We Want To See Your Salvation

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen : thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel.- Luke 2:29-32

Traditional Anglicans would be familiar with this canticle. It is the song of Simeon and it is part of the gospel text for this Sunday for churches that follow the RCL readings. For me, this canticle brings back memories of Evening Prayer in the chapel of St. Anne’s Church in Crystal River, Florida and before that it was in St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bangor, Maine. It never occurred to me that each time I prayed this simple canticle it was shaping my understanding of missionary work. It is in reality the perfect prayer for any missionary work whether in the local parish or overseas. It summarizes in simple words the goal in every ministry in the church. Our simple goal in any missionary endeavor is to see and testify the salvation of our Lord.

Salvation came into this world. This is the message of the gospel. As Christians, we do not bring salvation to the world. We must thank God for this. If He waits for the church to bring salvation to the people, then many would perish. God acts first. He brought Salvation to this world.

Week after week, we realize that we don’t have what it takes to save these children from the despair and emptiness. We can see the problems clearly. However, this is not helpful. Knowing the problems without any solution is useless. It contributes nothing to alleviate the suffering of the people. There are too many people in the world who like to shout out the problems of society. However, God calls us to be like Simeon who waited patiently to see Salvation manifested where God has placed him. This is the only thing we can do and we believe we can do this effectively. We are called to see and testify the presence of salvation in our midst.

How do we recognize salvation?

Simeon knew that salvation was not a doctrine, but a person. We have no idea how he knew it. The same gospel text tells us of another prophetess, Anna, who saw the infant child and testified to the presence of salvation in this child. St. Luke describes Simeon as a man who was led by the Holy Spirit and Anna as someone who dedicated herself to prayer and fasting. They were able to see salvation even when salvation presented itself as an infant child. There were many people in the temple but only these two had eyes to see salvation.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.-Romans 8:5

Engaging in missionary work, whether it is doing it in our context among the homeless in São Paulo or whether it is in the local parish demands that we train our hearts and minds to live according to the Spirit. It is not something that comes naturally to us. We receive it through grace.  Prayer and fasting open our hearts and minds to be transformed through grace to live according to the Spirit. Simeon and Anna waited for many years before they saw Salvation. They most likely had to change their idea of salvation before they could see it in a little child. Salvation appeared in the most unlikely form to them and only they were able to recognize Him.

We need to remind ourselves constantly as we work in the streets that we are not the salvation of the people. Sometimes we desire to be God’s answer to the problems or at least we like to know the answer to the problems here. However, God does not overburden us with things that are beyond our control. He calls us to fulfill something within our reach. He calls us to wait and see His salvation in action. It comes in a subtle way like an innocent child and we need to be ready to recognize Him and testify to His presence.

For the time being, we are training our hearts and minds to think according to the Spirit so that we can see the things of the Spirit.

In this world, there are so many who are quick to notice the problems in any given situation. God calls Christians to be different. We are called to see His Salvation in our midst.

 

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Success at the Foot of the Cross

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. I Corinthians 1:18

We doubt ourselves on a weekly basis. We wonder if we are making any difference in the lives of the people. We wonder if we are just wasting our time.

Day in and day out, it is always the same. Sometimes people are open and accepting and sometimes they are closed and drugged out. Sometimes they are friendly and sometimes they are hostile. However, their conflicting actions and attitudes do not make us question why. We are actually used to it. Sometimes we find ourselves being invaded by this sense of hopelessness. It appears as if we are not doing anything significant in the streets. We are actually trying to preach the message of hope to the homeless but it seems like the sense of hopelessness and abandonment is contagious.

Our friend and fellow team member told us that if the success of this ministry was based on numbers, then this ministry would be utter failure. In a way, we would be in good company because the ministry of Jesus would have been considered a failure as well. He did not really have the numbers to show any success despite being the Son of God. We can pick a prophet randomly from the Old Testament and he or she would be a considered a failure, too. Either the biblical standard for success is too low or maybe it is too high to be measured by numbers. Gauging a success of any Christian ministry by numbers is succumbing to the standards of the world. It is not the way of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus’ moment of success was on the Cross. It was the moment that he gave up His spirit when all his opponents were silenced permanently. It was at this moment that a centurion professed, “Truly this was the Son of God.” This was the moment of success. It is a mystery that can only be understood when one is struck by the power of Love.

The power of the Cross was not hidden from anyone. It was there present in a powerful way but only a few chose to see it. Those who saw it cannot keep it to themselves anymore. A new Light came into their hearts. It opened their minds to understand the new meaning of power and success.

