Meeting Lazarus and the Small Dogs in the Streets

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.” (Luke16:19)

I have been meeting Lazarus in the streets. The biblical description is quite accurate. Most of the homeless have dogs as pets. The dogs are their companions and they also protect their owners from danger. They are in many ways their only friends. The homeless keep their dogs well-fed. It is strange but many times the dogs look better than their owners. I haven’t seen the rich man around until this past Tuesday. I met him face to face.

It was an usual day. We went to the streets and we began our work with prayer. In our time of silent prayer, I contemplated on this gospel text and then it dawned upon me: I am the rich man. When we are among the poorest of the poor, most of us are the rich man. The rich man in the parable is not the other person, but it is me.

Some times people like to say that we are blessed to have material possessions. I am not sure if blessed is the right word. In the parable, the rich man’s wealth led him to hell. Lazarus was just a poor man who had nothing and was a nobody in society and yet, he found himself in Abraham’s bosom. According to the gospel, Lazarus was really the blessed one (the evangelical paradox in action). Jesus did say, “Blessed are you poor for yours is the kingdom of God.”(Luke 6:20) Interestingly, there is no reference in the New Testament that claims that the rich are blessed.

Among the poor, I am the rich man. I am not well off or blessed. I am not even one step away from poverty. I can choose to be poor because I am a rich man. The parable is a warning for me to consider carefully how I should use the things given to me. They do not belong to me. They belong to God. They are given to us to understand the mystery of salvation. Many think that when we help the poor, we need to change their condition. God does not expect us to change anyone’s situation but He expects us to bring comfort to those who suffer.

We met a young teenager in the streets that was hurt in a car accident. Her right arm was seriously burnt and her bone was exposed. I do not have the words to describe the nature of her injury. She needed to be in the hospital but she was in the streets. The bandage on her arm was old and dirty. She asked if we would help her dress her wounds. However, she refused to let us do it. Her arm hurt too much and she was afraid that we might be rough with her. We just stood there and watched her slowly peel off the old and dirty gauze. She needed to be in the hospital but she refused to go. She was afraid. She was alone. We just stood there and watched her dress her wounds. We felt helpless but at the end she thanked us for just being there and giving her the attention. We felt helpless but somehow our presence comforted this girl. She did not want any medical attention. She did not expect us heal her or change her situation. She had simple expectations. She just needed some adults to be present with her. It was comforting for her.

This was what God expected the rich man to do. He wanted him to comfort Lazarus in his suffering. However, the parable is not about just being a good neighbor. It is about salvation. A missionary who has been working among the homeless and sex workers for 9 years shared that the mystery of salvation became clearer when she served “Lazarus” in the streets. It is not about working for our salvation. Today in the church, we hardly meet people who are working towards salvation. However, most of us can become like the rich man in the parable who is oblivious to the world around him. Lazarus was there to help him understand the mystery of salvation but he failed to see this. We need Lazarus as much as he needs us to understand our salvation. Salvation is a gift and a gift must be appreciated: if not, it’s meaning can be lost forever for us.

 

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Christ is our “Yes”

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us was not Yes and No, but in Him was Yes. For all the promises of God in Him are Yes.          2 Cor. 1:19-20

It seems like everything in this world comes down to “Yes” and “No”. We might be harassed by a maybe occasionally but “maybe’ is just trying to avoid the inevitable “Yes” or “No”.

In the past few weeks, we have been alternating our time here working in the streets and hunting for an apartment in the vicinity of the red light district. Why do we choose to  live where we work? Well, while we looking for an apartment one day, a group of homeless teens walked passed us. They did not recognize us at first as we are still new to them. However, one of the younger ones, Jonas, saw us and told the others. They turned around and called out to us and waved. They wanted us to know that they did not deliberately ignore us. I was touched by their action. This is the reason behind our choice to live here. We want to be visible to these little ones even when we are not working with them. Besides, walking to work everyday has its physical and financial benefits as well.

Renting an apartment in São Paulo is a complicated task. You have to have a guarantor  who owns property in this city which is very expensive and most of our friends are not wealthy. The other option is to have apartment insurance which is unfair because you have to pay a month and half rent in an advance to an insurance company per year and you don’t get the money back. There is the security deposit option. You pay three months rent for the deposit which you will receive back at the end of the contract. The minimum contract for rental is three years. We have only means for the security deposit but unfortunately most of the rentals are not willing to accept the security deposit.

We have seen and called about 12 apartments a week and have heard a series of “No” to the security deposit option. After hearing “No” so many times we are afraid to be excited about any apartment. Here we are: we are educated, we have financial means and we have a clean credit record and still we are having a hard time finding a place to stay. What about those who living in the streets? What chances do they have if they want to leave the streets and rent an apartment? What about those hardworking people who live in the slums and want to get out of the dirty and uninhabitable slums? Can their sons and daughters ever dream of renting an apartment in this city? If the answer has been “No” to us, I guess we can be assured that they already have their answer.

