We are Your Church

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.-Matthew 18:20

It seems like we walked into an intense discussion and without missing a beat, Caio turned around and asked us whether it is more important to know what is in-between the covers of the Bible than to have a pristine Bible. It was a strange question. Then it became clearer when we saw a worn-out Bible without any cover in his hands. He found it in the streets. I am sure that the tattered Bible had a story to tell which may never be known. I told him that he was right; it was more beneficial to know that the content of the Bible than to have a beautiful unread Bible. His face lit up with a bright victorious smile. I did not know that my word would settle this whole argument. Caio then turned his attention to us. He wanted to show his find. He pointed out that the Bible included a hymnal. He then started singing some of the hymns. I must admit that Caio is a strange fellow but in a good way. He is 21 and he has been in the streets since he turned fifteen. We hardly know anything about his family. Occasionally I ask him about whether he has siblings and he never replies although he still manages to be polite about his reticence.

Over the past few months, we noticed Caio’s growing interest in all things religious. His tattered Bible is not his first by any chance. He has had several ones in the past. He confided in us that whenever he sniffs paint thinner, he tends to lose them. He thinks that there is something spiritual about this. He also once shared that his favorite book was the Psalms. He thought that it addresses the real issues of life and it was full of hope and peace. He told us that he does not have any systematic way to read the Bible. He just opens it up and reads whatever text that is before him. He is not bothered by the fact that he does not comprehend everything he reads. According to him, the Bible makes him feel connected to something greater than what he sees with his eyes. It is interesting that he never mentioned anything about leaving the streets or having hope to have a better life. These things are not his concern. Caio is happy to be connected to something greater than him. For him, this alone is joyful and sufficient. I can’t help but think about the people who think that the poor find religion appealing because of its false promises. Here we have a young man who is interested in the Bible solely because it speaks about God and nothing else.

From one of our many conversations, Caio found out that I was a parish priest before I started working in this ministry. He wanted to know if I was pastoring a church in the city. I explained that I gave up parish work so that I can put all my energy into the street work. He turned around and said that this was not true. I was a little taken aback by his answer. He looked me in the eye and said, “we are your church now.”

Caio is very sensitive to the movement of the Holy Spirit. I have seen him listening to crazy street preachers who jump up and down and shout curses at those whom they think are condemned to hell. Most people avoid them or just sit there and stare in disbelief at their behavior. I am somewhere in between depending on my mood. Caio actually sits and listens attentively to these preachers. Then he is able to decipher from all the craziness something profound and good. He admits that most of the time he does not know what these preachers are yelling about but occasionally he hears something that makes his heart burn with joy. It is not the crazy yelling and hellfire threats but it is something true and joyful. Caio takes whatever he learns and shares it with the other children.

Caio hungers to know the Truth. Jesus said that He will send the Spirit to guide and reveal the Truth to us. However, Jesus also said that we need to be a like a little child in order to enter the Kingdom of God. As adults, we tend to restrict the source of our truth. We only listen to people who think and act like us. Even when we think about the children Jesus is talking about, we tend to picture nice and well behaved middle class children. However, Jesus took a child from his circumstances and said this is the kind of child that we should strive to become. God has place us among children. We are surrounded by little children in all shapes and sizes. None of them are naive or innocent like children of our imagination. Our children are street smart. They have experienced some things that most adults fear. They have seen things that no one should see. They are able to discern who wants to help them or who is going to be detrimental to them. They know who is sincere and honest. Caio does not want to be like those preachers. However, he knows that the Truth can be spoken by whomever the Holy Spirt wishes to inspire. We don’t dictate how the Holy Spirit should work. Caio opened himself to listen to the Truth and he heard it. He saw an old Bible without covers thrown into the streets. For most of us, it would be just trash. He saw it as an opportunity to read and know about the Truth. He was able to see in us a new way God is bringing the church into streets.

The thing that Caio said is what we sense in our spirit is taking shape in the streets. God wants us to be a church. We don’t have to build any buildings. We don’t have to operate like we operate in a regular church. We have to learn to be a church in the streets. In the same, Caio is learning to discern the Truth while living in the streets. We need to discern what it means to be a church in the streets. The first step of this discernment process is prayer. St Peter, in Acts 10:9-16, was praying on the roof when the Holy Spirit revealed to him a new way of being a church. He realized that the gospel is not just a Jewish gospel, but it was for all those who hear and respond to the Holy Spirit. This revelation changed the way the apostles understood the meaning of the gospel. In the same way, our understanding of the new things God is doing must begin with prayer. Prayer guides us to be in a place spiritually to receive and understand the Holy Spirit’s movement in our midst.

