Almost a Tragic Evening

Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.- Hebrews 2:14-15

I was waiting for the team members in front of the steps of the Roman Catholic Cathedral which is located in the old center of the city. The square pertaining to the church is where many of the homeless have found refuge at least for the past twenty years. In the evenings, some religious and altruistic societies come out to feed the homeless here. Consequently, it has became a the gathering point for the homeless towards the end of the day. While waiting for the team members to arrive, I noticed a man shouting out with much conviction and enthusiasm that he was from a state in the Northeast of Brazil even though he supported the local soccer team. He kept repeating this the whole time I was standing there. For some reason, in his state of insanity, he believed that the whole world should be made aware of this fact. Everyone just ignored this man which infuriated him even more and he started shouting at every passerby. This is quite a common scene among the homeless. Most of them suffer some sort of mental illness and it is not uncommon see people arguing or having heated discussion with an imaginary enemy. My mind was drifting off aimlessly thinking about the people in my surroundings and I can see how easy it is to tip over to the other side. Thankfully, the team members arrived and we found a large group of children and teens in the square.

The children were unusually eager to do activities with us. We were playing all kinds of games and some of them were even in the mood to chat with us. So far everything was going well. In the midst of this, there was another insane homeless woman who was accusing the children that they had stolen something from her. Nobody paid any attention to her including myself. I was having a great conversation with one of the teens. Then, all the sudden, I felt an icy cold liquid running down my hair and within seconds my shirt was soaking wet. I felt someone pouring what felt like a bucket of cold water on me. I stood up and saw that it was the crazy woman and she had emptied a large container of fuel alcohol on me. She was yelling at everyone saying that she meant business. I was really annoyed and confronted her. Then one of the older teens ran up to me and warned me that she had a lighter in her hand. The older teens surrounded her and threatened to hit her. She had a knife and a lighter in her hand and had threatened to set me on fire. I was in a daze for a moment and I heard people telling me to stay away from her. By this time, I began to sense the pungent stench of the alcohol. All the children and teens who are accustomed to violence in the streets were shocked at what had happened. They could not believe that someone would be aggressive to those who come to help them. The insane woman kept trying to light up her lighter and everyone told me to leave right away because I was still in danger. Finally, she gave up and ran away. The children came up to me and asked if I was feeling okay. Strangely, I was not afraid nor angry. I don’t think that I was in a state of shock. I am not even sure that I felt my life was in danger. The children advised me to go home and wash off the alcohol. It was good idea and I told them that I will be back tomorrow.

Some people would say that prayers of the saints protected me last night. I would like to think that this was true. However, I am also aware that there are many innocent people have died tragically last night in some cruel and unexpected way. I have read about people dying in similar circumstances before and on Monday, I could have been one of them. It was unprovoked and unforeseen. It was just someone with a mental illness doing something without a complete understanding of what was happening. I am glad that she wasn’t able to go through with her plans but she has marked my life nevertheless. She reminded me that mortality is something that could come to us at the moment we least expect. Despite what happened, it was a good night and bad things often happen in moments when everything seems to be going well. This is the state of our mortality. It is not something that we can avoid and it is definitely not something that we should fear.

I am going back to the same place today. I think that the lesson I learned from this incident was that I am happy doing what I am doing right now. I am not going to change it. I wasn’t feeling afraid, not because I am a brave man. Bravery is not necessarily a virtue in all situations. I could very well be insane myself and not see the danger. Maybe there might be some truth to this. However, mortality does not make any appointments with us. It just comes and I would like to continue to do what I am doing now when the time comes for me to surrender to my own mortality.

Having said this, prayers for our protection are always welcome.

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8 thoughts on “Almost a Tragic Evening

  1. Reading this jogged my memory that out of the blue I was prompted to pray for you the other day, which I did, specifically praying for your safety. I wonder if this happened to be when this incident was occurring. I will never ignore God’s prompting to pray about something after reading this.

    • Without any doubt, prayers in some mysterious way connects all of us with mercy and compassion of God. It makes us aware that nothing happens without God’s consent and knowledge. Thank you for your prayers.

