The Red Light District as the City of Refuge

“But as it is written: ‘Eye has not seen, nor the ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him’ But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God.”-1 Corinthians 2:9-10

I was walking down a street named Victoria which was really a sad name for the place. There was nothing victorious about the place or the people who lived there. The street was notorious for its crack addicts and sex workers. I walked passed a seedy hotel and caught a glimpse of an emaciated sex worker. I don’t know how old she was but she was definitely younger than she looked. Her face looked sad and lost. She was sitting on the steps of the staircase and resting her head against the dirty wall. She looked exactly like the mental images one would have of a heroin addicted prostitute. I only saw her for a second but I never will forget her. I believe God wanted me to see her because I will never forget her. She does not know who I am or my name and she did not even see me that day. She was exhausted from the burdens life had dished out to her. I felt helpless as I walked away from the scene. I prayed for her. She is someone precious. She is the lost sheep that Jesus would leave the ninety nine to search for. Victoria Street is one of the filthiest places in the red district but the lost sheep seem find themselves in this place and similar streets like it. Everyone thinks that they come to this place because of drugs. This is an easy answer to the problem. God does not call His church to look for easy answers. God has called us to listen to the Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, yes, even the deep things of God.


We have been absent from street ministry for more than ten years. Things have gotten worse according to some of the missionaries. The violence among the children has increased. The number of crack addicts is on the rise. However, the children still go the streets for the same reason they did when we started working with them twenty years ago. Nothing has changed in this aspect. All the children go to the street because it is safer for them. The red light district is a haven for those who are abused and rejected by those who are supposed to care for them and love them. The sex workers and the homeless adults are in the streets because this is their final stop. This is the only place that would accept them. It is not a gracious place by any means. However, this is the place where they feel safe. We might not feel safe there because we have a safe place in our homes among our families. They don’t have any family in the true sense of the word. This is why Jesus left the ninety-nine in search of the one because the one really has no one in this world except for the Good Shepherd.

In the Book of Numbers, God commanded the people of Israel to set aside certain places to be cities of refuge for those who unintentionally murdered someone. These places were a place of protection for these people from those seeking vengeance. The purpose of the city of refuge is to protect those who are in danger of harm. The red light district is a city of refuge for these children. However, a city of refuge is not supposed to be a permanent place of abode. We might have a romanticized idea of a place of refuge. In our minds we think of a place of refuge as some place peaceful and beautiful. For a refugee, a place of refuge is just somewhere temporary. It can never be home. Refugees always dream of going home. These children, the adults and the sex workers dream about going home as well. They dream about a family. They dream of a better life. However, they cannot leave their city of refuge until they know that they going somewhere better. The drugs and destructive sex numbs them from the pain they suffer as they begin to lose hope of returning home. However, the Spirit reveals the deep things of God. We cannot ask people to leave their refuge without offering them a home.       They need not just a physical shelter only but a family. These children are in what seems to be the bottomless pit and those who listen to the Spirit have a message of hope for them.

“I waited patiently for the Lord;And He inclined to me and heard my cry. He also brought me up out of a horrible pit, out of miry clay.And set my feet upon a rock, and established my steps.He has put a new song in my mouth-Praise to our God; Many will see it and fear, and will trust in the Lord.”-Psalm 40:1-3

God calls us to experience His grace and power in a deeper sense each day but we cannot see and hear His power if we are not willing to see the deep things God is doing in our lives and those around. We cannot see the power of gospel if we are not willing to listen to the deep thing the Spirit is saying to us. We won’t be able to hear the Spirit until we are willing to go beyond the superficial and listen to the deep things of the Spirit. However, we can only listen to the Spirit if we are willing to become instruments of God’s grace.

Please share your thoughts on this.


São Paul: City of Contrasts

I was trying find some you tube videos that would help give people an idea of the diversity and immensity of the city of São Paulo. The best video I found is a short movie which shows many scenes of São Paulo especially in Old Center where we are going to be working. The young man in the video is not a missionary and has nothing to do with our mission. He is an actor and from the video, he appears to be very talented acrobat. The video is six minutes long and you can watch it if you just want to get an idea of the city. It is beautifully done and the photography is impressive. I think it is a good introduction to São Paulo and perhaps even doing acrobatics in odd places.

