Giving Evil Spirits Some Space

And when He had come out of the boat, immediately there met Him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no one could bind him, not even with chains, because he had often been bound with shackles and chains. And the chains had been pulled apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces; neither could anyone tame him. And always, night and day, he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones.- Mark 5:2-5

Every Friday we set aside a period in the afternoon to study the gospel of Mark together and its application to our ministry in the streets. Our last reading was on the above text. The story is a strange and detailed event of a demon possession and exorcism. Modern Christians have differing views on evil spirits and demonic possessions. Some might believe that the demon-possessed people in the gospel narratives were actually mentally-ill people and others might believe that there are real evil spirits who possess people. The differences of opinion are on how evil manifests itself but we all agree that the forces that isolate and destroy an individual are evil and must be removed. In other words, all forces that contribute to the self-destruction of any human being can be considered as evil spirits. In our work, we encounter evil spirits on a daily basis.

The possessed individual in the gospel was marginalized emotionally and spiritually from his community. His isolation was imposed by the community, as well as by his personal actions of violence. In isolation, he was destroying the only thing left for him to destroy, which was his own body. The gospel tells us that he cut himself with rocks. He was on the path to death. Henceforth, the cemetery was the only suitable place to keep him; away from society and abandoned to his own self-destructive habits. No one cared, perhaps no one knew how to care for him, except for Jesus. He went looking for this man. Jesus did not need to be there. There were no Jewish people there because they kept swine in this place. The only reason Jesus was there was because of this abandoned demon possessed maniac.

This story resonated with us. Our children and teens are like the demon possessed man. Society sees them as lost causes and they don’t see any hope in them. People are generally afraid of them and the children don’t make it any easier. They further contribute to their personal isolation and marginalization by their aggressive attitudes. They react against the rejection they sense. The old center of São Paulo is the metaphorical cemetery of this city. We are surrounded by old abandoned buildings left to decay. No important businesses are found here. Money is invested elsewhere in the city while the old center is left to die a slow death. However, this is the place where the children and teens find solace and refuge in drugs and other self-destructive habits…

The thing that stood out for us in this gospel narrative was the idea of space. The evil spirits needed available space to strive. They pleaded with Jesus not to send them away from the region because there was still space for them there. They asked to be sent to the herd of swine. Initially, I always found this part a little confusing and disturbing. Why did the poor pigs have to suffer? They were innocent animals. However, I believe that there is deeper significance to this story. In the Bible, pigs are unclean, ritually unclean. When we take into consideration this symbolic meaning of the pigs, then we are able to see that this story was a criticism of the society as well. There was an unclean presence in the society which still provided room for the evil spirits to strive. This unclean presence is not a mystery as it was clearly revealed in the general attitude of the people. They were more concerned about their financial loss than about the person of Jesus. They did not care if Jesus overcame an apparently violent and dangerous man. They did not care if this man was cured. They just cared about their financial loss. They valued things over people. In doing so, they created room for evil and destructive spirits to dwell in their city.

Destructive evil spirits need space to function.

We just experienced a sad incident a couple days ago. One of the boys with whom we have had a longstanding relationship suddenly turned aggressive and violent towards us. His name is João. He has been in the streets since he was ten years old. He was one of the first boys whom we met when we returned to this work. He was always a docile boy and never without a smile. However, last week, while we were helping a older teen get some legal help, João started attacking us for no apparent reason. We were a little taken aback at first and thought that he was joking. Unfortunately it was not a joke. We think that it was due to jealousy. João did not want this other teenager to receive any help. The situation got out of hand and caused a small crowd of onlookers to gather. We managed to get away from João’s aggressive behavior. Unfortunately, his attitude did not change the next day. He continued to fluctuate from the old João to this new raging maniac. Finally, we had to take a stand and cut all ties with João until he learns to respect us once again. It was particularly hard for our team leader who has worked with João for almost five years.

What made João change? Well, it wasn’t just the case of the “the devil made me do it”. Even though he never engaged in any criminal activities, he constantly sniffed paint thinner. His self destructive behavior provided the space for further isolation and destructive behavior. There was room for evil spirits to dwell in him and he couldn’t handle the fact that someone else in his situation was getting help. Evil spirits or destructive behaviors don’t just happen. We give them space to strive. One self destructive behavior opens the door to another and it becomes a downward spiral to complete isolation and despair.

Where is the gospel in this situation? We hope that it lies in the discipline that we have imposed on João. He needs a wake up call. He needs to see that he needs help to evacuate these evil spirits in his life. We have not rejected João. We have rejected the spirit which is destroying his soul. How do we proceed from here? Well, when the people in the gospel narrative rejected Jesus, Jesus left the man whom He healed to be His witness. We are the witnesses in this situation. Jesus redeemed us from our self destructiveness and now we can testify that His grace is able to do the same for João. We will patiently wait for João just like Jesus patiently waited for us to receive His healing.


Crumbs under the Table

Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour. – Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus called the woman a dog.