Every week we question what we are doing. I don’t think this is wrong. I think it would be strange if we do not question ourselves. It would be strange if we were happy with the way things are. I don’t think that things are going to get better in my lifetime. However, our success is not based on whether we can eradicate the problems of society. It is about sharing this Light that we discover at the foot of the Cross. It is about seeing that even death and humiliation cannot hinder the power of Love to shine through into our hearts. The Cross is the power that gives us hope. We need to go to the foot of the Cross with all sense of failure and hopelessness and believe that the One who hangs on the Cross is able to transform them into opportunities of Life. If we can transmit this Hope in the Cross, if we can just direct someone to see this hope, then we are truly successful.

 

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Living in a Labyrinth

In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.- John 1:4-5

Yesterday, we met one of the most insightful men living in the streets of Cracolândia. His name is Tin and has been a crack addict and homeless for many years. In fact, whenever there is a journalistic report on Cracolândia, his opinion is always quoted. Despite being down and out, Tin has a cheerful disposition and yet behind his cheerful demeanor lies a profound thinker. He told us once that the best way to describe Cracolândia was to think of it as a labyrinth. He explained that everyone who enters here loses themselves in this place and they don’t know how to get out. According to him, we are able to come here and leave because we have a cord attached to us that guides us back to the world outside. He went on to elaborate that everyone who entered here at one time had a cord attached to them to guide them back to the Light. However, the moment they lit up their first crack pipe, the cord was cut and they can no longer find their way home. One of the missionaries then said that since we have the cord attached to us still, perhaps we can help them to return home. Tin answered without any hesitation that those who live this labyrinth are used to the darkness and now they are afraid to follow people like us who can lead the way out because the light outside is too bright and painful for them to handle.

They have grown so accustomed to darkness that the Light is difficult for them to comprehend. The light becomes something frightful.

When I heard Tin’s insight, the words of the above gospel text became alive in a new way. I used to think that people rejected the Light because they hated the Light. The truth is that people are afraid of the Light. Perhaps they are afraid to see themselves in the Light. Tin has spent so much time in the darkness that he does not comprehend the goodness of being in the Light. He does not like the darkness.  He is just afraid of the Light.

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.- 1 John 4:18

The only way fear can be overcome is through Love.  It is significant that Tin shared this insight with us. He thinks about his life. He is reaching out but he is afraid. Perhaps he wants to know if we are willing to guide him into the Light and help him overcome his fear of the Light. Our words alone do not suffice. Tin needs to see our love in action before he can trust us. Until then, we ask for your prayers. Continue to pray that the cord of Love that guides us to Cracolândia will be strong enough to guide people like Tin out into the gracious Light.

 

 

 

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Giving Credit where Credit is Due

Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” – Luke 17:20-21

Fifteen years ago, the juvenile detention centers in the city of São Paulo were notorious for abuse and riots. First timer offenders were grouped together with habitual offenders. Preteens were housed together older teens. The facilities were overcrowded and understaffed and nothing was done to rehabilitate the juvenile offenders. When friends and families wanted to visit the children, they were subjected to humiliating strip searches and often times treated as if they were criminals themselves. This was fifteen years ago.

We recently went to several detention centers. We were actually invited by the staff. Each detention center has a team of social workers and psychiatrists working along side with the prison guards. The focus now is to rehabilitate these young offenders.  We were asked to participate in the rehabilitation process.

The center had all the characteristics of a prison. After all, this is still a juvenile prison and these offenders can be violent and dangerous despite their young age.  Upon our arrival, we were introduced to the rehabilitation team as well as the prosecuting lawyer. We shared our thoughts on Erica, the girl that we were visiting.  Erica is 11 years old and she is a first time offender. We were trying to figure out the best way to help Erica make better choices for her life.

The prosecuting lawyer believed that Erica would be released soon because there was no evidence that she actually committed a crime. This does not mean she was innocent.  The center only releases children and teens to shelters or to their parents. Erica does not have any contact with her family and she does not really have a home where she can return. She asked to be released to a shelter where she used to live.  Unfortunately, this shelter is not equipped to house anyone long term. We could not think of any halfway house for her. Our meeting with Erica did not end positively as we cannot find her a place to stay permanently. She was eventually released to the shelter and we worry that she might not stay long there.