This video below is a PBS documentary on the Street Children of São Paulo. The program focuses on the areas where we are going to be working. The couple interviewed  are George and Cally Magalhaes. I don’t know them personally as they started working in the street a few years after we left Brazil. However, I do know of them as they worked together with the ministry that we had a hand at starting. Therefore, we share similar approaches. This couple have since moved on to focus on working in the juvenile prison centers and they seem to have a successful ministry in this area. There is a pattern among the many ministries that work directly or indirectly with the street children. They all start at the street level and then discover areas where they feel that that they could effectively impact young lives. This documentary was done in 2009 and the situation they describe is very much alive. I think it is worth watching this clip just to have a perspective of street ministry from different missionaries working in the same area.


The Gospel and The Poor

Blessed are you poor, for the yours is the kingdom of God.”- Luke 6:26

You don’t have to work with the poor to realize that there is nothing blessed about being poor. Most of us invest time and energy trying to escape poverty. Even the poor want to desperately flee poverty. No one in their right mind would say that being poor is a blessed state. Some people like to romanticize poverty. Well, this is an insult for those who live in abject poverty. Jesus was not a romantic. He knew what poverty could do to a person. He did not distance himself from the brutal realities of life. He saw the hopeless desperation of the poor. He reached out and helped those who were destitute like the widow who lost her only son in Luke 7:11-17. Yet, Jesus taught that the poor are blessed.

Many times those who minister to the poor including myself have a ‘top-down’ approach in ministry. We think of ourselves as the ‘haves” and those to whom we minister as the ‘have-nots’. There is nothing wrong with it. We won’t be able to help unless we are better off materially than those who are in abject poverty.  Unfortunately, no matter how we approach charitable work even when we arm ourselves with sincere humility and kindness, there is always an inevitable divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’.  However, if we take the words of Jesus seriously then it should radically change the way we minister to the poor. If the poor are blessed as Jesus says, then they have something to offer to us. However, if we think being blessed in purely material sense, then we won’t understand the meaning of Jesus’ enigmatic words. We need to define blessedness according to the message of the gospel.

Jesus taught that the poor are blessed because theirs is the kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is later defined in the apostle’s writing as the New Creation. The Kingdom of God is not a reformation of the Old but a formation of something new. However, we might not be ready for the new if we are happy with the old. We might not be willing to give up the old unless we see it for what it is. Perhaps, true blessedness is knowing and discerning the true state of the old so much so that we desire for the New Creation. The poor are blessed because they are aware of the failure of this present age. Jesus is implying to the chagrin of most religious people that the poor are closer to the kingdom than the rest of us. So, what makes the poor so special that they can see the need for the New clearer than the rest?

Well, we need to look at the poor honestly. The poor in society are usually those who have failed in society. I am not going into the sociological and psychological factors that promote poverty. This is not quite relevant to discover the blessedness of the poor. It is not uncommon for people to speak of the poor with disdain because society considers them as failures. Those who have been able to come out of poverty are most often the very ones who are hostile towards the poor. The reality is that the blessedness of the poor is their failure to be successful in society. Consequently, being successful in society can be a curse. Jesus alludes to this in the gospel when He says, For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?(Mark 8:36). Being successful in this world means we know how to navigate in this world. It means that we are comfortable in this world or this age. However, St Paul admonishes us, Be not conformed to this age: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God (Romans 12:2). Most of us operate quite well in this age and try to work our spirituality around the principles and values of this age. The poor have failed in this age. They are rejected by this age. They are experiencing the brutality of this failure. They are blessed because they are a step closer to understanding that they need the New Creation. Most people are happy with this age if there could be some minor alterations. The Kingdom of God is a not reformation but a transformation. We cannot be transformed if we are not able to let go of this world. The poor don’t have to let go of anything because they have been cast out. Sometimes we think that it is our duty to help the poor to reintegrate. This would be the same helping someone who got past an addiction to discover a new addictive drug. We need to realize that reintegration is not the gospel answer.

No one puts new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Luke 5:37)

When we are called to minister to the poor, it is a call for a transformation. It is not a call to help those who are doomed to failure to be successful in this age. This is the “haves and have-nots” approach to ministry. We are not helping anyone when we do these. It is a call for mutual transformation. It is a call be part of the New Creation. Unless we are willing to be transformed ourselves, we will never understand why the poor are blessed. If we want to be transformed, then we are on the same path as the poor to discover the meaning of the New Creation. Maybe the poor can see clearer why we need a new creation than we do if we are successful in this age.