She was a marginalized person in her society and definitely someone with very low self-esteem. She was in a desperate situation and Jesus did not make anything easy for her. Of all the people he healed, Jesus gave this woman the hardest time. He had healed ungrateful people before and he dined with despicable characters but he only insulted this lowly woman in the gospels.

This story is inculcated in my mind ever since my insertion into the Anglican tradition as a teenager. The prayer of Humble Access* said before receiving Communion transformed the desperate plea of this woman into poetry.

“We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.”

The prayer teaches us how to interpret the text. It is about the power of God’s mercy.

The gospels are painting a picture of Jesus for us. It is a Jesus who lived in the harsh reality of his times. In fact, the Bible is a library of books written in the harsh historic reality of the authors and each of them try to show the mercy of God shining through these realities. His mercy is the Light which reveals a deeper reality.

In the Western countries as well as some affluent nations, dogs are treated better than people. People have more compassion for dogs than their fellow human beings. Calling someone a little puppy is sometimes a term of endearment. In Jesus’ time and still in the some parts of the Middle East I am told, dogs are like rats that serve a purpose like guarding a house. There is not much affection between people and dogs. Each society has people who are like the dogs of Jesus’ time.

Our ministry is to this particular group of people. I need to add a disclaimer here that I don’t consider them dogs and neither does anyone in our team. However, many people do consider these homeless children and teens to be nuisances and at best, they are barely tolerated. Churches do not set aside time and money in their annual budgets to minister and reach out to these children and teens. When they do give them something, it is usually the scraps of their time and energy. Just like what we give to stray dogs. Most people do not think about them at all unless they walk pass them in the streets. Just like the fact that I don’t think about rats in this rat infested city but when one rans across my path, I reminded that they are around. However, I would rather not remember this. This is basically the attitude of the churches and people have regarding the homeless. Yet, the same people believe wholeheartedly in equality of all people but reality tells a different story.

The words of Jesus address the harsh reality of life experienced by those who are considered like ‘dogs’. We are here working with young children and teenagers whom we know will not be treated as equals for the majority of their lives. They may never be able to shake off the feeling that they are outcasts. Yesterday I accompanied a young teenager, Igor, to a government agency to help him get his documents. We couldn’t find the specific building and I decided to ask for directions from a group of policeman. One of the policemen gave Igor a look of disgust and was staring at him aggressively as if he had done something wrong. While I was asking them for directions, this policeman still did not stop humiliating this boy with his stance and demeanor. Igor noticed this and walked on. This is part of his life. Igor has accepted the fact that many consider him to be a like a dog. I can talk to him about having a better self-esteem but it would not make a difference. Society will always treat him differently. What is important for Igor to know is if the gospel is for him as well or just for middle class people? He wants to know if the mercy of God can shine through his inadequacies and lowly status. He wants to know if he could gather up the crumbs under the table.

The prayer of Humble Access* reminds us that none of us are worthy to eat at the Table but God’s mercy invites us to participate at the table. However, most of us say this with our mouths but in reality we think that it is our right to be at the Lord’s Table. For people like us, we need to humble ourselves and know our true status. For someone like Igor, perhaps he needs to exercise his faith a little bit more to see that God’s mercy is also for him. There are many voices telling him, through their attitudes and actions, that he has no place at the Table. Igor needs to exercise his faith to see through these lies. Jesus challenged this woman to do exactly this. He called her dog but she knew that this was not going to stop God from pouring out His mercy for her. Of all the people in the Bible, this woman dominates the most respected place in our gospel. She was the only one who outwitted our Lord. Her words have found themselves in the Liturgy and in my opinion, it is one of the most beautiful prayers in our Liturgy.

*More information about the Prayer of Humble Access can be found here.


Walking on Water

But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary. Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.”- Matthew 14:22-27

Sometimes it seems like we don’t have the adequate resources to address the immensity of the needs around us.

Igor, the boy who was attacked by the dog, is illiterate. This is the first time I met a young teenager in the streets who could not even write his name. He has never been to school. This young man was so severely neglected as a child that his personal development was affected. Legally Igor is an adult and society would expect him to behave as one. However, mentally and emotionally, Igor does not have any of the tools that would help him get even the lowest paying job in São Paulo.

Rose is fifteen. She is intelligent and full of energy. Recently, she told us that she was pregnant. It wasn’t necessary because we noticed the growth of her stomach. When we asked her if she had any plans for her child, she just shrugged her shoulders and continued sniffing her paint thinner. I saw her last Monday and the growth of her stomach was gone. She miscarried her child. When we asked her about it, she wasn’t able to say anything intelligible about what had happened. She was too high on drugs.

These are just two examples and I could fill this post with examples of children and teens who appear to be so lost that it is easy to feel a sense of hopelessness. These children are born into a chaotic environment and it seems like they don’t believe there is anything better out there. Maybe they don’t have the time and energy because they just try to keep afloat in this sea of chaos.

