Inspired to Learn

Give to the wise, and he is wiser still, Make known to the righteous, And he increaseth learning.-Proverbs 9:9

The three were of the same age. I did not notice this before for some reason. I had shown them a brochure about an upcoming movie festival with a free screening of classic and modern Italian directors. Lucas was interested. He is in his third year in Psychology and some of the movies being screened were discussed in his class. Victor, on the hand, never heard of any the directors or the movies. He has been focusing on seminary studies until recently taking a break from studies to decide what he wants to do. Bruno was the only one among the three who had watched some of the movies in the list. He also knew most of the directors and their works. Among them was the famous “The Bicycle Thief” by the director, Vittorio de Sica. I have never seen the movie but Bruno has. He did not like it. I asked why and he said that there was too much hype about the movie which it did not live up to. I know the story because it is a movie all movie buffs like to talk about. Frankly speaking, I never found it interesting enough to watch. Bruno related the basic plot-line to Lucas and Victor who have never even heard of this movie. It was strange to see all three of them standing next to each other discussing movies. They were the same age but all three from different social classes. Lucas comes from an upper middle class family. Victor’s family is also middle class and Bruno lives in the streets. All three have the desire to learn. Only two have family and friends to inspire and motivate them to pursue their desires. Bruno has been in the streets since he was sixteen. He has no contact with his family and he never talks about them. He is on his own when it comes to self-improvement. No family is going to stand behind in his pursuits. Yet, all these disadvantages have not stifled his desire to learn.

Bruno is always dressed the same. I mean this literally. He has been using his same polo shirt for a few months and it is torn and tattered. It is covered with so much dirt that we cannot recognize its original color. His hands and feet are covered with dirt. He carries an equally filthy blanket with him all the time. I gave him one of my polo shirts which he accepted gleefully. However, he never used it. He kept it in his bag pack which he is never seen without. In it, he keeps perhaps his most precious possession; an old tattered note book. It contains the names of all the movies he has seen or would like to see. The movies are mostly American and their names have been translated into Portuguese. However, Bruno wants to know their original names in English. He makes Mary translate the names back into English. It seems like he invented this method for learning English and we are impressed how far he has come. It is safe to say that Bruno is by far the most intelligent homeless young adult we have met. No one would guess it by looking at him. Most people would just see a homeless young man. However, when you spend some time with him, you will discover an extremely intelligent and interesting young man.

He is able to speak intelligently about movies and politics. He formulates his ideas in a logical manner and his vocabulary is very impressive. We are always amazed about the things he knows. He can tell us about Virginia Woolf and the books she has written. He likes to watch movies that most twenty year olds would find uninteresting. One of his favorite movies is Sophie’s Choice and he explained in detail the story to me. Lucas and Victor stood there and just listened. They too were astounded by his impressive knowledge. It is not just limited to movies. He could also explain the present political situation lucidly. He also able to see beyond the rhetoric and identify political maneuvers of partisan politics. When we asked him where he got his information, he told us that he reads different newspapers that are discarded at the local stores. In this way, he has access to several different news agencies.

Bruno sniffs paint thinner more than the other children or teens. He uses about half a liter a day according to him and we believe it. The only time he says that he doesn’t use it is when he is watching a movie or when he is with us. I guess the movie is a form of escape which takes away the need for chemical substance. It has been recently that he stopped sniffing in our presence. I used to have a hard time trying to get him to stop while doing an activity and he would just leave our group instead. He used to prefer paint thinner over our company. Thankfully, things have changed. We enjoy talking with him now and he always has a big smile for us whenever he sees us. The smile is always followed by a question about something he read or heard.

Bruno has never asked anything from us. Even when he was hurt, he did not ask Mary to do first aid. However, recently he asked if we could buy him a English-Portuguese dictionary. I had an old one in the house and I gave it to him. He received it happily and hugged us. This is unusual for him. We think that his filthy attire is a defense mechanism to avoid physical contact. Therefore, the embrace coming from him was a little bit more special.

