Not Aiming for Happy Endings

“I can be happy with some of the things that I have achieved recently but I am not going to fool myself as well. I know that my happy ending is not to be found in this life. There are many challenges ahead of me. I have many battles to face and I know that I have to face them alone because they waged in my soul. It is good to know that I can know person of Jesus in this life and I don’t have to wait until the next life to see Him. He has been my comfort and counsellor and the strength that is going to help me go beyond my limitations.”- Janaina Prado

Janaina recently posted this on Facebook. Her post reveals the loneliness of her life journey but it is not a loneliness that leads to desperation and hopelessness. She has already walked this path before. Her loneliness is now leading her to the path of solitude; a path of self-discovery.

I remember one specific conversation I had with Janaina about 17 years ago. She was 14 then. She told me about the time she was almost adopted. She was living in an orphanage when a couple from Germany wanted to adopt her. According to Brazilian law, they had to fly to Brazil to meet her before the process was finalized. It was love at first sight for the woman. Janaina said that the feeling was mutual. However, she was not ready to leave her brothers behind. Nothing could convince her to agree with the adoption. Even though she was only eight at that time, the Brazilian law respected the sentiments of the child in the adoption process. Consequently, the family gave up on the process. They could not bear to separate the young girl from her siblings. However, the woman adopted Janaina as her daughter in her heart and never lost contact with her. Unfortunately, her brothers left the orphanage leaving Janaina behind. She eventually ran away and ended up in the streets. Her life in the streets led to drug addiction and her condition went from bad to worse. In her conversation with me, she said that she regretted not leaving with the family to Germany. She imagined her life would have been better if she had taken the bold step and agreed with the adoption. Most people would agree with her. If her story was a fairy tale, we would say that she lived happily ever after in Germany with her kind adopted parents. The people who wanted to adopt her were kind and good people. However, this does not mean that her life would have been a bed of roses in Germany.

We will never know if her life would have been better in Germany. It would have been different. She would have been financially better off and perhaps have a middle class lifestyle. Maybe she might have gone to college and even have a well-paying job. Maybe she might not have learned to overcome the loneliness and discover her solitude with God. Maybe she would never discover the strength to overcome the battles waged in her soul.

Aristotle said that the chief aim of life is live a complete and fulfilled life. According to him, virtues guide us in this path of self-discovery. Material goods and even a comfortable life do not bring us closer to discover this fulfilled life. In many cases, they could be an obstacle. What we define as a happy ending may not necessarily mean the person is on the path of self-discovery. In the conventional sense, it just usually means that they are living a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. However, life has more to offer than this. Janaina is on the path of discovering this and she realizes that she does not need a happy ending to do it.

The joy of her journey is to know for sure that she has everything she needs to live a complete and fulfilled life. She also knows that her life does not just end here but the time here is just part of the journey. Her close and real relationship with Jesus is the answer to help her engage and overcome the inner battles waged in her soul. She knows that she cannot do it by herself and only the strength that comes from the person of Jesus is going to help her. This is not knowledge that has been passed onto her. Her post on Facebook comes from a personal self-discovery. No pastor could have articulated it so perfectly as she did. She wrote this out of her own personal experience.

Someone once asked me what do we consider as a success in our ministry. I would point to Janaina. I would love for the children and teens we know today in the streets to one day discover what Janaina wrote on her Facebook. For us, this would be success. We don’t need a happy ending. We desire that the children and teens discover together with us the path to a fulfilled life.

A Happy Reunion

A Happy Reunion

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Waiting for the Right Time

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”- Mark 1:15

Recently, I watched a youtube instructional video on playing the classical guitar. The very first instructions were to just hold the guitar without playing its strings. This was quite hard because my first instinct is to start strumming on the strings. Just as I was trying to resist the temptation to do this, the instructor said that the problem with many students is that they want to play immediately when they grab the guitar. He seemed to be looking at me when he said this. According to him, this impatience leads to bad habits and poor playing. He emphasized that it was essential for us to know and understand the instrument before rushing into playing it. We were instructed to feel the strings and then to think about what we are going to do and how we are going to do it mentally. Once we get all the steps figured out mentally, only then are we ready to begin. It doesn’t mean that we are going to play beautifully right away. It just means we are ready to begin.