The Difficulty of Trusting in God

And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. (Genesis 22:1-3)SacrificeAbraham

A lot has been said about this story. It brings up some ethical questions. No matter how we approach this story, it is still a very difficult and disturbing story. It goes against everything we know and understand about God. I guess all these questions are important for us to ponder about. The challenge of this story is whether we should put a limit in trusting God. This is really the thrust of this story. Abraham had all the right reasons to say enough is enough. After all, it was not his idea that he should be the father of all nations. It was not his idea to have Isaac. He was happy with Ishmael but God wanted his heir to be born of Sarah. It was all God’s idea and now, God demanded the ultimate sacrifice. Most of us in Abraham’s situation would not have done it. However, most of us are not in Abraham’s situation. Abraham gave up everything to follow God’s promise. Abraham was the kind of disciple that Jesus demands, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple”. (Luke14:26)

I am not sure how many Christians can compare themselves with Abraham. However, most of us have been in situations where we needed to trust God even though it seems frightening and the possibility of losing everything that we treasure is at stake. God asked Abraham to sacrifice everything that gave him a sense of meaning in this life.  How was Abraham able to do it? Most of us cannot say honestly that we would be able to do what Abraham did. Most of us would have just given up and gone home. Abraham did not falter. The Bible does not tell us about the anxiety and anguish that Abraham felt as he journeyed to the place of sacrifice. It was not necessary. None of us ever want to be in his shoes because we exactly know what it would be like.

Abraham’s sacrifice has been the focus of my meditation recently because we are waiting for God to act for our return to Brazil. One of the challenges of being a missionary is dealing with bureaucracy. We have to apply for our missionary visa and we need two official documents of sponsorship from a Brazilian religious entity. Usually this is a straightforward process but nothing really is straightforward when you are dealing with bureaucracy. Everything is being delayed for one or reason other and now we are just waiting. We have been waiting to return to Brazil since the end of May. In the process of waiting, it feels like nothing is happening. The idle mind is a fertile ground for doubts. We are assailed by thoughts of insecurities and like most of people, we want to be in control. It doesn’t take long for us to realize that there is no way we can ever control this situation. God is the only who can act and we need to give it up to Him. Only God can make it go in the right direction and the problem is whether we can trust Him to do it.

The writer of Hebrews states, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac, your seed shall be called,”concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead.”(Hebrews11:17-18)

Abraham was able to offer his dream child to God because he understood that only God can fulfill our dreams. Even when allowing God means handing everything over to Him, it does not mean that it is the end of a dream. Abraham knew that Isaac belonged to God and God is able to do the impossible. Abraham trusted God in a way that very few of us would be able to do. When I read his story, I felt a little embarrassed. I am waiting for something that could easily be resolved. God is not asking me to give a dream but to trust him for the visa. Abraham trusted God in something which seems to be contrary very decent fibre of one’s being. Yet Abraham did not do it out of blind faith. He did it because he understood that without God, life would be meaningless for him. Isaac would fail to bring him the joy that he desire if he was not able to see the God who made Isaac a reality.

The problem with trusting God is not knowing what do to exactly. I fluctuated between being a fatalistic Christian or a manipulative one who tries to organize the outcome of everything. Both attitudes are obviously wrong. I am beginning to see that trusting God involves figuring what is God’s role and my role. So many times we try to be God that we forget what to do when we are not trying to be God. Trusting and waiting is the process of discovering my role and allowing God to be God. It is actually a process of discovering freedom. Abraham discovered the joy and freedom of knowing that all hopes and dreams do not rest on Isaac but the creator of Isaac. We hope to do the same. Please pray with us as we discover this. Pray also that our visa process will come through in God’s timing and that we would have the patience and wisdom to allow it to be so.



