Questions about Righteous Living

Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, decided to put her away privately. (Matthew 1:19)

Igor has been looking a little discouraged lately. He has been looking for a job for three months now and so far nothing has come up. He tries to put on a strong exterior but we can see that he is a little disappointed. The local economy is not doing well and most places are not hiring. Looking for a job is hard itself, but for Igor there is an additional burden and obstacle. He confessed that he always feels self-conscious of his past and thinks that everyone around him is scrutinizing him. Whenever someone does not respond positively to him, he feels as if that they are judging him based on his past. This comes from years of being taught to believe that he would amount to nothing but a thief. Now, he finds it hard to navigate out of this mindset.

Bit by bit Igor is sharing his life experiences with us. Recently he talked about his long stay in the juvenile detention center. He said that physical abuse was routine even for some minor infractions. All the boys were accustomed to it and he does not even feel any rancor towards the guards. He believed that they did what they did to maintain order in the center. However, the guards that he found hard to forgive were the ones who abused him verbally. They constantly told him that he was nothing but a criminal and there was no hope for him. He said that no matter how much he tried he just cannot seem to erase the memories of these words. Hurtful words remain embedded in his soul whereas physical injuries heal and eventually disappear.

Igor also shared that he had a younger brother. Soon after Igor left for the streets when he was seven, his younger brother followed suit. However, he did not last long. He was terrified of the streets. He did not like the sub-culture of the streets. He detested sniffing glue and was fearful of any criminal activities. He left the streets within the week and went to his aunt’s house and never set foot again in the streets. He went to school and got a job when he was sixteen. He worked in a small business that was relatively successful. His boss took a special liking to him and trusted him with large amount of money. Unfortunately, he and a group of friends decided to rob his boss. They tied him up and took off with a large sum of money in a car. The police eventually picked up on their trail and a long drawn out car chase ensued. Tragically, it ended with all of them being shot and killed by the police. None of them were armed and his boss was not hurt. According to Igor, the whole event was caught on national news. I asked Igor whether his brother was influenced by his friends to rob his boss and to my surprise, Igor believed that it was the other way round. I asked him why would his brother who was once afraid of any criminal activities decide to engage in robbery. His answer was simple and heartbreaking. Igor told me that when you grow in a certain neighborhood, you are told all your life that the only way out is through crime. When his brother saw how much money his boss had, he decided to take the easy way out of poverty. Unfortunately, he paid a high price for a small sum of cash.

As part of our weekly time with Igor, we are reading the gospel of Matthew together. When we came to the part where Joseph discovered Mary’s pregnancy. We spoke about Joseph being just and because of his sense of justice, he wanted to save his fiancé any possible harm or danger by trying to breaking up the engagement secretly. Another man would reacted differently. However, it was this sense of justice that helped him hear and receive the Word from the Angel about Mary’s true status. The conclusion we arrived at was that being a just person prepares one to see and understand what God is doing in one’s life. Then Igor asked a difficult question. He wanted to know what does it mean to be just person.

I was silenced by his question. Igor was serious about becoming a righteous person and he wanted to know if this is something that he could learn and what he must do to acquire this understanding. When he saw that I was struggling to answer his question, he decided to help me out and rephrase the question. He wanted to know what was righteous living. This did not alleviate the situation. However, I am grateful that he asked these difficult questions because they helped me to examine my own life as well. It seems like it is easier to say what is unrighteous living. Pointing out what is wrong is easier than showing how to do something the right way. After a few moments of silence and pondering, I told him that for me living a just life means living in harmony with who God has made me to be. I will be the first to admit that this does not really make it clearer. I decided to try again. Not because I wanted to show that I knew the answer; I wanted to answer the question for my own sake. I decided to be honest and said that for me living a just life has to do with my own pursuit of happiness. I believe that being a just person is intrinsically linked with one’s own personal happiness. It is also synonymous with discovering who God has created me to be.

I realized that to tell Igor that he needs to change his life is meaningless if we cannot say what this change is supposed to be. I cannot teach Igor something that I don’t understand myself. However, I did say that it has to do with discovering who God has made us to be. It is a personal journey where he needs to discover God’s voice speaking to him. Igor has heard many voices in his life. These voices brought him to the streets and to the brink of desperation. Even though we cannot teach Igor to be a just person, perhaps he can see through our lives that there exists another voice that speaks to our innermost being and points the way to true happiness. We hope that our lives will inspire Igor to seek this voice out for himself.