Last Sunday, we heard the above gospel passage about Jesus walking on water. It is the first time I saw how relevant this text is to our present reality in the streets. The good news is that Jesus was not consumed by the sea of chaos. He walked on water.

At first, the disciples thought that it was a ghost or an illusion. They were obviously afraid. Ghosts are frightening because they challenge our sense of reality and not in a good way. Illusions are worse. They create an image of something that is not there in reality.

A few years ago, one of the teenagers accused our team leader of preaching illusions to the homeless. He said that our words were nothing but empty promises. These were strong words. In a sense, he was right. They are empty words if we don’t make it our reality. Faith is not make-believe, but it is an actual step towards a new understanding of reality. Of all the disciples, only Peter experienced this new reality. He was the only one who had faith while the rest just believed. Of course, he almost drowned as well. This is the risk. Faith is a risk. The gospel only becomes real for those who are willing to take the risk. It is a risk to tell these children and teenagers that it is possible for them to have a full and complete life in this world. For many, it is like a frightening ghost that challenges everything they have known. For some, it is illusion that would only disappoint. It takes faith to step out on the water. It does not mean that we pretend that we are not doing something which is normally not done.

I understand faith as interpreting my reality through the Lord who walks on water. I don’t have to pretend that the sea of chaos is not dangerous and unwelcoming, but it does not determine what we can or cannot do in this reality. Whenever I talk the teenagers of the hope of the gospel, I am also fully aware that maybe everything could go wrong for them or me despite having faith. It is a risk to believe in the promise of abundant life. However, we need to walk on water because Jesus is waiting there. He is bringing a new perspective to Life and we will only understand this new perspective if we walk out to where He is standing. This miracle is perhaps one of the greatest miracles in the gospels. It changes how we understand Jesus working in our reality. He is not hindered the circumstances in which we find ourselves. He transcends them. We know that we are surrounded by the sea of chaos but we also know that we are here because the One who walks on water is able to bring order into this chaotic environment.


Comfort for the Orphans

When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take care of me.- Psalm 27:10

A young homeless teenager was attacked by a Rottweiler. It happened in the middle of the night. He was walking to the square where he usually sleeps when all the sudden a big unleashed dog came out of nowhere and attacked him. The dog bit him in the groin area. I don’t know how he managed to get away from the dog but he did. He ran to the square covered with blood. The other homeless teenagers quickly got some money together and tried to find a taxi to take him to the hospital. Fortunately, a passerby noticed the injured boy and immediately called the ambulance. He received thirty stitches but he was not hospitalized. He lost a lot of blood but the hospital where he went is often overcrowded and they could not keep him there. He returned to the square to sleep. The boy’s name is Igor and he is about eighteen. This is not the same Igor from my previous post. Igor happens to be a common Brazilian name. This particular Igor is relatively new to us. We have seen him around but he is quite shy and hardly speaks to us.

All this happened at night and when we saw the teens the next day we were unaware of what had happened. Igor was lying on a thin cushion covered with dirty blankets. He was sniffing paint thinner and there was no evidence that anything had happened. I guess that no one wanted to talk about it because Igor was hurt in his intimate parts and they respected his privacy. However, something was different. Igor approached us and asked to do some activity with us. He asked me in particular to read to him from the Bible. At first I was a little confused because none of the older teens have ever made such a request. He asked me to sit next to him and read the Bible with him. I did exactly this. I read the story about Jesus calming the storm and we talked about what it means to trust God, not just depending on Him to help us through tough situations but entrusting our whole being unto Him. When I was done, Igor wanted me to continue. We read some stories from the Old Testament and talked about them. Then a woman came with some medicine for him. She was the owner of the unattended dog. Naturally I was a little confused with all the medication she gave him. It was at this point when Igor told me what had happened to him.
The owner of the dog is homeless as well and she has three young children with her. The dog was protecting her children and Igor unknowingly walked passed where the children had been sleeping. The dog was still around and it was not far from where we were. However, Igor appeared to be calm. After the woman left, he asked me to continue to read. He sat close by and listened attentively to what I was reading. It was interesting. Igor had just experienced something stressful and he wanted to have someone close by and read something that brought peace to his soul. He wanted a father figure to be near him.

I asked him if he was in pain and he said that he had taken some painkillers. He wanted to know if there were certain foods that he should avoid. He talked a little bit about what happened and then I asked him if I could pray with him. His face lit up and he said “Yes”. We prayed a short prayer and the other teenagers looked on. It was important that they saw what we did. We want them to know that we are willing to sit with them and bring some comfort when they need it as well. They might be homeless but it does not mean that they have to go through these moments alone. Igor experienced something frightening and stressful and he had no place to go to recover. He needed extra care and attention and he had no family to give it. His biological father is in prison and Igor had never been to school. This is a boy who has suffered neglect all his life. Today, he was hurt and wanted special attention. I am glad that he invited us to do something with him. I am grateful that for a short period I was like a father to this young man.