When you hear people discussing the use of abandoned lots in Detroit for urban gardens, offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the witness of St. Martin de Porres (1579-1639). In the Peru of Martin’s birth, the poor went hungry. He planted orchards on unused tracts of land, growing oranges and olives, lemons and figs for people who might not otherwise be able to eat such delicious and nutritious food. He welcomed the poor, not only to harvest the fruit, but also to learn the work of tending the orchards.
Martin knew what it is to be poor and hungry. He was the bi-racial child of a Spanish father who abandoned his wife and children. He did not go to school, but became a barber’s apprentice when he was still a child. At 15, Martin volunteered to be a lay helper at a Dominican monastery in Lima. He did the lowliest work in the community, winning the love and respect of the brothers and priests. He won the love and respect even of those in the community who were reluctant to welcome a black member.
He was the bi-racial child of a Spanish father who abandoned his wife and children.
By the time he was 24 Martin became a vowed brother. He continued to work humbly, cleaning and caring for the gardens and the animals. He tended the sick. He fed the hungry each day that came to the monastery’s doors. He began welcoming the homeless into the empty rooms of the monastery. Soon, every room was filled.
Martin saw the needs all around him. He opened a home for abandoned children, the first of its kind in the Americas. Not only was it the first home for abandoned children on two continents, but the first to welcome children of every race. This was a startling change for the strictly segregated city of Lima.
Martin made sure that the children had teachers and doctors to help them grow strong in mind and body. He made sure that they had priests to form them in faith. Martin recognized and respected their dignity as children of God.
When Martin died, Lima mourned. Now the whole church honors him as the patron of interracial justice and peace.