 

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A Time for Mercy

“Those who regard worthless idols Forsake their own Mercy.” -Jonah 2:8

Recently, there has been a proposal to amend the constitution to reduce the adult age to sixteen in criminal cases.It has been approved for consideration and debate which is the final step before it becomes official. This means any sixteen year old that commits any crime ranging from petty theft to murder would be confined in the same facility as adult prisoners. The recent poll shows that about 87 percent of the population are in favor of this new proposed amendment. Those who are against it are mainly the House of Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church and people like us who work with the children and teens from impoverished areas. The people argue that they are fed up with the fact that teenagers can commit heinous crimes and are sent to juvenile centers until they are eighteen and then set free. The truth is that the heinous crimes are rarely committed by teenagers but this Law would affect all the teenagers who make unwise choices in their lives. No one disagrees that the incarceration system needs reform but there is hardly any talk about reform in this discussion. This proposed amendment is about punishment; as if the fear of punishment would generate automatic rehabilitation. This simplistic view of the situation is not going to create a safer society but it may facilitate the creation of dangerous criminals.

In my blog posts, I rarely address any political issues. I don’t do this to avoid controversy. I only address them when they are relevant to the children and teens in our ministry. This amendment directly affects our work. Therefore, it is necessary to say something from the perspective of our vocation.

Brazilian prisons are notoriously overcrowded.* I have not visited any adult prisons recently but I have spoken to adults who have been incarcerated. They tell me that an average cell built to hold eight people is overcrowded with at least thirty inmates. Everyone is grouped together. Petty thieves and dangerous murderers sleep in the same cell. Sometimes they have to take turns to sleep because of the lack of space. Within the prison walls, gangs run the show. Those who are affiliated with the gangs are free from violence and rape. Consequently, everyone has to join a gang to survive or even if they don’t, their families have to pay the gangs to protect their loved ones. On the other hand, those who join the gangs are treated with respect and dignity. Their families receive financial help from the gangs on the outside and on visitation days, they are spared some of the humiliating process of being strip searched to visit their sons and daughters. Most men who are imprisoned have affiliated themselves with the gangs because it is the only way to survive. Now, imagine a sixteen year old boy in this situation.

Perhaps, some will argue that they shouldn’t have chosen the life of crime and they deserve what they get. However, the question any good person should ask is why a young man or girl would choose the life of crime?

Most of these young criminals come from impoverished neighborhoods. The schools in these regions are precarious to say the least. A friend of ours taught in these schools. He told us that some of the school buildings are made out of tin literally. During the summer months, the heat is unbearable and the students and teachers have no choice but to endure it. Our friend was an enthusiastic graduate from college who wanted to give his best in a profession whose starting pay is about US$350 per month. Just to give you a point of reference, the rent for a small one bedroom house in the worse neighborhood in the outskirts of the city is more than half of that. You really have to a vocation to do this job. Unfortunately not everyone in this profession has a vocation. Our friend once heard a teacher say in the teacher’s room that her greatest wish was that these children grow up to be utter failures and frustrated in everything they do. This is hardly the kind of role model we would wish upon our worst enemy.

In these neighborhoods, there is rarely a library. There are insufficient social services for the large number of people living here. Both parents often have to work to support the family. The children and teens are in the streets most of the time because their homes are too tiny and hot to remain indoors all day. The streets are filled with unsavory opportunities. Drug dealers roam the streets freely without any problems from the police. They are not afraid of anyone especially the police. The children are exposed to corruption and hypocrisy to the extend that they have lost all respect for the civil authority. The drug dealers are people who have convinced themselves that the only way out of poverty is through crime. They can be the cousins and uncles of these children and teenagers. They might be people who genuinely care for them. Their involvement in crime does not deprive them of their human sensibilities. Unfortunately, these things also make it hard for these children and teens to think negatively of their criminal choices. To make matters worse, the drug dealers are always present and the children have a tendency to admire those who are most present in their lives.

None of these reasons should be confused as excuses for someone to embrace a life of crime. However, this is the hostile environment in which these children and teenagers are constantly exposed. Despite this, many who live in these situations never commit any crime. It does not change the fact that there are many impressionable ones who are seduced by the fleeting perks of criminal life. The real crime is that they live in an environment where crime is a viable option, whereas work and good education are no where to be found.

Many people believe that these young criminals are inherently bad and there is no hope for them. Many of these people go to church on Sundays and read the same Bible as those who oppose this Law. No one is saying that these young offenders are innocent. We believe that they need to be rehabilitated. However, sending a sixteen year old to a cell crowded with hardened criminals is inhumane punishment. I will admit that we are making a choice to look at this from the perspective of the children and teens we know. As I am writing this, I am looking at a picture of Igor and Ana Paula. They both were sent to juvenile detention center at the age of seventeen and Igor only left the detention center when he turned eighteen. He spent a major part of his teenage years incarcerated. Today, he wants something completely different for his life. All his life, people have told him that the life of crime was his destiny. He did not want to believe this, but he was always surrounded by criminals and he did not see any way out. When he was incarcerated, the guards constantly said that he would amount to nothing and he would die a criminal’s death. Today, he said that for the first time he is surrounded by people who hope the best for him. He can imagine a better future for himself. This is not just the case of Igor. All the teens and children that we wrote about in this blog desire someone to believe in them. They don’t want to give up hope but they need people from the outside to help them turn this into a reality. None of them are hardened criminals. None of them want to spend their lives in crime.