Jesus waited for thirty years before he preached his first sermon on the Kingdom of God. Throughout his ministry, Jesus emphasized in subtle as well as explicit ways the importance of waiting. He did not just wait passively. He submitted Himself to the process of waiting. When he was baptized against the protest of John the Baptist, Jesus said that it was the appropriate way for the time being. John was right; Jesus should be baptizing him instead. However, the waiting process demanded otherwise. Waiting can mean doing things that apparently make no sense to those around us. Jesus spent a bulk of his life as a carpenter. It is strange that there is no explicit reference to his experiences as a carpenter in his teaching. In fact, it seems like they were uneventful years. Why didn’t he start his ministry earlier and die on the Cross at a later age?

Jesus’ ministry did not end at the Cross. The Cross was the beginning of a new phase of His eternal ministry. It marked His transition from prophet and teacher to High Priest and King. As High Priest, He represents not only God to us but also He represents Humanity to God. His qualification to do this comes from the years He spent experiencing all the ups and downs of a regular human being. I guess being a carpenter is as normal as you can get during his time. Regular human life is full of challenges and struggles and everyone has their share of suffering. Jesus is not a High Priest of exceptionally complex cases. He is the High Priest of regular human beings in regular human situations.

He is a High Priest that truly understands human predicament and yet He was able to transcend it. He gives the mundane things in life a new meaning. They are not wasted experiences because they can point us to something that is eternal. Jesus saw that spending thirty years as a carpenter was important. It gave Him the tools to preach the Kingdom of God effectively to the world because He was able to see eternity in the mundane things. If we are unable to see the eternal present in the mundane things, then we won’t be able to preach the Kingdom of God effectively.

‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’-Matthew 25:23

We spend hours in our ministry apparently doing mundane things. Our children and teens are so detached from regular human society that doing these things with them brings them back into human society. However, it doesn’t just end there. These times spent with the children prepare the way for us to preach the Kingdom of God. Most important, they prepare us to discern the Eternal Presence of God in the mundane.

Our time of waiting is a time of training our eyes to see the eternal presence in the mundane.

It is easy to miss the importance of doing these mundane things in preparation to preach the gospel. One of the frustrating things for us is perhaps walking for miles searching for these children and teens. It is even worse on the days when we don’t find them. It is easy to feel as if we have wasted our time. However, occasionally some complete stranger comes to us and tells us that he has seen us walking around looking for the children and he wants to know what motivates us to do such things. The only answer we can give is that the Kingdom of God is here and we are here to testify of its goodness.

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An Open Moment

Then He also said to him who invited Him, “When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”-Luke 14:12-14

I walked with Igor to the subway station closest to our house. We walked and talked along the way like two ordinary friends. No one would have guessed that Igor was sleeping in the streets just a few months ago. Before parting our ways, he thanked me for the hundredth time for our hospitality. Then he gave me a big warm hug. I walked home feeling grateful for the things God was doing in our lives.

It has been a while since I wrote about Igor. In my previous entry, I wrote about his move to a government-sponsored halfway house called, “Hope for Autonomy”. He is still living there with his girlfriend, Ana Paula. However, many things have changed. The changes are not confined to these two. They have started a chain reaction.

In the beginning of this year, Igor found a job. The thing that made of all us extra proud of him was that he found this job on his own. Initially, Igor was passive about his job search. He was timid and afraid of rejection. Then something changed and made him take a more active posture. I am not sure what changed his attitude towards the job hunt. Maybe it was the fear of returning to the streets. He spent the final weeks of December going around small businesses looking for short-term employment. Finally, someone gave him a chance and ironically it was a small business located about hundred meters away from where Igor used to sleep in the streets. The company delivers mineral water to businesses and residences in the area. It is hard work. Igor has to load about ten five gallon containers in a trolley and push them to their respective destinations. There are no motorized vehicles or anything to facilitate the delivery. Everything is done through pure muscle strength. Most days he walks about three to five miles with this heavy load. It is his first job and he has just completed one month. In his first week of work, we casually walked passed his workplace and saw Igor soaking wet with his own sweat.  It was 100° F (40° Celsius). He waved at us and continued his work without saying anything. We understood. He did not want to be distracted and we walked on by.

