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History of Hymns: "When the Poor Ones"

"When the Poor Ones"
J. A. Olivar and Miguel Manzano; trans. George Lockwood
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 434

When the poor ones who have nothing share with strangers,
when the thirsty water give unto us all,
when the crippled in their weakness strengthen others,
then we know that God still goes that road with us.*

“Cuando el pobre” explores the parable of the great judgment, Matthew 25:13-46, specifically verses 34-36:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me’” (NIV).

In stanza one, we encounter the “poor” (pobre), “thirsty” (sed) and the “crippled” or weak (débil). In stanza two, those “suffer” (sufre) and those who hope even when they are tired of hoping (espera . . . cansa de esperar) are lifted up. In stanza three, we realize that happiness has nothing to do with acquiring things, but with loving “simple things.” Finally in stanza four, abundance (abunda) is associated with making peace (paz) and welcoming the stranger (extraño).

Each stanza begins with “Cuando” (when) and concludes with “va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar” (God still walks the same road with us). When you encounter “the least of these,” you encounter Christ. Latino/a theology often stresses the Christ who is our companion on the journey.

The United Methodist Hymnal editor Carlton Young notes: “The central teaching is the classic liberation motif that God in Christ is seen and experienced in the plight of the rejected of society: the homeless, the poor, and the parentless. In life’s journey, we are closer to God when we love them and share from our abundance of food, clothing, and shelter. Those who choose the alternative—greed, hate, and war—will ‘go away into eternal punishment’” (Matthew 25:46a).

This hymn came into The United Methodist Hymnal, and subsequently into many other hymnals, by way of the Spanish-language supplement Celebremos, Segunda Parte (1983), a United Methodist publication.

Little is known about José Antonio Olivar and Miguel Manzano, the two Roman Catholic priests from Spain who collaborated on this text. They reflect the post-Vatican II spirit of the 1970s when the Catholic Church was beginning to explore congregational singing and when liberation theology was rising in its influence.

Readers will undoubtedly know Cesáreo Gabaráin (1936-1991), a more famous priest from Spain who also wrote hymns during this period, whose most famous hymn is “Tú has venido a la orilla” (“Lord, you have come to the lakeshore”). The translator, George Lockwood (b. 1946) served as a missionary to Costa Rica and collaborated on nine English translations of Spanish-language hymns for The UM Hymnal.

*Trans. © 1980 The United Methodist Publishing House. (Administered by The Copyright Company, Nashville, TN) Used by Permission. All rights reserved.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.