The essence of the gospel message is about mercy. One of the most disturbing parables is the one of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35); the servant was forgiven undeservedly of his debt and yet he refused to show mercy to his co-servant. Consequently, he forsook his own mercy. The prophet Jonah tells us that those who worship false gods forsake their own mercy. It makes complete sense. In order to show mercy, we need to believe in a God that is able to do incredible things like transform the life of a person who has given up hope for himself or herself. We cannot believe this unless we have experienced it in our lives. If we take the mercy we received for granted as if it is something we rightly deserved, then we do not understand mercy at all. Consequently we do not know the God who is merciful.

Showing mercy does not mean that we pretend no offense has been committed. It means that we believe that all people are worth redeeming. It means showing in practical ways that we believe everyone has the potential of becoming a person who follows the footstep of the most perfect Human Being expressed in the person of Jesus. Mercy seeks to understand why people do wrong things and tries to correct them. The unmerciful servant was only interested in punishment. He wanted revenge and by doing so, he inadvertently chose his own demise.

87 percent of the population will find this post offensive. I don’t write this to offend anyone. I write this because the way to create a better and safer society is to become a more merciful one. I am not a fool to believe that we will live in a merciful society in this reality. However, we don’t have to be part of creating an unmerciful order. I pray that God’s mercy will prevail and the Law will not be amended. To do so is to sentence these teenagers to a life of crime and certain violent death.

Please pray with us that God’s mercy will prevail.

 

 

* The situation of the Brazilian Penitentiary system can easily be verified through a google search.

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My Brother’s Keeper

“Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?”
He said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”-Genesis 4:9

Ruan is a terror. This is the general consensus among those who work in the streets and perhaps even the children might agree. He is always involved in some altercation. It is not uncommon to see him in a physical fight with some teen. He does not seem to respect anyone, not even us. Once he grabbed our deck of Uno cards and ran away with it. As form of discipline, we decided to suspend activities with him for a short period. Unfortunately, it did not seem to bother him at all.

Ruan is only twelve years old. It is possible that he is just going through a phase right now. He might change in a few years time. Nevertheless, we cannot help but sometimes wish that he would just go away and let us do our work in peace. However, Ruan is really not a hindrance to our work. He just reminds us that we are inadequate and limited in our ability to help people. This makes us uncomfortable. In the same way, Cain was uncomfortable with the presence of Abel. Abel reminded Cain that he did not meet the standard. Our human tendency is to remove or distance ourselves from anything makes us feel inadequate. However, our inadequacy should not contaminate our sense of responsibility. It is the calling of the church to care for the forgotten and despised. Despite his difficulty personality, Ruan belongs to this neglected family of God.

When God asked Cain about Abel, He gave the answer that I find myself giving to God sometimes when I deal with difficult people in my life, “ Am I my brother’s keeper?” This is an important question to ask, although in the case of Cain, he was asking this question to avoid facing a serious crime. Perhaps we tend to ask this question to avoid caring for difficult people as well. Leaving all ulterior motives aside, it is a good question to ask God. Do we really have the responsibility to deal with all the difficult people in our lives, especially those who make us feel small and insignificant? It is a question asked several times in the Bible. Who is my neighbor? How many times must I forgive my brother? These are some of the variations of the same question. All of them asked in hopes of finding a loophole to despise unlikable people.

The answer is given in various shapes and form in the New Testament.

It is given in three famous parables; the parable of the sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son. The parables themselves are a progressive argument that Jesus makes. In the first one, there is not much controversy. The sheep is an innocent animal who got lost and it is the property of the shepherd. His search for it seems to be a rational thing. Nothing out of the ordinary. It is same case with the coin. An inanimate object that got lost and it is of value to the owner. The response is something anyone would do. However, the last parable is controversial. We are dealing with a rational being here. The son is a self-conceited young man demanding his inheritance to indulge in his own personal orgy of self-gratification. Finally, when things don’t work out, he comes running home to his father. If we are willing to be honest, we would agree that the older son was right. The younger son was an irresponsible opportunist and he did not deserve a welcome home party. Apparently this is not the version that Jesus wants us to understand. The story is not about the son but it is about the Father. It is not about the merits of the Son, but the joy of the Father in having His son home. The older son was thinking about himself and not about the Father. In this way, he is not much different from his brother. He failed to see that the younger son, despite being a selfish person, was important to the Father.

