The Hope of the Cross

“And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.”- John 12:32

Last year, eight children and teens died in the streets. Most of them were buried in unmarked graves without any funeral or memorial services. In most cases, the families were notified weeks after their passing and in extreme cases, there was no one to notify. Whenever a homeless person dies in the streets whether they are adults or children, the Brazilian Law requires that the burial takes place one day after the death. If no one claims their bodies within 24 hours, they are buried in unmarked graves without anyone present. All the social service groups working in the streets decided that we needed to do something to remember the lives of these little ones. They were special to us and we wanted to show that we miss their presence in this world. We decided to organize an event in remembrance of these forgotten ones.

Of all the agencies, we have the smallest team. Consequently, we could not afford the time and manpower to participate in the organization of this event. The other agencies graciously included us in the event despite our minimal involvement. We are also the only religious group in the mix and our lack of participation meant that the religious element would also be missing in the event. This is not to say that there are no religious people working in these groups, but these agencies are expected to avoid any religious reference in their work approach. We were the only ones with this liberty.

The event was held on a Friday. The agencies put together a banner with the names of the children with personalized notes written by people and children who knew them. These notes were joined together to form the words: Peace in the Streets. There were eight crosses with the names of the children and teens who passed away and there were about twenty other crosses for those who died in yesteryears that were never remembered in any way. The plan was for us to walk together to all the places where the children died and place a memorial plaque with the name of the respective children.

It was a simple event. It began with a passionate speech from one of the leaders of the social agencies and he talked about injustice and the need to fight for the rights of the children. After him, someone else spoke along the same lines. The message was a political one but it did not seem appropriate for the moment. For starters, most of the children died of drug abuse and three were murdered. I am not sure that in a just society such deaths would not occur. Social injustice has a role to play in the situation of the homeless, but murder and drug abuse occurs in every society. I don’t think political reform could have stopped these deaths. The problem is beyond politics. It is deals with something deeper and more profound. It is sin. We live in a sinful world. However, sin is also a religious word and the secular agencies do not have the vocabulary to address this in their discourses. They think that sin means blaming the victims. This would be a narrow view of the concept. The broader view gives a more realistic view of life. Not everything can be solved by social and political reforms.

In the speeches that were made, the names and lives of the children and teens were hardly mentioned. It is strange that they would be even forgotten in an event to remember them. I don’t think this was deliberate, but I think that social agencies have very little to say when someone dies. However, those who knew and loved these children and teens were not there for a political event but they wanted to know about their loved ones now. They wanted a message of hope for them. Politics has nothing to say to those who have died.

The event ended with planting of all the Crosses in the area where the last boy died in December. For many, perhaps the Cross was just used to mark the graves. However, for us, it reminded us why we are here. It is the power of this symbol that has brought us to this place. The Cross reminded us that there is a gracious God who resurrected His Son to shine His light in this world even though the world did not deserve Him. The Cross is not about who we are or what we have done but it is about Him who is able and willing to overcome death and changed its meaning forever.

As we begin this Holy Week, I am reminded of the importance of the Cross in our work. It changes our message and approach in our ministry. We are not here to push for political reforms. Our world view makes us realize that politics is helpless in the face of deep human problems, just as Pontius Pilate was helpless to change the fate of Jesus. No one could change the helplessness or powerlessness of humanity at the feet of the Cross except for the One who hung on it. He is the One who is able to bring hope even in a seemingly hopeless situation. Seeing the field covered with Crosses reminded me that death does not have victory over Grace.

Crosses to remember those who have passed away.

Crosses to remember those who have passed away.

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Remembering and Forgetting

Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. -Philippians 3:13-14

The growth process of Life is a process of forgetting and remembering. Consequently, if we hold on to the things which we are to forget and let go of those that are essential for us to remember, then our growth can be become paralyzed. The question is how do we discern the difference.

The above verses were the foundation of our reflection before returning to missions. We have served in this same area before. We came back to this ministry with many good and bad memories from our experiences in the past. They are both capable of holding us back if we don’t discern which ones to forget. Some bad memories can help us become better people and some good memories can hold us back from doing better and greater things with our lives. Now, God was calling to do something new and we needed to decide what to forget and what to remember.

Our first experience working with the street children was a very positive experience. We had a wonderful team and we developed a working philosophy that responded to the needs of the homeless at that particular time. The children and teens were open and receptive to us. They recognized our presence as a spiritual force to help them make the transition out of the streets. This was exactly our goal then. In our minds, we have this wonderful image of our past experience and how much of it based on reality, we can never tell. Nevertheless, Mary and I would describe it as one of the best times of our lives. However, it would be mistake to hold on these memories and attempt to recreate them in our present situation. Many things have changed. We cannot impose the same working philosophy in our ministry as we did twenty years ago. The children and teens are different. Society has changed. We have changed. We remember the good things of the past, but we need to forget them as well. We remember them to remind ourselves where we came from, but we need to forget them so that we don’t try to recreate the past in the present. The present holds something new for us.

No experience in life is complete without bad experiences. We look back in the past and remember mostly good times because we want to forget the bad times. I don’t even feel like writing about them at this moment. However, I do remember them vividly. I wish that by not talking about them maybe they will go away. Unfortunately, they are still lurking somewhere in my past and waiting for the opportunity to come out and instill fear in my heart. I have come to realize that maybe I should not forget these moments and put them in their context. They cannot harm me. I am still here. This means these negative experiences did not hinder me from being where I am today. More important than this, God has helped me overcome these moments. It does not mean that I escaped the pain and suffering which is part and parcel of a negative experience. However, they lack the power to destroy the person that God wants me to become. This is the part I need to remember. I cannot remember this without recalling the negative experiences. I had the privilege of knowing some wonderful people who suffered in the concentration camps during the war. They remember the horrific experience vividly, but in their remembering, they reveal a strength that is able to overcome all the odds. They have the courage to remember because of this strength and it is the same strength that makes them move to conquer greater victories in life.

