Opening up our Minds

Then said I, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar and he laid it upon my mouth, and said, “Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.”- Isaiah 6:5-7

“You have the most beautiful blue eyes! What is your surname?” asked an elegantly dressed elderly man who was perhaps once a teacher or maybe even a lawyer. He looked liked an interesting person whom you would engage in a conversation just for the sake of it. However, the timing wasn’t the best. We were sitting on the ground in a square playing a game of Uno with Nayara, a homeless teenage girl. Our attention was focused on her but his comments were only directed to the person with blue eyes. They belonged to our volunteer from Holland. The rest of us felt a little awkward and smiled politely and tried to continue the game. However, we weren’t quite successful. The elderly man was persistent. He wanted to know everything about our friend and her ancestry. Then he noticed Mary’s light colored eyes and became curious about Mary. He continued to ask a series of questions directed to Mary. The young teenage girl in our midst was totally ignored. Nayara is sixteen years old. She is a pretty girl but her eyes are brown. Not for a moment, her presence was acknowledged. Neither was mine for the matter, but the topic of conversation was beautiful women and I am automatically disqualified as a subject matter. Nayara emotionally retreated from our group and eventually she told us that she was going to quit the game and left.

Nayara comes from a poor family and at a young age her mother had to give up her to an orphanage. She spent most of her life moving from one orphanage to another. Finally, she ran away and ended up the streets. This particular day she was feeling a little depressed because she was rejected by her boyfriend who is also homeless. Perhaps today of all the days, she wanted to know that she was still beautiful, but unfortunately in the conversation about physical beauty, she was the only woman who was ignored.

The elderly man was not deliberately ignoring Nayara. She just did not perk his curiosity. He is accustomed to homeless teens. He could not see her beauty because he could see past her homelessness. For him, the European woman playing a game of cards in the streets was more interesting and he could appreciate her beauty. She had all the features that this culture considers beautiful. This man could only see beauty defined along cultural lines. We are no different from him. We are conditioned by the standards of beauty of our culture as well. This made me question myself. Am I able to see beauty in the children and teens whom we minister or do I just see them as homeless children? They are beautiful as well. However, our culture has conditioned us to see beauty only in those who are dressed and act in certain way.

In the above biblical text, Isaiah came face-to face with the presence of God. He saw God’s glory and beauty in its plenitude and he realized that his cultural conditioning had limited his understanding of true beauty. The angel purified the prophet’s mind with holy fire so that his mind could be open to perceive God’s glory and beauty even in the darkest moments of Israel’s history.

Neoplatonic teachings on love and beauty argue that whenever we see and appreciate anything beautiful, we are actually seeing the presence of God in the person or object. It is an idea that is compatible with the Bible since we believe that God is the creator of all things and beauty helps us see God in his created artwork. It is not enough for us to just serve the forgotten ones in society. We must go beyond our cultural conditioning and see beauty in those whom we serve. This is important because the truth of the matter is that we can only value things which are beautiful to us. We cannot see the true value of a person unless we can see their true beauty. This cannot be a culturally conditioned idea of beauty which is superficial and ephemeral. It has to be beauty that draws us closer to the eternal reality of God. It is a beauty which opens our hearts and minds to see the image of God imprinted in the soul of the person.

The old man has unintentionally challenged me. He made me question whether I could see the eternal beauty of God in these children and teens. I have to confess, it is not easy. I can see their faults and perhaps the unpleasant areas of their lives more clearly. I realized that I am indeed a man of unclean lips and I need an angel to bring a coal from God’s holy fire to purify my mind. My mind needs to see the beauty of God present in these children and teens. It is this beauty that is going to help me to truly value and treasure them as God treasures them.