A Church is a spiritual community. It is a family brought together by the Holy Spirit. It is a community that must be first willing to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit before acting. When I saw Caio with the tattered bible, I could have bought him a brand new Bible. I had the money in my pocket. However, he did not want a new Bible from me. He was quite happy with the one he found. He wanted to know if the Truth is still relevant even though it came from a Bible without covers. He wants to know how to discover the Truth for himself. He wants to be part of a Church that would teach how to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit. This perhaps would be most powerful thing that we can offer to Caio.

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A Boy and His Dog

And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works-Hebrews 10:24

Felipe is about six feet tall and is always seen with a huge backpack in which he carries all his life possessions. However, despite his height, he still looks and acts like a young boy. This is not to say that he is naive or childish. He is a survivor and street wise and at the same time, he has managed to maintain his innocence. He is perhaps one of the boys who has spent the most time in the streets. He has been living in the streets since he was nine and he just turned twenty a couple of weeks ago. When he saw us after a month of absence from the streets, he ran up and gave us a big hug. Even though it felt good for our own self-esteem, we were still surprised. Felipe is usually quite reserved and does not express his emotions openly. We had a gift for him this day. It was a framed picture of Felipe with his faithful companion, Ursula the dog. Filipe is never seen without her. However, today he was alone.

Felipe had a special relationship with Ursula. It isn’t unusual for the children to have a pet but none of them can be compared to Felipe. He was a very attentive pet owner. He would give up or forego things for the sake of the dog. Felipe was never involved anything illegal whether stealing or dealing in drugs. It wasn’t in his nature do such things. He also did not want to risk being caught and leaving Ursula alone to fend for herself. He found her when she was a puppy. Someone had abandoned her mother and all the new-born puppies in the streets. The mother was too weak and eventually died. Felipe managed to rescue all the puppies and he found homes for the rest and kept Ursula. Ever since that day, Felipe made sure Ursula was never left alone or wanting for anything. He became her father. Felipe gave her everything that he never had.

Felipe is a very private person. He hardly speaks about his family. We know that he returns home at least once a year during the Christmas celebrations but he never stays beyond a week. He is the kind of boy that every parent would desire to have as a son. He is very considerate and trustworthy. Unfortunately, he sniffs paint thinner but not as often as the rest of the children. All the teenage girls say that he is a very respectful young man and they feel safe with him. It makes us wonder why such a pleasant and kind young man would find his home so intolerable that he would prefer to live in the streets. We never met his mother although some of the children told us that she usually comes at the end of the year looking for him. He usually returns to his home with her.

Felipe has yet to come around and tell his whole story. Occasionally he gives little snippets of his family life. So far we have gathered that his biological father is in prison and he does not have a relationship with him. His mother is remarried and he was two younger brothers. However, he is hesitant to say anything beyond these basic things about his family. Perhaps, his silence reveals more about his relationship with them. Felipe has grown accustomed to being alone in the streets. However, this does not mean that he is closed to relationships. For some reason, he is just not open to living with his family anymore.

When Felipe saw his picture with Ursula, he hugged us and started to cry. He told us that Ursula died while he was at his mother’s house. The public transport in São Paulo does not allow pets. He has to take at least three buses to his mother’s house. He usually leaves Ursula with another homeless friend. Ursula was pregnant and she died while giving birth to her third litter of puppies. It was unusual for Felipe to show any emotion but this time he could not control himself. He cried and we consoled him. We could sincerely say that Ursula was well loved by him. These words brought relief to his pain. He asked if we could do an activity with him. He sat with us and played a game. Felipe did not have much to say to us but he wanted to be with us. The games helped to do this. He spent the whole afternoon with us. Then he gave us a hug once again and thanked us for the photos.

Felipe has his own group in the streets. They are a small group of boys who take care of each other. Sometimes they welcome girls into their fold. There is a certain interesting characteristic about this group; whoever joins them tends to adopt a more considerate and caring posture. There is a newcomer to the streets. She is an adult who has some serious mental illness. She was going around pestering all the homeless people including our children to give her paint thinner to sniff. Unintentionally she was irritating the children and most of them tried their best to ignore her. Then one boy started yelling at her to stay away. A boy from Felipe’s group stood up for her and asked the others not to be so brusque with her. He said that she wasn’t fully aware of what she was doing. Then he spoke to her gently and told her that they did not have what she wanted. It was difficult for us to see this young woman in the streets. She was more vulnerable than the children. Felipe’s group were able to see that she was worse off than them and they tried to help her as much as they could.

I don’t know why Felipe is in the streets. However, there is something happening in his life. He is able to influence the children for the better. I saw him once reading the Bible and he said that it is helping him to make right choices. God is forming a small group in the streets. It is a spiritual oasis in this urban desert. The children are learning that they can still be compassionate and loving even though they did not experience these things in their family life.

I am grateful for the hug I received from Felipe. I look forward to spending more time with him.

