When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.” Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” -John 1:47-51
We saw an older man talking to Dreyson as we approached the steps of the cathedral. We were naturally curious. The children are diehard gossips and we knew someone would eventually let us know what was happening. Sure enough, one of them blurted out that the man was Dreyson’s father before we could even sit down on the steps. It was then that we were formally introduced. The father must have been in his late forties but his hard life made him look older. The father was visibly upset. He had come to convince Dreyson to go home today but it was obvious that it wasn’t going to happen.
We met Dreyson about two years ago. I remember the day clearly. On his first day in the streets, he came up to me and told me his name. Then he asked me not to forget it. I made it a point to write it down. The next day he came up and asked if I remembered his name which I did. He smiled and then went away. He has been streets ever since and for two years no one has come looking for him. Today was the first time we saw anyone from his household here. Dreyson made up his mind that he wasn’t going home today. His father could not understand why his son would prefer to sleep in the streets. He kept telling us that in his house he has internet and video games and even cable TV. He saw no reason why Dreyson would not want to go home. I told the father that the only person who knows the answer is his son. The father thought that it was drug addiction. His son sniffs paint thinner in the streets. This was something he started using in the streets. It did not him bring here. His father kept insisting that Dreyson return to his home but his son started closing up and finally he just walked away.
I took the father aside and suggested that he try a different approach. I suggested that he come once a week to the streets and just take his son out for a snack and just spend time with him. He could talk about what is going on at home and his brothers and sisters. Perhaps bit by bit his son would open up to him. I was little taken aback when his father said that he wasn’t going to do this. He wanted his son to just return home today. Unfortunately, things do not work this way. He could force Dreyson to go with him but he knows that his son will just turn and around and return to the street. I was a little disappointed that his father did not want to take the time to rebuild his son’s confidence.
His father eventually gave up and left. The other children and teens were upset with Dreyson that he did not return home as well. They said that if any of their parents came looking for them they would go home. It was actually quite a sad revelation. None of the parents have come looking for their sons and daughters. Many have spent many Christmases in the streets. No one has ever come to see them during this time. I think this must be the biggest blow to them. They are forgotten even by their families. Dreyson was thirteen when he came to the streets. It took two years for his father to come to the streets. Apparently, it was a bit too late.
We were reading the above biblical text for our team’s meditation. We usually read a passage from the gospel of John before going out into the streets. It is part of our work ritual. I have heard preachers put a mystical spin about Jesus seeing Nathaniel sitting under the tree. The text itself does not say that Jesus had a vision of Nathaniel but it implies that Jesus literally saw the young man and noticed him. Jesus was able to see something in this young man that perhaps others had just ignored. Jesus saw a young person who was honest and sincere. The whole incident had an tremendous effect on Nathanael. He immediately recognized something divine about Jesus. It did not take much to impress this young man. Even Jesus was surprised by Nathanael’s reaction. His reaction reveals something about the culture of the period. It is not much different from today. Most people, then and now, go through life without ever being noticed. In the land of Jesus, it wouldn’t be unusual to sit under a fig tree. In fact, it seems like a most rational thing to do in a hot climate. Nathanael was one of the many but Jesus noticed him and now he is remembered after two thousand years.
Dreyson can appreciate what Nathanael felt. He wants to be noticed. He does not want to be lost in the crowd. All the children know his name. He is one of the few children without a nickname. Nicknames are common in Brazilian culture. I am known as the longed haired guy among the homeless adults. It is not usually offensive. It is something cultural. However, Dreyson wants everyone to know his actual name. It is not just Dreyson. All the children and teens want us to address them by their given names. They feel special when we remember their names. It means that they are somebody to us. They will respond positively to anyone who recognizes their personhood. As good and special as this seems, we cannot stop here. This is not why we are here.
The gospel is more than this. If we stop at just recognizing the personhood of Dreyson or any of the children, then we are doing a great disservice to them. There is something greater. Jesus thought that Nathanael was setting his standards too low. He did not just come here to notice forgotten people. He came to connect us to another reality, a reality that is going to give us a firm footing in this transitory world.
The image of angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man is a reference to an Old Testament story of Jacob. Jacob lost his home and family and was forced into exile. It was at this moment when he was completely lost and alone that he saw this vision. This vision was a message of hope for a man who thought that his situation was hopeless. Jacob was disconnected from the world but God connected him to a reality that is permanent and non-transitory. Our children in the streets live a transitory life. Everything changes on a daily basis. Their friends come and go. Their families don’t seem to be able to provide the sense of belonging that they desire. They want to belong to someone or something. They want to be part of something special. They are vulnerable. They are willing to give themselves away to anything that would guarantee some sort of permanence. This is why we have to be clear in our purpose. We are not here to just give a sense of personhood. There is something greater and deeper than our self-esteem. It is a new identity in the eternal reality and Jesus is the One who is going to connect us. The children need to discover through faith. It is faith that will help them see this new reality. The first step is recognizing that they are individuals. They have to know that they are not mistakes. Their names mean something special to God. The next step is help them draw closer to discovering this eternal ladder that connects them to an eternal address. Our children and teens, just like us, are looking for a place where their souls will feel at peace. This is the promise of the gospel. Jesus wants to connect them to a reality where they can feel secure and grow into the person God has created them to become. Our task is to help them move in this direction. This is why we are here.