Bruno is often seen with Ruan and Felipe. About a week ago, Ruan asked us if he could teach him to read and write. We were a little surprised. We had not realized that Ruan was illiterate. When I read the letter from a person in Florida, I translated it for him. Then when I asked him whether he wanted to write to this person one day, he nodded without saying anything. I remembered that his face lit up when I said that I would help him. However, I did not realize then that he did know how to read or write. Ruan comes from one of the worst neighborhoods in the center. I can’t say much about the schools in the area because I don’t know them. It would be unfair to judge the whole school based on Ruan. We know that he went to school for a few years before running away to the streets. Now he wants to learn to read and write but sending him back to the school is not going to help him. We told him that we will try to find a place where there is literacy program. He said that he was willing to start right away. Bruno was sitting next to him throughout this conversation. He said that Ruan has been asking him to teach him. Bruno does not feel confident to get him started.

Not too long after, Felipe asked us if we could help him with his writing. He said that he was not confident in writing and wanted to practice. It was the first time Felipe asked anything of this sort. All this happened in a short period of time. Suddenly three of our homeless teens are inspired to learn and study. I saw Felipe watching Mary one day as she was writing some notes for some of the children. They remarked that she had beautiful handwriting. Ruan received a letter from someone in Florida. Perhaps the idea of writing to someone contributed to this desire to learn. He also observes how much pleasure Bruno has whenever he shares the things he learns with us and is able to ask intelligently about things he does not know. All these things could have contributed to this newfound interest in learning. They have discovered a context in which learning is useful. If we told them that education would guarantee a better future, they would agree with us but they would most likely do nothing about it. They don’t think about their future much. They are not convinced that education is going guarantee a good future. However, they care about relationship. They see that our relationship with Bruno is growing because there is a deeper exchange between us and Bruno. They want to move beyond playing games and coloring books. Perhaps Bruno has shown that learning can enhance a relationship and make it richer. I believe that they are becoming more interested in learning because they want to be connected in a deeper way with us and the other people with whom they come into contact. Unfortunately, schools have reduced education into something utilitarian. Whereas Bruno wants to learn for the sole purpose of discovering new and wonderful things so that he could share them with those whom he cares for and loves. Ruan and Felipe saw this and now they desire to discover the joy of learning for the sake of learning.

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Sacrifice is not Optional

And it cometh to pass after these things that God hath tried Abraham, and saith unto him, `Abraham;’ and he saith, `Here am I.’ And He saith, `Take, I pray thee, thy son, thine only one, whom thou hast loved, even Isaac, and go for thyself unto the land of Moriah, and cause him to ascend there for a burnt-offering on one of the mountains of which I speak unto thee.’- Genesis 22:1-2

Everything was going well for Abraham. Faithful to God all his life. Successful in everything he did. Well-respected in his community. The only thing lacking to make his life complete was a heir and God surprised him with one in his advanced years. Isaac was not only his heir but he was a fulfillment of a promise that his name would never be forgotten in this world. It was the closest thing to an eternal life in Abraham’s time. God asked Abraham to sacrifice not just his son but everything he had worked for his whole life. It is a disturbing story even though we know that it has an happy outcome. The question remains; what kind of God would ask a father to sacrifice his son. Keeping also in mind that Isaac was God’s idea. Abraham did not ask for Isaac. He had consoled himself that he wasn’t going to have any heirs. He was happy when Ismael was born. However God insisted on Isaac and now Isaac was the desired sacrifice. This story has all the appearance of a cruel joke.

We read this story to children but in reality, it is a story for mature adults. It is a story that separates those who understand their faith and those who stand outside of it. Soren Kierkegaard, a famous Danish philosopher, wrote extensively on this story and he stated that this story only makes sense for those who have taken the leap of faith. For those who stand outside the realms of faith, this episode represents everything that is wrong with religion. They would say that it is a story that promotes blind faith. For those who have experienced the divine, this story is a challenge. It challenges us to take step further in our faith. This is definitely not a story for the novice.

Jesus said, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”-Luke 14:26

I have heard preachers and Christians explain away this tough saying of Jesus. They say that this was specifically meant for the apostles and it does not apply to our present reality. We have modified Jesus to be someone who would never really say anything that would cause us discomfort. However, Jesus came to reveal the same God Abraham knew. This God hasn’t changed. He makes the same demand to those who want to be his disciples including all of us. Here again, this verse should only disturb those who have experienced the transformative power of the gospel in their lives. These are the only ones interested in being his disciples. For the rest, it would be utter foolishness. How can anyone demand that we hate our own flesh and blood? They would say. Then they can even further their argument to say that Jesus also tells us to love our enemies who despise us and hate those who have cared and nurtured us. This is not only inconsistency but it is ludicrous as well. They are right if they reason according to the wisdom of this world. However, there is a new wisdom that is working in those touched by the Holy Spirit. It is the wisdom according to the Spirit. The call of disciples is an invitation to participate in a new reality.