Tragic Tales of Three Mothers

We saw Alan, 12 years, carrying a small plastic bag with a yellowish substance in it. It was something we haven’t seen for a long time. It was cobbler’s glue. The children used to sniff it a long time ago and now it is back in the streets. Someone was selling it to the children and Alan was the distributor. Most likely, he does not get paid much for his work, maybe protection and a few dollars. It was enough for Alan. He makes him feel like a tough guy and a gangster. We were wondering who was the adult behind this operation and then we saw a tall woman in her late thirties dressed very conservatively in the way that many of the traditional Pentecostal church women do here in Brazil. It made her look awkward in the midst of the children and teens. She was involved in a heated argument and a small crowd of homeless people gathered around her. The commotion did not last long and once it calmed down we noticed that this woman looked a lot like Bruno. Bruno is one of the boys we have been visiting in the Juvenile Reform Center. He has made some positive progress with us and recently he was released to his family. We tried to get in touch with him but his mother who always answered the phone said that he was at his relatives whose contact number she did not have. Right now she was in front of us in flesh and blood. His mother was the one selling the glue to the children. Our main concern was Bruno at this moment so we asked her about him. His mother recognized me from twenty years ago. She had spent all her childhood homeless in the streets. I remembered her from twenty years ago. She was nineteen then.

We found her behavior to be strange when we spoke to her about her son. She did not appear to be the least interested in her son. She appeared like a empty shell of a person. She told us that her son was with her mother but she did not know the physical address of her mother’s house. We told her that we wanted to visit her son. He asked for our help to get enrolled in an art classes. Nothing appeared to interest her. She was not rude but she just appeared empty of any human emotions. Our encounter with her helped us understand Bruno better. He always appeared subdued and quiet. This woman was his mother and she grown up in the streets. She was not a bad person. She just passed onto to him what she had received. Unfortunately she did not receive much.

On the same night, Eric, 9 years old, was playing with some of the children in the streets when his mother showed up and asked him to go home. His mother looked thin and haggard. We are not sure but we suspect that she is homeless or living as a squatter in one of the abandoned buildings. She could even be a drug addict. However, she did not want her son to be near the children that were sniffing glue and using other drugs. Unfortunately I saw Eric sniff paint thinner before his mother came. He refused to leave with her and started getting aggressive with her. The poor mother appeared helpless in trying to get her son out of the environment. All the other teens and children felt sorry for her. They tried to help the mother by trying to convince Eric to go with her. For many of them, they never had their mothers concerned for them like her. Unfortunately Eric threw himself onto the filthy floor and refused to move and his mother just sat there next to him without knowing what to do. It was quite a difficult scene to witness.

João Vitor is only 11 but he acts and talks like he is 18. He is relatively new to the streets and he got involved in the drug trafficking as soon as he arrived. Unfortunately, João Vitor is a hardened criminal even at such a young age. His mother wanted to see him and she got in touch with us. She was a single mother. She has four children and João Vitor is the youngest. Her husband died at a young age and she was married to another man who adopted the children as his own. However, the marriage did not last and now she is back on her own. She has to wake up very early in the morning to work and travel a couple of hours to work. The children are left on their own all day. The only housing she could afford to rent with her salary was in the outskirts of the city and her neighborhood is a hotspot for drug trafficking. Only her youngest chose this path and she does not know what to do with him. Her life has gone from bad to worse and João does not seem to care. We met this woman at the subway station to take her to her son. On the way she shared her burdens with us. We just listened. There was so little one could do to help this mother. When João saw her mother, he ran up to her and gave her a hug and kiss. He acted like his age. However, she was not too enthusiastic about seeing her son. She looked tired and disappointed at what her son had become.

These three mothers we have met this week. We know them superficially but enough to know that they are working with the resources that they have. João Vitor is the one who has the best mother of the three. Yet, he is the worst situation of the three boys. Reality does not come ready with the answers. There is no easy formula. None of them are hopeless cases. We don’t have the answers for these mothers and not all of them are looking for answers. We have a strong conviction that the power of the gospel can bring Light in the lives of these mothers and sons. Our conviction can only mean something when we are willing to encounter the tragic realities of these mothers and sons and still say, “Yes! The Gospel can transform these tragic realities.” This is our hope.