The salary is not that great. He does not make enough for him to find a place to rent but spiritually the job is doing wonders for Igor. The other teenagers are impressed when they see Igor walking around delivering the containers of water. They see a possibility for a change as well. Some have asked for our help with documents so that they can apply for jobs. One teenager asked us if we would accompany him in his job search just to give him the confidence he lacks. They are sick of the streets and criminal life. They want to have a honest job even if it doesn’t pay much. This new desire came about by seeing one of their own working.

We managed to get hold of Igor on his lunch break and we asked him about his work. He was honest and told us that it was tough but he acknowledges that it is a good start. Mary offered to continue the English lessons with him if he desired. He told us honestly that when he goes home from work he just wants to rest and sleep. Then we offered him to come to our apartment once a week to have a small meal and just relax there before going home. He accepted our invitation.

It is very hard for the children or the teens to accept an invitation to anyone’s house. For them, it was stepping out of their comfort zone. We were prepared for Igor to be feel a little inhibited on his first visit here. However, we were pleasantly surprised. He appeared to be relaxed and comfortable in our home. He was curious about our books and asked about the kind of books we read. He told us about a particular book that he wanted to read and I told him that I would find it for him.

We casually talked about working life. I mentioned the importance of having a plan or project for our lives and how this would help us not to be discouraged when things are tough. He listened intently. Our conversation slowly drifted to the Bible. He was very curious about God and faith and I proposed that we read the Bible together on Wednesdays. He agreed and he said that he wanted to continue with the English lessons as well.

His second visit took place this week. He was more relaxed this time. He shared about his work and conversations with fellow workers. He was more open and communicative than before. We did a brief English lesson and then read a small section of the gospel of Matthew. It was not a passive Bible study, the kind where I talk and everyone listens. Igor contributed his thoughts and he shared from his experience on how he understood God was working in his life. We ended the Bible study with the understanding that all of us have something to learn from each other. We were all humbled as well as edified by the active presence of God in our lives.

For me personally, it was amazing to see the progress of our relationship with Igor. When we met him for the first time, he had just gotten out of Juvenile detention center. He was sniffing paint thinner and robbing. Now, he is reading the Bible together in our apartment. Life is unpredictable. We don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring us. We don’t what is in store for Igor. The future does not belong to us. God has given us the present moment. At this moment, Igor is open to receive the eternal things from God and we are happy that we are part of it.

Links to previous posts on Igor:
http://spmercyministry.com/2014/11/20/hope-for-autonomy/
http://spmercyministry.com/2014/11/17/igor-has-an-address

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Why didn’t I dance

“My favorite thing to do is to take a shower. I never had a shower in my house, in fact, I never had lived in a proper house. It did not have a bathroom or a kitchen. I never slept in a bed when I was a child. I never dreamed that I would have all these things one day. Now I do.”

These were the opening lines of a remarkable book I read over the weekend. It was recommended to me by a homeless teenage girl. Her name is Isabela. She is about 19 and like most of the older teens, she has been living in the streets since she was a young child. Although, unlike the others, she spent a couple of years in a shelter for children until she turned eighteen. Then she was forced to return to her family. She stayed for one day at her aunt’s house and then fled to the streets again. Our conversation did not go further than this. She was not ready to share more and we respected her privacy. Then she surprised us and asked us if we could buy her a book. This was the first time any of the teens or children asked for a book. Most of them dislike to read and naturally we were happy to find one who actually likes to read. She corrected us immediately. She told us that she did not like to read but this particular book touched her. The book is called, “Esmeralda: Why didn’t I dance.” It was a strange title and we had to search for it at several used bookstores before finding it. I open the first page and read the above opening lines of the life story of Esmeralda. I was drawn in immediately.

