in which, like he takes like a mug. And he says, a mug is a sacramental element, because it's part of us. And I remember doing worship with my community when I was a pastor in Brazil; I asked them to bring their cup for them from their breakfast. And then we would serve the the wine or the juice at that place in that mug every Sunday. And then in the morning when you are by yourself having your coffee, there he is. The echoing and the traces and the vestiges of “Remember me when you take this cup.” And that becomes the life of the people.

And so there is a way in which the “we” is the people who have been called to do this. But there are the people who are called to do other things, but they have the knowledge, and they have the wisdom, and they have something else. So the people should be there. And Liturgies from Below is this precisely. It is the knowledge from elsewhere, from the corners, from the crossings, from the crossroads of many streets, many streets that have to deal with class, gender, race, poverty, access, brutality, policing, enforcement, and all of this.

So these are the knowledge of a “we” that we do not consider. But there's another layer of that which is the “we” that we are completely, absolutely blind also to. And we do not know what to do with it and it is the more than humans. We have this, human exceptionality. You only think about human only humans. Everything's about human, human, human, human, human. Theology is about humans. Worship is about humans. Prayer is about human. Relationship is about humans. And there's nothing else.

But we cannot keep going like that. Chris. Because climate disaster is upon us. We have three to six years not to hit the point of no return, which we will most probably hit. And we do not have a future that is going to be given to the next generations. And I think everything has to be switched and transformed now. The earth comes first, and that means that we must be expanded. And we have to start thinking about other beings. We have to think with Indigenous people who teach us that the mountain is a people. The rivers are people, the trees are people, the animals are people, the fish are people, the birds are people, the plants are people, other kinds of people, more than humans. But they are people. We have to start engaging with more than humans as the ‘we.’

That's why I said before, I mentioned the seeds and and and the soil for the eucharist. Baptism. Baptism is the water. But do we care? The same way that we do not care about the poor. Or we care but if they are in our mission, not in our worship. But if we care about the rivers, we should ask this: do we have a clean river? If we don't, we cannot have a baptism because the life of the river is, or should be, as important as my own life.

Alright, is this soil next to me alive? Or is it eaten up by agribusiness, and toxic, and then that venom that is poisoning our bodies. If I do not care for the soil where the grapes and the wheat are coming from my “we” is too small. I just think about myself. No, I have to think about others. We have to think about the bees who are the pollinators. Without them 70% of the diversity of our food wouldn't exist.

We have to start to think about other “we” because they are “we.” Without them we can’t survive. We are thinking now about worship, or theology but whatever you want to talk about, if we do not think with other forms of ‘we’ there's no future for anybody, not even for God.

Chris: Wow! yeah. We just talked with our friends from the Climate Vigil and one of their songs is about, you know, creation crying out. And  you also invoked the name of Leonardo Boff, and I remember reading Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, and being—I felt like the rich young ruler. I had to walk away weeping.

Claudio: Oh, wow! 

Chris: And your book, Liturgies from Below, has done this to me as well. And I mean that in the best possible way. I mean that in the best possible way. And I guess the question then becomes…Because, I want people to come alongside. I want the table to be bigger and with more people. So if I'm a practitioner, if I'm a pastor, if I'm a worship leader. Where do I start, practically speaking? And I know this is again—there are many on ramps, many on ramps.

But how do we start, then, to lead liturgy to do worship as a community in solidarity with people who are suffering? I know that's, again—i's huge.

Claudio: yeah your question is huge. That's right. But that's the way of wondering. I mean, our questions define the forms of our imagination. So they're fundamental. So our questions are more important than the answers. And so if people who are listening are holding on to your questions and lingering with them, I think that that will do more than what I'm saying here.

See, Liturgies from Below, it reverses the praxis. It's not us waiting for people to come right, but us going. So I think we should all go.

Chris: Hmm.

Claudio: Our worship should be this: traveling towards, step further by step further. Faith is a step further, and that step further is towards those who are not there. And so that means I step further towards the river, a step further towards the small farmers. I step forward towards the homeless, a step forward towards those who are sick. And listen. And then, after you spend time with them, then you might invite them to come.

And then if they come, they will come because you are part of their lives, not because you have a beautiful sanctuary, perhaps that, too. But they will come because they can be heard. Those prayers in that book are made by people from local communities with people visiting. So it was this mix. So it was knowledge on the ground—that's when they prayed. They saw themselves in the prayer, not only prayer for, but praying with. When you are praying with you are not only offering the prayer, but you're receiving the prayer. And that shift I think is necessary, so if you're a practitioner. Just go and sit with the tree next to your house and start praying with that tree.

Engage the local group who are cleaning the river next to your congregation. Engage the community. Any group that is dealing with homeless people: engage. Go listen. Be with them. “Oh, but you know we cannot bring homeless people to our church, because we cannot have them sleep there, for instance, during the winter.” And you’re both from places where it’s cold and it's easy to say “there's liability. We cannot do that.”

And so then you're off the hook. But there is this church—I don't know, I think it was in Minneapolis, I'm not sure—they had this fantastic idea. They said “Okay, we cannot have them, because there's so many codes that we have to do in order to do a shelter for homeless people.” So what they did was they created vigils every night, so they always have somebody there to care for it. But there are vigils. So people could go in and sleep during the vigil. It can be a form of prayer.