Whenever we hear the answer “No” for something that we need for life, a little part of us withers away.  This is why St. Paul makes it clear that in Christ, it is always a “Yes”. It is always a “Yes” to life and life abundantly. We continue our search for the apartment because Jesus wants us to be here. His answer to us is “Yes”. Jesus transcends the “Yes” and “No” of this world. He is our “Yes” even when we are faced with a “No”. This is our message of hope to those who think everyone around them is saying “No”. In Christ, it is always “Yes”. It is not about having a positive attitude. It is about knowing that we have a Lord who is alive and He is our “Yes” to life and life abundantly. Amen!!!

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The Empty Tomb

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” John 20: 1-2

But Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept she stooped down and looked into the tomb. John 20:11

Today I found this particular Easter story especially relevant to our experience here. We tend to focus on the Resurrection whenever we read this story. The discovery of the empty tomb was followed by personal agony and desperation. The apostles decided to give up and go home. Mary just broke down and cried. There was nothing else to do in this moment of desperation except to cry. The empty tomb was a place of desperation or hopelessness before it become a symbol of the New Creation. We cannot understand the hope of the Resurrection unless we are willing to peek into the desperation found in the empty tomb.

In my last entry, I tried my best to describe Cracolândia. It was our first visit.  It was like taking a peek at the empty tomb. However, a peek was not enough. We went back and entered the empty tomb.

We met a young woman, Simone who made us feel sad and happy at the same time. We met Simone twenty years ago when she was just seventeen years old. She was a beautiful girl then. She was intelligent and proud. She gave birth to a young baby girl named Vanessa. Simone and Vanessa stayed in our missionary community for almost six months. We took care of Vanessa sometimes. We even have some photos of baby Vanessa. Vanessa must be 20 now. Simone looks like she is 20 years older than she really is. She has been in the streets too many years. Her face looked haggard and scarred. She is still proud. She recognized us first and she remembered meeting us even before we were married. We were happy to see her but it was a sad reunion.

An older homeless adult (maybe in his forties but looks like he is in his sixties) asked if we would do first aid on his feet. His feet were filthy and black from all the dirt in the streets. He had been walking barefooted for weeks, maybe months. He had some cuts that needed some medical attention. Melanie, one of the missionaries, cleaned his feet with water and started dressing the wound. I was standing beside her and watching this sacred moment. It was like the liturgy of Maundy Thursday being played out in practical service. I wasn’t the only one sensing the sacredness of the moment. I saw the man whose feet were being cleaned close his eyes and tears were rolling down his cheeks. Melanie was not aware of this. She just kept her focus on cleaning and dressing the wound. After she was done, the man shook our hands in deep gratitude. He asked for our prayers. His name is Josias.

By the end of the day, we cleaned and dressed wounds of 30 people. We ran out of gloves and gauze. Walking around Cracolândia is very intense. We were there for three hours but it felt like we were there for ten. Everyone is there for specific reasons. They will tell you upfront that they are here because they want to be here. No one blames anyone here. No one expects anyone to help them. They don’t want anyone’s help. They don‘t want any pity. They are here for a specific reason. They know why they are here. We know why we are here. You cannot come to a place like this without a reason. No one should come to a place like this without a reason.

For those who come to this place for crack, they consider this place to be their tomb. We are here following the footsteps of Mary Magdalene. We are here to look for Jesus. Like Mary Magdalene, the desperation and emptiness of the tomb hits us strong and hard. However, we know that beyond these desperation, there is hope. The empty tomb becomes a symbol of hope because of one person. He is here and He is our reason for being here.

The words, He is Risen, sound more powerful to me in Cracolândia.

Thank you for being with us through your prayers. We are privileged to represent you in this place.

 

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The Father is waiting patiently

“And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20, the Parable of the Prodigal Son)

Today we went to the darkest place in the red light district. It is an area infamously known as ‘CracoIândia’ loosely translated as Crack Land. It is really hard to describe this area. It looks like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie where there is no law and order. The area covers about three blocks of streets where most of the buildings are in ruins and it looks like a war-torn area. The most disturbing thing about this area is the number of people that are smoking crack in broad daylight. The police are around to ensure that these people stay in this area and do not wander off elsewhere. There is no intention or desire to help these people. There were about two hundred people (most likely more) of all ages lying in the streets high on drugs. Their bodies were covered with sores and wounds. They seem to be oblivious to the world and their only concern is drugs. They each have a story to share. Something happened in their lives to make them reject their own humanity. Many times the local TV stations report on this situation and they like to portray these men and women and children as if they were wild animals. We did not see any animals today. We saw sad and lonely people.

Our day started with a phone call from one of the former homeless teenagers, Jessica. The team was able to help Jessica get into a rehabilitation program and she had been making some progress. Unfortunately, she called to say that she was leaving the program and going back to Cracolândia. Her reason was that she could not believe that anyone could ever love her. She had sensed love from the team and she did not know how to respond to it. She decided to run away from love. We think that she called to tell us this because she wanted us to go after her. She wanted to test and see if our love was genuine. We don’t know how to prove to someone that we love them and we are not sure if we can. We might fail her if we try. All we can is to wait patiently for her to risk being loved.

The Father waited patiently for His son to return to His loving embrace. 