Our children and teens are not living in the streets because they are rebellious or poor. They are in the streets because of a trauma they experienced. Most of them want to forget this. They want to just remember the good times and they attempt to recreate the good times through artificial means. Yesterday, Igor shared with us about his parents for the first time. He said that he has no recollection of his father. He has never even seen the picture of his father. As for his mother, he said that he remembers her clearly even though he was eight years old when she was murdered. He remembers every detail of her face. He also remembers the details of his life in the streets and the times he spent in detention centers. He remembers the harsh and negative words spoken to him. He remembers the looks people gave him when he walked in a store. He remembers the rejection and the hatred. He remembers meeting us in the streets. He remembers the things we said to him. He remembers too many things. Some of them might become a burden for him to live in the present and move towards to future. He needs to forget some things and only remember those things that are necessary for his growth.

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Love is a Gift

And above all things have fervent love for one another, for “love will cover a multitude of sins. -1 Peter 4:8

We just received news that Igor was fired from his job.

Seemingly, everything was going well. Igor liked his job and was beginning to get excited about his future. He even considered going to night school to complete his high school education. Then suddenly, we received this disturbing news. We did not hear this from him directly. One of his friends told us about it. We walked past where he worked and sure enough, he was not there. We went home little sad and disappointed that day. We wanted the best for Igor and this job was the right step towards this direction. Now, we were concerned that he might give up on everything.

We went to the project where Igor was living the very next day. As usual, we waited in the lobby as the staff went to get him. Then we heard some footsteps coming down the stairs and it was Ana Paula. She greeted us with a broad happy smile and sat down beside us. We were little surprised by her cheerfulness. We asked her about Igor’s job and she did not appear to know that Igor got fired. She thought that he had given up on his work. After a brief moment of silence, she asked us a surprising question. She wanted to know if we liked Igor. We were a little taken aback. I told her that I hoped that it was obvious. Then she rephrased her question. She wanted to know if we considered him like a son. This was still a strange question and I was trying to read between the lines. I think that she is intrigued by our relationship with her and Igor. She was trying to figure out what motivates us to care about them.

Ana Paula wanted to know if we are especially interested in them because we do not have any children. She was trying to find out if we were fulfilling our paternal desire by caring for them. Well, we are old enough to be their parents. However, paternal desires did not bring us to Brazil. It was something more profound and special. However, at that particular moment I was at a loss of words to express exactly why we are concerned and desire the best for her and Igor. Unfortunately, before we could bring this interesting conversation to an end, Igor came down and the subject was changed almost immediately. We were curious as to why he lost his job.

Igor missed a day of work without informing his boss. He said that he had a good reason. He went to pick up his two year old daughter for the weekend. Ana Paula and Igor lost custody of their child when they were living in the streets. Recently, they gained visitation rights on the weekends. This is just trial period. If they are able to honor these visits for a period of time, the judge might grant them full custody when they move to a place of their own. This is their goal. For Igor, this is one of the most important goals of his life. Unfortunately, Igor does not understand how employment works. He does not know how to prioritize his time, as well as his responsibilities as an employee. I cannot really say that he doesn’t know how to do it because this would imply that he is disorganized. This is not the case. Igor is not aware of what he needs to do as an employee. He knows how to do the work but about the relationship between an employee and employer, he has no idea. He thinks of his employer as a friend. All his life, his relationships are based on friendships. He has never had a relationship with his parents; they died when he was eight and everyone he knows are his friends. He does not understand the concept of having varieties of relationships.We take these things for granted, but most of us learn these things through examples of our parents. One of the roles of parents is to teach us how to relate to the world.

Igor knows how to survive in the streets. In the streets, what was in front of him took precedence. Everyone living in the streets understood this. Naturally, Igor thought that his boos would understand as well. He was disappointed when his boss fired him. He thought that his boss was unreasonable. It was not the right time to tell Igor that he was wrong. It was just time to listen. We have to listen to know what Igor knows and doesn’t know. We can only be his guide if we allow him to show us how to do it.

Ana Paula was perceptive. Igor needs parent-like figures to help him navigate in this world. Perhaps, this is why she asked us if we thought of them as our children. They both need some parental guidance. However, we are not here to be their parents even though this might be the role for this particular period of their lives. One day, they will not need us in this role and we hope that we can still be part of their lives. Our relationship is not defined by roles but it is defined by a gift. This gift does not have a time limit or a specific role. This gift is a gift that keeps expanding. This gift is none other than Love.

We did not generate this gift. We received this gift and each gift comes with a certain responsibility. This is why sometimes it is harder to give away something than to sell it. When we buy something, we don’t have any responsibility to the one who sells it to us. However, Love can only be received as a gift. We cannot receive it without being inspired by its Giver. The Giver shares His gift openly and generously to the world. He gives the gift so that we can do the same. The gift itself becomes more meaningful and powerful each time we share it. In fact, its true value is only appreciated when we share it. Each time we share it, we discover its magnitude and intensity. It opens our eyes to see the beauty of the Giver present in the lives of others. It is not our desire to fulfill certain roles that brought us here. It is this gift that enables us to see the beauty and power of the Great Gift-giver working in the lives of Igor and Ana Paula.

I am not sure that Ana Paula would understand my answer. This answer is perhaps just for me to understand what motivates me to be here.

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