This is an entry I wrote for a blog: Murder is Everywhere. It is a blog hosted by several crime novelists and they each focus on one specific country and write articles regarding it. I was invited to write this article by Leighton Gage who writes several crime novels based in Brazil. His books are all in English and they contain profound insights on social and cultural issues in Brazil. I would recommend reading some of his articles on Brazil (link is on the side). Leighton Gage is presently taking a break from writing as he is fighting cancer. Please pray for him. He and his Brazilian wife reside in Ocala, Florida. The introduction to this article is written by Leighton Gage.

 Among the Street Kids of São Paulo


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Stephen Dass hails from Singapore; his wife, Mary, from the United States. They’re missionaries, people who have found their vocation, and their fulfillment, among the street kids of the Southern Hemisphere’s greatest metropolis – São Paulo.

10 year old child


Among their photos, here is one I found particularly touching:


Um pobre

The words on the wall are part of a longer text, some kind of slogan, but “um pobre” can also be taken to mean “one of the poor”. Like their photos, the tales the couple has to tell are often heartbreaking, but often, too, illuminated by rays of hope.

Here’s Stephen with one of them.


Veronica was seven years old when she ran away from the shambles of her nuclear family. Her mother was a sex worker. She attempted to abandon Veronica immediately after giving birth to her, but was hit by a car as she was leaving the hospital. Veronica knows her birth mother only because of this incident. Her mother survived the accident but she never was a mother to Veronica. Veronica told us that the only positive memory she has of her mother was that one Christmas she gave her a pear.

Veronica’s family festered with dysfunction. Her grandfather sexually assaulted her. Her uncle was the only one who showed any concern for her, but he also exploited her by making her beg for money in the streets from the time she was four years old. Veronica describes the day she ran away as the happiest moment of her early childhood. Back then, she said, other children were intimidated by her because she was so aggressive. We met her when she was eleven.


Veronica in 1994

Here’s a (sorry, it’s very bad, but it’s the only one we’ve got) picture from that time. We did not see, and I do not think that you will see, the aggressive child she claims to have been. Instead, we saw a child that desperately hoped for a better life.

This glimmer of hope helped Veronica maintain her innocence despite all that she had experienced.  There are about a thousand homeless children like Veronica presently in the red light district of São Paulo. They share similar family backgrounds. Our task as missionaries to these lost and forgotten children is to help them nurture or rediscover this hope. It is this hope that is going give them the courage to embrace life once again.  Veronica said “Yes” to life and she taught us about the courage to live.


Veronica and Mary 2012

Here is a recent picture, Mary with Veronica, shot at a shopping center in São Paulo. Now thirty, Veronica was completing the final semester of her law school education.

Things have worked out for her, but comparing the São Paulo of 2013, with the São Paulo of the 1990’s, the situation has gotten worse. There are more children and teenagers in the streets, not to mention the ever increasing number of homeless adults. Most of them pass their time sniffing glue or using crack cocaine. These children and teenagers engage in self-destructive habits because they want to kill the pain of loneliness and hopelessness.

All those long years ago, we were part of a multi-denominational team of missionaries who came together and lived in an intentional community. The purpose was to provide a home for these children and teenagers. Veronica made this community her home. Veronica had never experienced unconditional love before and she attempted to prove the community that she was worthy of our love. It only made her look more needy and desperate. She saw a psychiatrist and counselor, but they were not able to help her. She needed time and patience to learn to receive unconditional love and love unconditionally. It was learning process for all of us.

Life is never easy for these children even after they leave the streets – and none of them expect it to be. They are used to hardship and pain. However, they need a reason to face the harsh realities; a reason to say “Yes” to life.

We only have the courage to say “Yes” to life if we know that we are loved. Love makes us human and helps to live our humanity to the fullest.  It is Love that is going to bring these forgotten and forsaken children out of this pit of mire and self-destruction. However, we don’t live in a fantasy world. We don’t believe in false claims of perhaps well-intentioned religious people who say everything will be well if we believe in God. Our position is that we must show them we have hope for them even though the rest of society might consider them as hopeless causes. We do not claim to know the answer because there are no easy answers; only the wrong ones are easy.

The theological virtues of faith, hope and charity are our tools. We have faith that these are God’s special children. Our hope compels us to share and also receive love from these children in their harsh reality. I am not a romantic. No one who has the experience of living rough in a red light district could be. We have seen the violence. We have seen the brutalities of life. But we have also seen that our approach works.

If you are interested in knowing more about our work, or contributing to it, please contact me via email at