We visited another juvenile center which housed older teens and this time we visited a fifteen year old boy, Bruno. For Bruno, the detention center with all its improvements has become a place of reflection. He was able to talk with the counsellors about his future. He was interested in making some life-changing decisions but he felt that going home would not be a step in the right direction. His family is involved in drugs. Bruno also wants to be released to a shelter where he hopes to continue his education. So far, the center hasn’t found any place to receive Bruno and he will remain incarcerated until then.

The juvenile detention centers used to be places of violence and corruption, but something good has happened to drastically change the environment of these centers. For many of these young offenders, this might be the only place where they meet adults who actually care for their well-being. It is not a perfect system by any means. I am sure that one could find many faults with it. However, I am comparing the centers to what they used to be like fifteen years ago. There is a radical change of attitude towards the young offenders. It reflects a sense of hope for these young men and women who are so used to feeling hopeless.

I did some research and read a newspaper article written by a Catholic Bishop in regards to the reforms of the juvenile detention centers. The article states that in 1999, the governor of São Paulo decided that the juvenile detention centers needed to change their focus and treatment of the young offenders.  He engaged the help of the Church and various social agencies. The governor listened to the concerns of the Church and the bishops offered some concrete steps to improve the centers. We saw these steps being implemented. The secular agencies also contributed to this dialogue and many of their contributions have helped to change the environment of the centers.

Sometimes, we hear criticism against the government and the Church that they are doing nothing to make things better. Sometimes we hear people criticizing God for the problems of society. It is easy to criticize.  Sometimes criticism is important and helpful. However, criticism without faith and compassion blinds us from seeing the things God is doing in this world. The Kingdom of God is here.  Sometimes we don’t see the things God is doing in the world because we have chosen to see only the negative.  This is because oftentimes we criticize without compassion and genuine concern. The Kingdom of God is here and it is manifesting itself in this world. God moves kings and bishops and all kinds of people to make changes in the world. Our role is to identify the presence of the Kingdom in the here and now and testify to its glory. The Kingdom of God is in our midst and we need faith and compassion to see it.

 

 

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A Christmas Gift from God

For Brazilians, the pinnacle of the Christmas celebration takes place on Christmas Eve. It is a great family gathering and it is the only time of the year when the city of São Paulo is quiet. The streets are deserted except for the homeless people. Sadly, it is also one of the times of the year where the homeless people really feel and know that they are excluded from society.

One Christmas Eve in 1997, a volunteer from a social agency decided to host a Christmas dinner in the streets with the homeless. He asked if we would be part of this meal and we gladly agreed.  We invited the homeless children and adults that we knew for the feast. My childhood friend from Singapore was visiting with me at this time and he joined us as well. At about 11 o’clock at night we had our Christmas meal with about 30 of homeless friends. It was strange to have a meal in the middle of the streets. However, on that night, I felt something deeply spiritual had happened. I felt like something eternal occurred and this moment would be one of the eternal treasures which Jesus spoke about.  Janaina was part of this group and she was fourteen years old then.

I remembered Janaina opening to us and telling us her life story. She was orphaned at a very young age. Her father died and her mother was a drug addict who gave up all her six children for adoption. Janaina was the youngest.  Her mother eventually passed away. The siblings were in an orphanage together and they made every effort not to be separated.  At one point, Janaina was almost adopted by a German family but she could not bear to be away from her brothers and she became sad and depressed. The adoption fell through. However, her would-be adopted mother never gave up. She is still in contact with Janaina after all these years. The siblings eventually ran away to the streets and in the streets what they feared the most became a reality: they were separated. Janaina lost contact with her siblings and she was alone in the world. She had never experienced a proper family life. She only knew how to survive in the streets. Janaina shared her story without tears or regret. It was just her reality.  My childhood friend was moved by her story and so was everyone for that matter.  He asked if he could pray for her. I remember clearly that Janaina’s face lit up when my friend offered to do this. It appeared to be simple gesture on my friend’s part but his sincerity and genuine concern struck a chord in her heart.

A couple of weeks ago, Mary and I were walking to the Cracolândia when we heard someone calling out our names. We turned around and saw Janaina smiling and looking very pregnant. She is thirty years old now. She was really happy to see us after all these years. She could not believe that we had decided to move back permanently to Brazil. She told us that she is married and expecting her first child. She is currently unemployed but she has been doing odd jobs here and there to help pay the rent. She had been off drugs for several years now and is actively involved in a local church. We invited her to our house for coffee or lunch and a couple days ago, Janaina showed up here with her beautiful smile and looking almost ready to deliver her first child at any moment.