Abraham thought his longevity and promises depended entirely on Isaac. He was right but God wanted to introduce him to a more profound wisdom. This wisdom is not attainable unless we sacrifice the things that hold us back in this world. Usually, these are things and people that we love and cherish. These are the things make our lives worth living. As wonderful and important as they might seem to us, they also have the potential to rob from us the greater spiritual wealth God has for us. This is why Jesus used a strong words such as “hate”. They have the potential to deprive us of the greatest treasure in the world. Our enemies, on the other hand, do not hold us back. Our hatred of them might keep us imprisoned spiritually but loving them releases us from captivity. Every thing that Jesus commands us to do is about freeing our souls to know a reality that is greater and richer than we can ever imagine. Therefore, there must be something liberating about sacrifice.

I grew up in close contact with peoples of other religious traditions. Sacrifices are part and parcel of their ritualistic life. I remember seeing my neighbors sacrifice a banquet to their preferred deities. These sacrifices were offered in exchange for prosperity and longevity. Sacrifices are often seen as an exchange for something. They are not just limited to liturgical practices. This is just as prevalent in the secular world. We make sacrifices in our daily lives for something better or at least what we perceive as better. However, God changed this notion with Abraham. He asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and there were no promises given. In fact, Abraham already had everything he wanted in Isaac. As far as Abraham was concerned, he needed nothing else in his life. There was nothing better that God could promise to make him want to sacrifice Isaac. There was no exchange. It was just a sacrifice. Jesus made rigorous demands on those who followed him. In return he told them that they would endure hardship and persecution. They would not have a place to call home. Many of the apostles died terrible deaths. They never had a fixed place to call home except for John who was exiled to an island, not exactly an ideal place to call home. All of them got exactly what Abraham received when he sought to sacrifice the apple of his eye. None of them would receive this special gift if they had not been willing to sacrifice.

Abraham is known in scripture not as the father of Isaac but as God’s friend. Jesus revealed to us that the goal of discipleship is friendship with Him (John15:15). Friendship is voluntary and demands sacrifices. We can choose to live without friends but we cannot cultivate strong and lasting friendship if we are not willing to sacrifice time and energy. The things and people we might sacrifice for a friendship depends on how much we esteem it. Abraham valued God’s friendship above all else. The disciples valued Jesus’ friendship more than their own lives. In both cases, God did not offer His friendship to them because of their sacrifices. God had always been Abraham’s friend. Jesus was always the disciples’ friends. He laid down his life for them. Their sacrifices opened their eyes to see God for who He really is. It did not change God but it just changed them.

Abraham quietly went up the mountain to sacrifice his son. He must have thought that his God was the same as all the gods of his time. Human sacrifice was not uncommon then. He came down from the mountain with a new understanding of who God is. God did not change but Abraham’s concept of God did. Sometimes the very things we consider as special and precious can hinder us from discovering something greater and wonderful about God. It is not that God needs us to sacrifice these things but our love and affection for them might blind us from discovering God’s love. Abraham believed that Isaac was his heir who was going to make his name remembered in this world but we remember Abraham because his friendship with God.

You might be wondering what inspired me to think about this subject. It was a simple question asked by a fifteen year old, Kelvyn. It is not a Brazilian sounding name but it is the only one he has. Technically he is not a homeless teen. He is the streets all the time and he knows all our teens and children. Unfortunately, he is a drug dealer. He was born into it. His parents were in prison when he was born and this was the life he was exposed to all his life. He always was curious about us and he had a special soft spot for Mary. Recently, we had a rare occasion of spending almost a whole afternoon just talking with Kelvyn. One of the things he said struck me. He said that he hoped one day he could do what we do. He thought that it was a wonderful thing to sacrifice our time and energy to be friends with people like him. He asked what motivated us to do this. We thought about it for a while and then we said it is because of our friendship with God.