As I read her story I discovered that Esmeralda was living in the streets when we were working here twenty years ago. To my great surprise, her older brother was someone with whom I had good contact in the past. However, I cannot remember ever speaking to her personally even though her face looks familiar. Her story was similar to many of the children and teens in the streets. She comes from a family living in a tiny shack made out of scrap plywood. They had one mattress and everyone slept on the same bed. They were eight children but four died from illness. The oldest sister was ten years old when a group of men kidnapped and raped her before killing her. Her mother suffered a mental breakdown after this and started drinking heavily. The mother used to force the children to go the streets with her to beg for money. Many times they hardly had any money for food but the mother always found a way to buy alcohol. The shack they lived in did not have a bathroom or a kitchen; they cooked their meals on a makeshift stove using scrap wood as fuel. Consequently, their tiny shack was always filled with suffocating fumes which the children had to endure while eating their meals. This was the world of Esmeralda. It is hard to believe that people could live in such conditions and I would have found it unbelievable if I hadn’t been to some of these homes. However, according to Esmeralda, it wasn’t extreme poverty that led her to the streets. This is an important point to remember. The problem is not just poverty, as extreme and dehumanizing as it may seem. Children can adapt to extreme conditions if they feel that they are loved. And love was the one thing that Esmeralda did not feel in her tiny shack.

Esmeralda’s mother suffered from severe mental illness that made her violent. She would wait for the children to go to bed while they were fast asleep she would attack them. In the morning she would be remorseful. The children were naturally terrified of her. Eventually things got worse for the children. Her mother started bringing strange men to the shack and one day one of them raped Esmeralda. She was about 11. Her older brother had enough and ran away to the center. Esmeralda followed in his footsteps soon after.

Life in the street was not easy for Esmeralda. In her desperation to get money and shelter, she trusted the wrong people and she suffered more abuse. It was a miracle that she was not murdered like her sister. Gradually she got involved in crime and was sent to the juvenile detention center where the guards treated her with violence. By the age of eighteen, she was a hardened crack addict and considered to be a hopeless case.

Esmeralda shares that her faith in God gave her the strength to take the bold step towards leaving the street life. There was no radical conversion experience. It was actually a quiet and reflective process. She said that she found life in the streets to be monotonous. She used drugs not because she was addicted but to escape the monotony. She pleaded with God for the strength for a change. At this particular moment, she felt the presence of God in a real way. This presence opened her eyes to see the people who were willing to help her change her life story. She approached these people for help.

Her journey out of addiction was not an easy one. She had to struggle with the fact that she had to leave behind all her friends who had become very much like her family. She realized that she needed to change her way of thinking about the world and she was clueless how to go about doing it. She started by changing the way she thought about herself. She learned that she needed to love herself and she couldn’t do this until she forgave her mother and not only her mother but all those who wronged her. Then, finally, she had to forgive herself. I won’t say that there was a happy ending because Esmeralda is still young and there is a long journey for her. Esmeralda is happy now because she is where she wants to be emotionally and spiritually. She is in a place where she can learn and grow. For her, this is the perfect way to live her life. She did not want to become rich. She did not mind being poor. Her goal at the end of the book was to finish her high school education and go to college. Things she never thought she could ever hope for when she was a young child. The book ended at this point and it was written 14 years ago. I did some research on her and found out that she did finish her college degree on Anthropology. She continues to learn and grow into her vocation as God’s instrument in this world.

This is the story of Esmeralda. Isabela had already this book once and she wanted to read it again. When I told her that I found the book, her eyes lit up and she wanted to see the book right away. She grabbed it from my hands and held it close to her chest. Her face reflected an intense delight. The story of Esmeralda meant something very important for Isabela. It represented hope for her. Maybe she came from the same background. We don’t know. Isabela is a very private person. We know very little about Isabela and we hope that the story of Esmeralda will inspire her to open up to us. Maybe one day Isabela will share her story to the world as well.

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