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Serving Slaves: The Legacy of Peter Claver

Legacies lie in history, waiting to be unveiled. This guest post by my pastor-husband, Tom Gaddis, unveils the spiritual legacy of Peter Claver (1581-1654).

The Ships

The smell is what hit him first—the stench of death and unmentionable filth, then the heat. Soaked in sweat and descending into the humid dark, the moans of the dying and those sick with dysentery made him imagine what it must be like to be in the bowels of hell.

By the brief flicker of his oil lamp he could now see images—men, women, the dead-shackled together—lying in the slime and squalor built up during the two-month voyage from Africa to Cartegena. Some shrunk back in terror at his approach, while others glared menacingly. But the majority, weakened by the ordeal, just lay uncaring and limp.

Peter Claver, moving through the fetid hold, found the suffering—their bodies bleeding from the lash, emaciated from dysentery, and riddled with scurvy. He did what he would do for the next forty years. He ministered tirelessly—washing and tending their wounds, clothing their nakedness, lessening their hunger with lemons, bread, rum, and jams, and burying their dead.

The Streets

Herded off the ships, Peter would continue his mercy ministries, joining the slaves in the holding pens awaiting auction. Later, he would visit and care for them on the surrounding plantations. In time, with the help of interpreters and pictures, he regularly shared with them about God’s saving love through Christ.

While Peter could not abolish slavery, he did become a nuisance to the city officials and unpopular among the plantation owners by advocating for the rights of slaves to have Christian marriages and forbidding the separation of families.

The clerical authorities often misunderstood Peter. After all, this young Jesuit from the finest college in Spain and a well-to-do family, could have had any number of comfortable ministries among Cartegena’s Catholics. But instead, he chose to minister to slaves, even sleeping with them in their quarters when visiting them at the mines or plantations.

The Shadows 

Though not dynamic or gifted with a charismatic personality—he was known as shy and reticent—Peter Claver was amazingly fruitful in his forty years of ministry. It is commonly estimated that he instructed and baptized some 300,000 slaves. Then after four years of sickness, which forced him to remain inactive and largely neglected, he died on September 8, 1654. He was 74.

He always felt that this fruitfulness was about love. He would say to us today, as he did to his generation, “We must speak to them with our hands before we try to speak to them with our lips.”

Now it’s your turn: Today there are some very miserable slaves in our world—slaves of sexual desires, drugs, alcohol, anger, or selfishness.

What are you doing about those who cross your path daily? How is the love of Christ flowing through you to make a difference? Share with us in the comment section below.

Susan Gaddis, Helping you build your spiritual legacy

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. nanci

    This kind of selflessness seems so rare….although maybe we just don’t hear about it. The story is inspiring as sometimes my first thoughts are “judgement”. What a great reminder to be Jesus hands and feet to all we meet……they are all divine appointments orchestrated by a God who cares about every detail. Great story.

  2. Susan Gaddis

    Divinge appointments are all around us, and I appreciate you reminding us, Nanci. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Beverly A Lyons

    Susan…as I read this writing, I am reminded of a Catholic church we had in my home town of As bury Park, NJ-St Peter Clever. It was a small parish in our mile wide and mile long city but was known for their outstanding work in the community! Wow! Now I understand why the name and their mission!

    I’ve have had the opportunities in feeding the homeless, providing clothing to them as well, working with families concerning their understanding their school district’s policies and providing “rides” to those who need transportation…in it all …Divine protection provided me safe execution of those needed services. Witnessing about the Lord was “laced” through every one of them.

    1. Susan Gaddis

      Bev, those are such good examples of what we can do too. Simple things, but very needed. During this time of the coronavirus, our hands and feet can still serve others by using email or video chats to check in on people, encourage those on social media, or by dropping off groceries or meals, as I know you do in the complex where you live. Thanks for sharing your experience and wisdom.

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