what’s up with all the hugging?

If you’ve been reading over at the Planting Brazil blog, you’ve seen me mention an odd little activity that has turned out to be one of our key activities down here this week. It’s the “Free Hugs” activity sponsored by Zoe Church,which appears to have become quite the staple for this young adult / collegiate church in São Paulo.

But you should know that even Michael Frost, international Missional guru, was converted this week from Free Hugs skeptic to believer (and participant!). More on that in a second.

But why and how we’re doing such much hugging turn out to be pretty interesting (and transferable) principles!

Free Hugs

If you’re aren’t absolutely clear on this extremely complex service endeavor, Free Hugs has involved

  • standing someplace there are people walking by
  • offering free hugs, usually with at least somebody holding a “Hugs” or “Free Hugs” sign
  • and sometimes wearing a T-shirt to the same effect, or our “Z ♥ SP” (“Zoe loves São Paulo”) shirts.

Complex, eh?

And yet this method really does seem to pack a happy wallop, despite its meek appearance.

hugs here in Brazil

First, it’s always helpful to understand context when we’re talking about college ministry methods. (Oh, how I wish we’d apply that all the time, not just country-to-country!)

Ultimately, Brazilians hugs do seem to “mean” about the same thing as American hugs. However, the idea of “personal space” is quite a bit less prevalent here. Both personal touching (between friends) and impersonal touching (like on the bus) are common. So when it comes to hugging, there’s somewhat less awkwardness that needs to be bridged. That’s why Free Hugs even works on Paulista Ave., as businesspeople leave their offices to return home.

At the same time, people here do see greetings (which often include hugs) as quite important. So while they may not find a hug from a stranger as awkward as Americans might, that doesn’t mean it isn’t significant to those who receive it.

the value of a free hug

As I said, Michael Frost noted on Tuesday that he had previously doubted the usefulness of giving out hugs. Was this, he wondered, just a nice little thing that this local church was doing for people?

But then he began to notice – and was astounded by, he said – how many people followed the hug by asking why we were doing this. I’ve watched that, too; these hugs really do seem to bridge a gap – from strangers to huggers – that then allows for a conversation! So when it happens, the bridge provided by Free Hugs seems really beneficial.

In this way, then, these hugs are also the beginning piece of a larger conduit. Those conversations allow us to point people to enjoy “more of the same” – some community and spiritual dialogue at one of the Starbucks gatherings, the Zoe service on a Saturday, an appointment to meet up for coffee later. So Free Hugs are a starting point that quite often leads to more (as discussed in some of the testimonies).

But two more ingredients add value to this project, Frost noticed: regularity and recognition. By participating in Free Hugs so much, little Zoe Church has become known in a much wider circle. At least a couple of news outlets have picked up the story, and Chris J. said they almost got on MTV! (So you can pray for that!)

Just today, I was able to let a Mackenzie University girl know what Zoe Church is by telling her it’s the group that gives out the free hugs. It’s actually been surprising how many people this week brighten up with recognition when we note that!

Something is working, when in this gigantic city, people recognize a church of just a few dozen people – and they recognize them for loving on the citizens of São Paulo in a unique way.

So here’s the question: What could you do on your campus that

  • might bridge the stranger-gap?
  • could serve as a starting point for additional connection?
  • would have additional impact if done with regularity?
  • might bring recognition in a way that strengthens your opportunities and impact?

Update: Brazil Missional Trek

Wednesday, Day 6: Yesterday I visited Mackenzie Presbyterian University, where I hung out with another one of our teams, met some students, and explored the campus. After that, several of us gave out hugs near our hotel, in preparation for the local Starbucks community gathering last night. (Feel free to check out the fruits – including lots of new pictures – at plantingbrazil.wordpress.com.)


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