Grace Beyond our Neighborhood

“Why should we spend time and money helping the street children who have nothing to do with my church’s ministry and neighborhood?”

Only someone like Silas would dare to ask this question and it was one of the reasons why I liked him. I used to walk home with Silas from the seminary. We were both studying at the Presbyterian Seminary in São Paulo. His church was in the northern part of the city which is not too far away from the center. Yet, he was totally unaware of the reality of the homeless children and teens living there. They were just forty-five minutes away from his neighborhood. However he wasn’t convinced that it was necessary for his church to be burdened with this problem. It was forty-five minutes away from his reality.

I haven’t seen Silas for fifteen years. I lost contact with him. Some told me that he is a pastor of a church now. Most likely he has forgotten about me or at least this conversation. I haven’t been able to forget his question ever since. Mainly because I could not answer him immediately. I was unprepared for it. I have always assumed that every Christian saw the necessity of reaching out to these neglected and forgotten children. Silas proved me wrong. It is not that he was a cold hearted man. To the contrary, he was a compassionate man who was involved in the social programs of his church. Above all, he was a sincere and dedicated Christian. This is why I haven’t forgotten his question. I came to realize that it is a relevant question and deserves a well thought out answer. Many good Christians might be wondering the same thing but are afraid expressing their thoughts would make them seem callous.

Moreover the law entered, that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound-Romans 5:20

This was St.Paul’s motivation to step out of his familiar circles to preach the gospel. He was a Pharisee and a prominent Jewish leader. In his time, he would have been a very effective apostle to the Jewish community. After all, no one understood the observances and intricacies of the Jewish religion of his time than a Pharisee like him. However, he chose to go to the Gentiles. His reason for this is; “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound”.

It is important for us to know that missionary work or rather, the work of the gospel is not social work. Social work is limited within geographical boundaries and each society must fulfill its obligation in resolving its own social problems. However, the vocation of the church has little to do with social work. We address conditions which social work avoids. This is because we bring something which sets us apart from all social programs. We bring the message of grace. It is all about grace. Although, we cannot address grace if we do not address “sin”. Grace overcomes sin and if we are not clear about what we are overcoming, then we won’t be confident about the healing power of grace.

We usually think about “sin” in the narrow sense. We think about it in terms of specific acts. It is understandable why we would be embarrassed to talk about sin in this sense. We feel like prigs who are poking our noses into other people’s intimate lives. However, ‘sin’ is broader than mere acts. When we walk down the streets of São Paulo, we see lonely and abandoned people and children. We see children without any family support or maybe they don’t even know what it means to have a family. We see people trying to kill themselves slowly with drugs because they feel that life is not worth living. We see people who are completely isolated and forgotten even though they live in the seventh largest city in the world. I am not just talking about the homeless or the poor. I am talking about regular people in their busy lives, going to work and rushing home to limited time with other family members who are subjected to the same pressures and loneliness. They hide their loneliness and isolation and hopelessness behind material things. However, they cannot hide it from themselves. This loneliness and isolation is present is the state of sin that grace seeks to overcome. It is the universal state of humans. The homeless and poor cannot afford the façade of the other people. Their lives display this sinful state for everyone to see. Unknowingly they exposed the fragility and failure of our human efforts to overcome our sense of emptiness. This is perhaps why most people do not want to see them. They are afraid that they might see themselves in the homeless. It is better to forget they exist than to see the reality of our souls in them. We cannot face this reality unless our hearts and minds are consumed by the power of grace. Grace not only gives the courage and wisdom to testify to its power over bleakness and desperation, it compels us to seek and share its goodness to those who are lost.

We work in the streets knowing that the social programs cannot bring the healing that these children and teens are seeking. Social programs cannot overcome this sense of abandonment and loneliness in their souls. We don’t have a magic formula to heal this emptiness but we can testify about what is real to us. We can testify to the healing presence of grace. This grace has brought peace to our hearts and given us a sense of belonging, not in a subjective manner but in a holistic way. It gives a sense of belonging that changes our practical lives, not the kind of belonging one feels to a church or some religious group. It has given us a sense of belonging to the One whom we call our Father. It is because He is our Father, we are called to share His grace to those who are lost and abandoned in this world because He is their Father as well. This is why we should care about people beyond our neighborhood, borders and cultures.