A Happy Reunion

A Happy Reunion

One of the first things that Janaina asked us is whether we remembered that particular Christmas Eve dinner in the streets. I was quite surprised that she remembered that day. She told us that she could never forget that day. She was surprised that we chose to have a meal with those who were excluded rather than with our friends and families. These were her very words. She even remembered my childhood friend and that he prayed for her. I told her that it was a moment from God for all of us. We sensed His love for us all. We were all included in His love. This was better than having a meal with friends and families.

Janaina’s trajectory was a difficult one. She explained that she struggled to leave the streets because the streets were her comfort zone. She has many good memories in the streets because of the bond she had with some of the children and adults. She said that she wouldn’t have survived the streets if it wasn’t for these relationships. Some of these people who had been her support in the streets were drug dealers, prostitutes, thieves and addicts. God used them to help this little girl. God uses anyone who is willing to be His instrument of Love.

Leaving the streets meant that she had to leave the only family she had known.

Janaina misses not having a family. Since they were separated her brothers and sister  have become like strangers to her. However, she is learning that family in the true spiritual sense is not defined by blood but those who are willing to walk together with her in this life. She still struggles with the sense of inferiority. She struggles with feeling excluded in society. These are struggles that perhaps will never go away for her. Others who have left the streets struggled with similar demons. She spent the whole afternoon with us and she was open and expressive. We were amazed how articulate she has become, being able to verbalize and identify her fears and hopes clearly.

Janaina was God’s Christmas gift to us this year. It is a reminder that nothing is wasted in God’s economy. Every gesture or just a simple sitting together to have a meal could remind someone of their true worth. When we had the Christmas Eve meal together, we just wanted to spend time with our friends who were homeless. We did not have any other motives except to enjoy them. I would like to do this again and again but I cannot be stuck in a moment. We are not called to relive past moments. The same God who brought about that eternal moment fifteen years ago is still working here. He has a banquet prepared and He has sent out the invitation. Everyone is invited.

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Abundant Life or Comfortable Life?

The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.- John 10:10

In my last post I mentioned a family we recently visited. This is the family of Maicon whom the team met in the streets. Maicon was incarcerated briefly in the juvenile detention center which gave him time to reconsider his life choices. Upon his release, Maicon returned to his house in the slums, a tiny shack for family of six with no running water or electricity. There was no bathroom.  Our team members visited Maicon and sensed that he was not going to last long at home. Within a few weeks, Maicon ran away from home and started getting involved with the local drug dealers. To make matters worse, some of the neighbors of Maicon’s family were trying to drive out his family so that they could occupy their space. His father’s life was threatened and he decided to move to another place. The father is hardworking man but he was disabled due to illness. He sold soft drinks in the streets to make ends meet but he did not make enough to rent a place. He sought the local social agencies for assistance. Unfortunately, this family did not meet the qualifications for the social programs for the present moment. The situation was becoming desperate when the drug lords in the neighborhood offered the father a place to squat in an old abandoned house. The father is an honest man and agreed to accept the offer out of desperation but only on the condition that he was not going to be involved in any shape or form with the drug operations. Most drug dealers have a “Robin Hood” complex here and they gave him their word that they would not expect anything in return. In reality, they don’t have to expect anything in return because three of their older children are already involved in the drug culture.

We visited this family in their new home just before Christmas. It was abandoned house that was dark and musty but it had two bedrooms and a bathroom. There was electricity but no running water. However, they could get water easily next door. Unfortunately, the house next to them is where the drug dealers do their business. The remaining children in this family are from ages 7 to 10. The 10 year old is girl. This house is terrible but it was a step up for them. They had privacy. They had a bathroom.

Mary with the Family

Mary with the Family

Abundant life is something greater than possessions. This family in a certain sense might be better off than some wealthy people. They know that they do not have abundant life yet. Many of us are blinded by false securities and hope but we think that we have it all. Most of the crack addicts think that they found everything they want in crack cocaine. Crack cocaine is their escape from reality. For others, materialism and other more accepted drugs are a way of escape.

I realized that our understanding of salvation is incomplete. Salvation cannot mean one thing for me and another things for someone else. This family has something to teach us about the meaning of salvation. They are able to face the harsh reality of life without giving up hope. They have hope. They see their hope materialized in things that we take for granted. We have something to teach them as well. We are both on the quest to discover the meaning of abundant life. I believe that God has brought us together so that we discover its meaning together.

 

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