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Sufficiency of the Gospel

But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ. But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ.- Galatians 1:8-12

The street where Christian used to live is in one of the worst neighborhoods in São Paulo. He was a recent arrival to the streets and one of our team members thought it was a good idea to visit his mother. We decide to venture out together to this infamous neighborhood.

In another time, this would have been considered a beautiful neighborhood. There were many historic buildings with intricate patterns and designs adorning their exteriors. However, now they are in various stages of deterioration. These buildings are known as “cortiços” which is just another word for urban slum. The houses are divided into tiny rooms and rented for exorbitant prices. Most of the tenants are very poor and without choices in terms of housing except for these places. As we entered the street, we were “greeted” by a group of teens who asked us what we wanted. They thought that we were there to buy drugs and they wanted to let us know of their wide range of stock. We told them that we were here looking for Christian’s mother’s home. They knew her and they pointed us to one of the buildings. We were informed not to knock on the doors but to just wait outside the door and they would eventually let us in. Only the police knock on doors in this neighborhood. We did not want to find out what would happen if we knocked. The street was filled with people sitting outside and children of all ages running around. They stopped their conversations and stared at us distrustfully. We stood in front of a building where the dealers pointed out and waited. It took a while before the door was opened. The drug dealer looked suspiciously at us at first and then he relaxed when we told him that we are from the church. He smiled and said that he would call the mother of the boy. The atmosphere was tense. We could feel everyone in the neighborhood scrutinizing our every move. It was one of our most intense experiences working in the streets.

Much later we had a discussion with a group of Christians about the challenges our children face growing up in these neighborhoods. Someone suggested that it was asking too much from our children and teens to be Christians while living in these kinds of neighborhoods. This sentiment was just not just the conviction of one person. Almost everyone in the discussion agreed. They argued that the temptation was too great for them to be involved in crime. I understood their sentiment but at the same time both Mary and I were greatly disturbed. The implications of this argument should disturb any Christian because it is saying that the gospel is only good news in a certain context and it is inadequate in another situation. If this is the case, then I am afraid that we have nothing relevant to say to our children in the streets. Then the gospel is not powerful enough to do anything for them unless they change their circumstances first. This argument implies that those who have the misfortune to find themselves born into extreme poverty are beyond the reach of the gospel; that they first need to change their social status to fully reap the benefits of the gospel. This gospel is a gospel that depends on certain social and economic circumstances to be effective. Thanks be to God that this is not the gospel of the Bible. It is the other gospel of the world that St Paul so vigorously argued against in his letters.

Our children have heard this other gospel preached to them all their lives. None of our children doubt the existence of God. They love to hear church music. They even have memorized some of the modern choruses. They even sing them with gusto if asked. However, there is something missing in their belief system. Their faith is a sentimental feeling and God of this gospel is incapable of bringing about any significant change in their lives. The children heard this gospel from adults. We discovered that we are no different from them. We have a limited idea of what God can do. We need to purge ourselves of this wrong concept of God.

When we went to the neighborhood I described above, we were only able to see the criminality and the darkness. We were impressed by the oppressive presence of violence but we failed to see God present in the neighborhood. We failed to see His Light in this place. We listened to the society’s judgement of the place and believed that it is the worst neighborhood in the city. We failed to see and acknowledge that despite its reputation, God has poured His spirit into this world. His Spirit is present in all places. God’s Spirit has only one task and this is to guide us to the knowledge of the Truth. Jesus said that the Truth will set us free. We have a choice before us. Either we believe this to be true or we don’t think that Jesus knew what he was talking about. For Christians, the latter is not an option. However, if we are not fully convinced of the former, we can never effectively share the gospel. Our message of hope will be tainted with social reforms based on ideologies that are not compatible with the gospel.

I don’t know how to live in a neighborhood that is riddled with drugs and violence: it is a world that is foreign to me. However, just because it is foreign to my reality, it doesn’t mean that it is impossible for anyone to live a full Christian life there. St Paul met the Living Christ on the road to Damascus. This experience with the Resurrected Jesus changed his life. He gave him the confidence to preach Christ to all people regardless of the circumstances they found themselves. Not just Paul, the early church went out to distant lands and preached to Christ to peoples with different cultural practices and beliefs. Some of them were grossly adverse to Christian ethics and morality. They discovered that the gospel is still the gospel in every situation. It has the power to enable people to triumph over their circumstances. Our confidence in the sufficiency of the gospel perhaps reveals more about ourselves than the message of the gospel. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves in the light of the biblical revelation if our understanding of the gospel is truly good news for all peoples in all circumstances or it is just a cultural religious sentiment. The latter has no relevance to the world. The power of the gospel has to first be experienced in our own souls. It is this confidence that will enable us to see victory when we are confronted with utter hopeless.

“For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”- 1 Cor. 1:22-24

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