  2. We to were prompted to pray for your safety two days ago and thanks be to our Lord…you are safe today. Fr. Stephen, I often advise Wanda to be constantly aware of your surroundings and the people within it, and take action which protects your from violence. God bless you again and again!

    • A friend from England made an identical comment about being prompted to prayer. Prayer is a wonderful mystery and its power cannot be rational explained but it’s connection are real. Thank you for your prayers.

  3. An evening that could have turned very tragic but thankfully didn’t. It’s possible that, over time, you have learned, perhaps without realizing it, not to panic in situations such as this. I’d like to believe something was watching over you as well.

    Situations like this can ocurr anywhere at any given time, but your point is well-taken; there are many homeless who have severe mental illnesses and who suffer horribly, not only from depravation of food and shelter, but from a lack of medical treatment and isolation from others who fear them, with good reason. The most highly trained professionals in the area of mental illnesses have difficulty dealing with those who are severely ill.

    Even in America, there remains still the remnant of shame associated with the mentally ill and there are no mechanisms in place to help them. In this tragic and deplorable state, they become a danger to others as well as themselves. In these extreme cases, a certain level of paranoia within the individual usually manifests itself, and they trust no one and fear everyone, even imaginary enemies. Their reality is a world created by their own minds in which they are trapped and cannot escape.

    Over decades, even centuries, from what I have read and observed, much mental illness has been misinterpreted as “sin” by those who have misunderstood Biblical events, parables and narratives. Even with divine inspiration, there will usually be a subjective perspective on behalf of the writers, and they will express events as far as their realm of knowledge and personal reference will allow them. Mental illnesses are not a new phenomenon, nor is their misunderstanding.

    Even though we now know more than we ever have about mental maladies, the human brain, and its workings still remain a mystery. It is impossible to remove a living brain from a human for scientific medical study, for the obvious reason. Until such time as techniques are developed that will lead to a greater understanding of mental illness, Humanity is stuck to deal with it as best it can, that being, in some cases, not at all.

    Mental illness takes many prisoners; those shunned, feared and unloved who are left to languish away with only their own personal demons (not to be taken as a literal term but as synonymous), as their only companions. And there are also the families of these unfortunates who search unsuccessfully for a lifetime, never knowing if their loved one is alive or dead. Others have no one, and suffer and die ignominiously, homeless and abandoned.

    Continued prayers for your safety are sent your way as well as compassion and the hope and faith for better understanding and treatment for the mentally ill who, like the poor, we have with us always.

    May God always be with you–and those when they need him most.

    • Great insight into the problem of mental illness.
      I don’t think people consider mental-illness as a sin here. The main problem here is that no one really knows what do with mentally ill people. The poor have limited resources to treat with their mentally-ill relatives and these, unfortunately, land up in the streets. However, it is not uncommon to meet homeless people from a middle class background. I have met here a man who was once a doctor in New York. I thought that he was making it up until he told us about the hospitals where he work in an impeccable American accent. Mental-Illness incapacitated him and he came back to Brazil and one thing led to other, he ended up in the streets.

      • I would hope no one anywhere considers mental illness a sin unless they have taken certain scriptures out of context and to a level of literal absurdity. Or they’re beyond ignorant. No one anywhere seems to know what to do with certain groups of the mentally ill, some are so sick and the available resources are slim to none in many cases.
        You are very right–mental illness is no respecter of persons and recognizes no socio-economic boundaries. If he’s still alive, right here, somewhere, on the streets of America is a man who developed paranoid schizophrenia while attending the prestigious Julliard School of Music on a full scholarship. A brilliant cellist, he now wanders the streets, homeless, fearful, pushing a grocery cart with his “possessions” and carrying a beat-up cello case that contains a cello with only one string. He doesn’t even know his name.
        True story–there was a movie made about his life, or what is left of it, entitled, “The Soloist.” Under our laws, he is beyond help. He is completely in God’s hands.

  4. What good work you are doing. Very sad so many . homeless suffering from mental illness. God bless the children that protected you. So many good people even living in poverty

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