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Compassion and the Victim Mentality

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way. When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” And he hurried and came down and received Him gladly. (Luke 19:1-6)

A seemingly peaceful day was disrupted by five or six police with their guns out of their holsters chasing and yelling after a teenager. There was a lone civilian among the police and it was obvious that he was the victim of the crime. For a moment all of us were disoriented with yelling and guns waving around in the air. Mary (my wife) warned the children that were with us to stay down, just in case someone’s gun were to go off by chance. Everyone heard Mary’s voice but no one paid attention to it, including me. We were just stood there paralyzed by adrenaline. The pursued teenager was trying to dodge the police by running between two parked cars. He almost looked like he was playing catch with them. It would have been comical if it wasn’t for the presence of the guns. Finally, the teenager turned into a narrow street which was his doom. He was surrounded. It didn’t take long for the police to subdue him and he did not resist. We were relieved that it was over. The children were strangely calm but our hearts were beating fast. Perhaps they were accustomed to such a scene. We were curious about the teenager. He was homeless like them but no one could recognize him from where we were standing.

The police made the teenager sit on the ground while they waited for the patrol car. Mary and I pretended that we needed to walk pass the scene just to catch a glimpse of the teenager. I admit we are curious creatures. Unfortunately he was someone we knew. His name is Raphael and he had just turned eighteen. He is a loner and doesn’t interact with the other children and teens. We have seen him several times in our neighborhood sitting outside a convenience store begging for money. Sometimes he would smile at us but most of the time he would just ignore us. We never knew him to steal or rob but maybe today he saw an opportunity to do it and took a risk. Anything is possible. There is strong chance that Raphael is going to prison. He most likely will spend a few months in the overcrowded prisons of São Paulo. He was crying as we passed him. I think he saw us as we passed him. There was nothing we could do for him.

I don’t believe that many people felt sorry for him. I am sure that the victim of his crime was feeling vindicated at this moment. Raphael looked defeated and devastated. It is easy to forget that Raphael is not the victim. However, this does not mean he doesn’t deserve our compassion. It also doesn’t mean that we should overlook what he has done. He is a criminal and he deserves our compassion. I think this is the hardest thing for us as human beings to do. This is really the tough part of the gospel. The Pharisees had a hard time with Jesus because He showed compassion to people who really did not deserve it. The Pharisees were not upset when Jesus healed the blind and the lame. They were upset when he ate with sinners. They were upset when he accepted them as his friends. They were upset when He showed compassion to those who did not deserve it.

Many times I have seen pictures of homeless children in brochures that show them in dirty clothes and sometimes they are curled in pain from hunger. The picture conveys the idea that these poor children are victims and because they are victims, they deserve our compassion. When we think of victims, we think of people who are deprived of their basic necessities. However, our homeless children eat leftover food from restaurants and usually these are good restaurants. At night several groups come by with food and hot soup for the homeless. A teenager once told me that they never lack food and clothing, in fact, she was giving away some of her clothes because she had too much. She slept on dirty mattress in the streets but she had a suitcase full of clothes. If I made a brochure of our homeless children eating food from restaurants and having suitcases of clothes, I doubt people will be moved to help. People don’t feel pity for people who are not victims.

Of all the people in Jericho, Jesus chose to dine in Zaccheus’ house. Without a doubt, there were more deserving people than him that would have been honored to have Jesus in their home. Perhaps some of them could have been victims of Zaccheus’ unscrupulous dealings. However, Jesus decided to show compassion to Zaccheus even though among all the people there, he was deserved it the least.

Zaccheus thought he had created his personal heaven until he met Jesus. The compassion of Jesus revealed the true state of his desperate existence. It woke Zaccheus out of his slumber of self-deception. This is what compassion does. It forces people to wake up from their self-deception. There is such thing as false compassion. False compassion makes and maintains people as victims. For me, another name for false compassion is pity. I think many times we confuse “pity” for compassion. Our feeling of pity comes from a sense of guilt but compassion is a decision we make to love those who do not deserve our love.

None of our homeless children and teens would consider themselves as victims. We should not make them victims. They never made excuses for their actions and we should not invent excuses to invoke pity in others. We don’t want anyone to help these children because of pity. Pity gets us nowhere. Compassion liberates lives. Some people believe that these children are victims of society’s ills. I am not sure if we can change society but I believe a genuine experience of God’s compassion can help us to be liberated from self-deception. This is not to say the children are solely responsible for their state of homelessness. However, turning them into victims is not going to change their state. Compassion can, as in the story of Zaccheus. Change for the better is our goal.

Everyone needs to experience the compassion of God to truly see who we are. Zaccheus went up the tree to see Jesus and he discover his true state that day. He realized the wealth and power he had acquired were just deceptions. The compassion he experienced through Jesus gave him the courage the face reality. Zaccheus would have something concrete to say to our children. Only those who allow the compassion of God to transform their lives have anything concrete to say in this world of self-deception. Only those who have experienced the compassion of God can love compassionately those who do not deserve it.

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