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Things Overlooked

“If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities.”-Luke 16:10

The cancer was killing her. The doctors said that it was just a question of days. I was the designated son to spend the night at her bedside. As the painkillers wore off, she opened her eyes and looked at me intently. Then she asked if I remembered the days when she would wait with me at the school bus stop. She smiled before I could give her an answer and then went back to sleep. She passed away a few days later. This was almost twenty five years ago. Her last thoughts were on what we would consider the most mundane things of being a mother. She waited with me for the school bus everyday when I was a little lad. I am not sure if she ever thought then that this would be one of her final memories before her passing.

I was taught in seminary that we should do the small things first in parish life. The small things were visiting the members in their homes, hospital visitation, funerals and weddings. If we would do these things, then we are paying the “rent” to our respective church. Then we could be free to do greater things. We divide our lives between mundane things and great achievements. This is not something peculiar in religious circles. It is the way the world functions. It is not enough to be just a mother. We have to show to the world that our children are future Einsteins. It is not enough to just play the guitar, we have to strive to be the best. It seems like nothing has value in itself unless it is aiming for a higher goal. If we are great, then we are successful. This may not be bad but it is not necessarily good either. In our obsession for the so-called great things of life, we might overlook things that really matter. These are things that we remember and cherish when everything is said and done.

It had been a while since we saw Isabela. We met her in the streets about a year ago. She was unusually reserved for a homeless teen. Most of the teens and children are usually open to any adult attention but not Isabela. She stood and watched us from afar for a week or so before approaching us. The first thing she asked for was a blank piece of paper. She wanted to draw. She sat next to us and drew quietly. She never said a word to us but she wanted to be near us. The next day she shared a little bit more about herself. Her story is not different from the other teenage girls. She was placed in a state orphanage where she spent most of her teenage years. She ran away to the streets before she turned eighteen because they were going to send her back to her home. Isabela is a very private and she did not elaborate on the circumstances that placed her in the orphanage. We are realizing that it is not necessary for us to know everything about their past. There is nothing we can do to change it. God has placed this young girl in our lives in the here and now. We don’t need to probe into her past to know her. We can spend time with her and allow her to share whatever she wants. We saw Isabela almost everyday for a week or so and then she decided to move to another area. It was outside the area where we worked.

The children are nomadic, moving around several areas in the city before returning to the center where we work. Occasionally we venture out to these areas to look for them. By chance, we saw Isabela again after about six months. We went for a walk and we ran into her. She was genuinely happy to see us and gave us a hug. Then among the wide array of subjects she spoke about, she mentioned something curious. She asked Mary if she remembered doing her nails for her. This was one of her fondest memories of our short time together. I had bought her a nice book and we did other things with her but she remembers something as mundane as painting her nails with Mary. I am not offended that she did not remember the book which took us a while to find. I thought that it was a big thing. I even wrote about it in one of my blog posts last year. However, her fondest memory was doing nails with Mary. She does not remember the book. It was one time event. Mary did her nails frequently. She did it because she wanted something to do with the girls. Sometimes things we think of as mundane are the very things that have an eternal impact in our lives. Perhaps the eternal shines through mundane things and not in great and grandiose events.

I would never write anything about playing a game of checkers with the children. It would seem boring. Nothing usually happens in these games. I have also overlooked the fact that everyday when I see the children in the streets, the first thing they want to know is if I had brought checkers with me. They lose all the time and they know when I let them win and they get upset. For them, it is not a question of winning or losing. They want to play checkers with me. They want Mary to do their nails. Even the boys ask her to file their nails. Everyday they want us to do the most mundane things with them. We do these in hopes of achieving something greater. Perhaps, we are missing out on the great things by overlooking these so-called mundane activities.

Before we left Isabela that day, she reminded us of her birthday. I wrote it down so that I wouldn’t forget it. We thought about getting a her small cake, but decided to get a small kit of manicure products. On the day itself, Isabela was happy to see us. She received the gift happily but she said that she did not really want us to give her anything. She just wanted to see us on her birthday. She wanted to be remembered. She asked if we brought some paper. We sat down and drew together for two hours. This is how she wanted to spend her birthday; doing something simple but at the same time doing it with people she knows who care for her. This is why mundane things are important.

We want to achieve great things for our ego but we do mundane things because of love.

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