Ruan is important to God and so is every annoying and callous person that we know. However, in practice we cannot handle all the people in the world. We can handle the ones God sends to us. He brings certain people in our lives so that we can become their keepers. In the world, rejection is the answer to difficult people. The gospel teaches that God does not reject people, but people reject him. If we want to represent God then we should remove the vocabulary of rejection from our language. However, honesty is important here. God does not want us to pretend a difficult person is a saint when they are behaving like the devil. We cannot pretend that they are good and lovely people. We need to learn to see them the way God perceives them.

In one of our regular days in the streets, we were doing an activity with Ruan when a social worker walked by the square and noticed him. Later on, the social worker approached me and asked me how long Ruan has been in the streets. It was less than a year at that time. He said that he had known him and his family for some time. Ruan used to accompany his stepfather who is paraplegic to a project for physical disabled people. The social worker said that everyone was impressed by the way Ruan would help his step-father and care for him. However, about a year ago, his mother left him for another man. Ruan’s stepfather had to leave the household and this was about the time Ruan ran away to the streets. The child he described was very different from the one we have encountered in the streets. It helped me to notice different things about Ruan from then on. On the day when an insane person tried to hurt me, Ruan was the first person to run up to me and ask me if I was alright. I also noticed that he was trying to console another homeless person who had lost a loved one. I began to perceive that the caring sensitive child was still alive and present in him. Most importantly, I was able to get a glimpse of how God looks at Ruan. He is still a terror, but I realized that he is our brother and God has send us here to be his keeper. This does not mean we overlook his negative attitudes and actions. It would be unwise and unhelpful to do this. Instead we pray that God would help us see Ruan as a complete person, a person who struggles to overcome the odds to be loved in a difficult and lonely world. We are here because God loved us and consequently, this means we become the keepers of those whom God loves as well.

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A Personal Holy Week Reflection

I can’t really remember what I was looking for on the book shelf when I found this old copy of the gospel of Mark. Perhaps I was in the mood to read something. I opened the gospel and read the opening lines.

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1)

I was eleven years old.

Since it was Holy Week and I thought to myself that maybe I should just take a few minutes to read the gospel. I don’t think I had planned to read the whole gospel. Like any average eleven year old, my attention span was gravely limited and the gospel of Mark looked like a lot of reading material for someone my age.

For some reason, after the reading the first line, I was drawn almost immediately into the text. I remember it as if it was yesterday. My whole being was absorbed into my inner reading world. My voice in my head narrated the story and my soul just listened deeply and consumed every word that was spoken. It felt like time had stood still for the moment and my attentions span was suspended in a timeless space. As I read about the things Jesus did and said, He became more than a mere personality in a story. He became real being and yet not real as in a real personality in a biographical narrative. I felt His presence in the room. The other players in the stories became irrelevant at that moment. It did not matter what they did or said. Their doubts and faith did not register to me. Only the person of Jesus was alive.

As I kept reading and my sense of His presences in the room became stronger. I won’t say that the gospel was clear to me. I did not understand the parables, I did not understand many things I was reading as I understand them now. However, I remember sensing in my spirit that there were deep and profound things being said. In my soul, there was a growing sense of awe and reverence whenever Jesus responds to the Pharisees. None of those who unjustly accused Jesus invoked any emotional feelings in me. There was no anger or hatred towards them. There was no disappointment when Judas betrayed Jesus or when Peter denied knowing Him. My eyes and hears were focused on the Son of God. Everything in mind was empty except for the person of Jesus.

When I read Jesus’ cry, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”, my whole being was captivated by those words. No Hollywood production could have penetrated by entire being the way I felt when I read those words alone in my room. When Jesus breathed His last breath, the veil of my heart was torn from top to bottom. It was the first time in my eleven years that I felt the helplessness and injustice of His death. I responded in a way only appropriate for an eleven year old, I buried my face in my pillow and cried. I was afraid that some family might walk into the room and see me crying. I locked the door so that I could be free to mourn the death of Jesus.

The gospel spoke to me in a real way that day. No one sat down and explained anything to me. It wasn’t necessary. The person of Jesus had become a real person to me. He had stepped out of the stories that I heard on Sundays and became a living person to me. At that moment, I did not know what to do but I knew I had to do something with my life. Jesus was too real for me to go on living my life as if He was still trapped in the pages of Bible. He is real and life could not be the same after this day for me. It took a few years to do something about it but the fire was ignited on that particular Holy Week.

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