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.
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.