So it was just a vigil. So I love that. This is a way of praxis, that is beyond the pale, beyond what you are expecting. And being with—there are many ways to do it, Chris. Many ways. I think we just have—if our hearts are tuned to those people we will figure it out. We'll figure it out.

Chris: Claudio. Thanks for the richness of this conversation. I mean we’re—we feel full. I feel full already. But I have one more question. And you’ve been so generous with your time and with the stories that you shared. And I think it just speaks a lot to who you are, and the circles that you are part of.

But in the formation of the book, in the gathering…And I just want to say as an aside—“of course, let's hear from Chris again,” that's what everybody wants—but I think I'm stuck in my mind right now about the simplicity of what you said and yet the absolute ways that I have missed it. Like the “go” piece, where I'm like: no, I wanna build my church so that people can come. But the invitation in the command was to go. Yeah, so I'm stuck there!

But in your going and in your stepping in, and the incarnational aspect of our faith—we talk a lot about that here—but in the formation of the book and gathering these prayers and spending time with people, was there—I’m sure there were many—but what's a meaningful experience that you had while you traveled to write the book? Is there one that steps out among the others? Or just one that you feel appropriate to share right now?

Claudio: Yeah, there's so many.  I mean, how many minutes do you have? I have two stories. Can I go with two short stories?

Chris: Absolutely. Yes.

Claudio: yeah, because yes, it was this “going.” And so in each continent we had 30 people from more than 15 countries within the continent that got together in one place. And then we gather with local people, and then we listen. But the people who came were so diverse already. So I was not trying to, like our church tried to do, all “let's create a multicultural church. What do we need to do?” 

It is not that. It is just being with. Everything else we learn along the way. Yeah, I mean I am with you. I learn who you are, what you like, what you love. And then I learn, and then I change. 

So we were there. It was in Manila, in the Philippines, and this group was so incredibly diverse, the most radical left to the most radical right and everything in between. And I remember one of the prayers. We went out, and we saw so much suffering, so much pain, so much sadness. And so we gather together. And then we had groups of four people doing prayer. And so we had to write a prayer of anger. And then one of this group came with this prayer, which was completely beyond what I was imagining. So, this person stands up and starts cursing.

When this person started cursing and cursing God, I literally—I still have the feeling of me saying “that's the end.” Nobody's gonna stay. That's too much.” Yeah, and this person stood up and started praying. But his prayer was so beautiful. And then he starts crying because everybody was so overwhelmed by that pain they saw, and we have all seen.

And so, after he finished, I just said, “Let us have a time of silence just for it to spread out and then see.” And meanwhile I also was asking God for discernment what to do, because I had no idea what to do. So that was a part of the silence as well.

And so then, what I said was, “Friends, I know this is way beyond, even offensive to some of you here. But one thing that we asked you is that everybody would be free and free to be who you are, in the most conservative, the most liberal, or in the most theological way you are. But I know this is hard.”

There was one person who I knew was the most conservative, and it would be hard to have this person in the group. And I looked at this person, I could see this person was leaving. So I said, “Well, now, let's talk.” 

Then this person—my heart was just beating hard in my chest—and then this person said, “This is completely unacceptable. But: I have been there. I saw it. I understand the feeling. I would never use this language, because for me, this is not respectful! But I know where it comes from.”  

And then I learned that to be church together is more about the hurt we have. That's why liberation theology Pastor James Cone says liberation starts where it hurts. And when it hurts, it gathers us for common healing.

So that changed me, transformed me. And after that I said, “nothing is going to stop this project anymore.” And it was beautiful. And then one thing—do we still have time? 

Chris: For sure, absolutely.Yeah, one more.

Claudio: I remember when I was visiting a group of women who had lost their kids to the war on drugs in the Philippines. So the Government had given carte blanche to all of the police and the army to kill whomever they wanted under the banner of drugs. And a lot of kids were being killed  mercilessly and unjustly. So the Council of Churches of the Philippines had a group of accompaniment with these women. And so I followed them, and we went to two funerals and at one of them, I went to the mother who had lost a son of 19 years old. And then I said “I pray for a peace.” And she said “I do not want peace. I want justice.”

And then we did a worship service where the mothers were telling their stories of how they lost their kids. So they put the pictures of their children on the floor, and one by one they started to say who their kids were, and how they were killed. Oh, their cry was like the wailing, a deep sound of hurt, and loss and pain. And for four hours we did this worship, listening to the voices of those women. And you know it was absurd—you know the word absurd, “absurdus,” which means the sound is so loud that it makes you deaf. And I learned what the absurd was there once again. But then it hit my own body, and I now have this tinnitus, which is this sound that rings in my ear, that is scary sometimes. But it reminds me of the sounds of the absurd in the world, and that puts me on my knees to pray even more than I used to pray before.

So thank you. Thank you again for this, this time together.

Chris: Yeah, thank you, Claudio, for being with us. The book is Liturgies from Below: Praying with People at the Ends of the World and we'll put a link to that in the description. And our guest today has been Dr. Claudio Carvalhaes, liturgist, theologian, professor at Union Theological Seminary. And thank you, Claudio, for your generosity. Thank you for being here with us today, And God bless you in the work that you are doing.

Claudio: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Chris, Megan, everyone. And thank you for the beautiful work you're doing, stretching our imagination, and I so appreciate what you all are doing and I thank God for you.


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