We brought our first aid kit to this place. There were many who came up to get their wounds and sores cleaned and dressed. Some even had their imaginary wounds dressed. We walked through a scary scene where people were just rushing around using drugs but we did not encounter any hostility. We saw people smile at us. Young men shook our hands and thanked us for our attention. We did not see wild animals but we saw lost and lonely people. We saw people who were hurting. We saw people who have hit rock bottom but they don’t know or believe that they have a way out because there is no one from their family to tell them that there is a way home. prodigalson

The Father waits for them and He sends His messengers. We were not the only people there to minister to these people. There were several groups from different churches. Each bringing an unique perspective of the gospel but all motivated by the Love of the Father who waits patiently for His children. Cracolândia is not a place without the Light of the gospel.

We did first aid for a young man who had a kind face and gentle spirit. He lost half of his finger on his right hand and it was infected. It was an open wound. I told him that we cannot do first aid on it and he had to go to the hospital. He told us that he was not going to do it. We insisted that he could get an infection and even die from it. He said that he did not care if he died and he was not just saying this. He was serious. He was a clever man but something was dead in him. We did first aid for him anyway and we spoke with him for some time. He said that the only person that matters in his life was his son and he is no longer with him. He did not say much after this.

We saw Jessica in the streets. She pretended not to see us but we called out her name and she waved and walked away. We wanted her to know that we are still here waiting for her. The Father waits patiently for all us to experience the length and the width, the height and the depth of God’s love. The Father waits….He gives us the strength to wait for these little ones to come to know Life and Life abundantly.

Pray for these little ones.

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First Day……..First Impressions

Luke 15:3-7

Jesus spoke this parable to them, saying: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.”

We went to the streets as missionaries today for the first time after thirteen years. Before we left the mission house, we were warned that sometimes the children are hard to find. They move around the red light district in search of money and drugs. Drugs have become a big problem. Children are constantly using some form of drugs whether it is paint thinner or crack cocaine. Having a decent conversation with the children has been difficult. The missionaries also told us that the younger children were becoming more aggressive. They were preparing us for the worst. With this in mind, we set out to the streets.

We walked about two miles looking for the children and we did not find any. Throughout this time I was thinking about the parable of the lost sheep. Many times I have focused on the finding of the lost sheep but never realized that the search is quite tiresome. God’s grace is seen in His persistence to search for us even when we do not want to be found. These children do not want to be found by us. It is mainly because they are afraid and they found a way to run away from their fears through drugs.

I must admit that I was a little concerned that we wouldn’t find any children today. It is not that they are not here. There are about a thousand of them in the red light district but it is not always easy to find them. Finally we decided to stop and wait at a location where they usually hang out. Then a group of six boys appeared ranging from the ages of 10 to 17. They were high on paint thinner and the younger ones had acquired marijuana. They were very excited about this and not in the least bit interested in us. We decided to just stay there and invited them to join us for some games. Only one responded. His name is Jessé. He is about 11 years old.

We played a game of dominos and Jesse was high on thinner but he was able to play one game with us. We have strict rules that they cannot sniff or use drugs when they are with us. After the first game, Jessé decided that drugs was more fun than playing games with us. This happens. It does not change the fact that we had a good initial contact with him. Then within a few minutes, about twenty children and teenagers appeared. Most of them were older teens and they were not intoxicated. They slowly approached us and began to engage with us. There was one young particular boy named João who wanted to play a game with us. He was sniffing paint thinner but decided to put it away so that he could be with us. He was a very sweet and open young man. He was curious about us and asked lots of questions which gave us an opening to ask about him. He told us that his father had passed away before he left for the streets and his mother lives in the poorer part of São Paulo. When Mary asked him if he missed his mother, he simply responded that his mother knows where he is and she wanted to see him she would come. We were told that João is one of the children that has been in the street the longest. He is fifteen years old which is hard to believe. He looks like he is ten. He is one of the few teens who does not engage in any crime. He was determined not to spend any time in prison. We don’t know his story but we are patient for him to share his story when he feels more comfortable. For now, he enjoys playing dominos with us.

We met another young woman, Ana Paula. She is what people would call a hardened street girl. She controls some of the drug trade and looks tough. I noticed that there two little Chinese children in the streets with their mother. No one knows the story behind this woman but she was obviously an immigrant. Ever since we got there, I saw Ana Paula acting and speaking aggressively to the other children and teenagers, then I saw her go off to the side to talk to this Chinese woman. She asked about the children and their names and she was tender and kind towards this woman who seemed to be a little lost. The missionaries told us that a couple of weeks ago, Ana Paula had expressed that she wanted a better life for herself. However, she has given up on the idea for now.

A lost sheep is a frightened sheep. We have to approach those who are lost with patience and tenderness. The Good Shepherd is a patient shepherd. He seeks and waits for his lost sheep to entrust their lives to Him. It takes time for the lost sheep to trust the Shepherd. It takes patience and understanding. These lost sheep have taken refuge in drugs and violence but they still long to be in the arms of the Good Shepherd where they can find their true refuge.

Before we left the streets, João asked me how long we are going to stay here. I told him that we are here for good. He smiled.

 

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