So Zacchaeus ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”-Luke 19:4-8
I was sitting on the Cathedral steps waiting for the children when Wellington sneaked up from behind and startled me. He had a good laugh and then asked about Mary. She had to stay at home to get some work done in our apartment. Without missing a beat, Wellington was anxious to show the sum of money he earned during the week. He worked in a construction project but he quit after a week. I asked if there were vacancy for this job. I was thinking about Igor and Mateus. He thought that the work was demanding and dangerous. He said that he wouldn’t recommend it to his worst enemy. I asked him what he was going to do with all the money he had earned. He wanted to take the other children to MacDonald’s and keep the rest to rent a room in a hostel. He had enough for a week. However, the first thing after he received his paycheck was to stop by the first church on his way to leave a donation in the offering box. I was a little surprised. I asked him why he did this. He said that he wanted to be connected to God. He said perhaps this little contribution would help him to take another step towards Baptism one day. He would like to be a Christian but he feels that he is not ready yet. He never had a religious upbringing but his parents were superstitious. They never went to church or observed any religious festivals. He started going to church on his own when he was a young boy. He always liked being in a church. He added that he liked talking with us because we help him feel connected to him to God. Needless to say, I was encouraged by this and it boosted my ego.
His name is actually spelled “Uelington” which is how “Wellington” is pronounced in Portuguese. His parents were illiterate. They did not know how to spell his name and the person at the registry wrote down his name the way it sounded. Unlike most of our children, Wellington was born in a rural setting. Beside this, he also had a very strong relationship with his father. Many of the children have never seen their fathers whereas Wellington adored his father. He worked with him when he was a young boy and he always did everything to be close to him. His mother, unfortunately, was an alcoholic. He never had any strong affection for her. He speaks of her with disdain. His world eventually collapsed when his father suddenly died. He was forced to deal with his mother and other siblings who have followed the footsteps of her alcoholism. He never suffered physical abuse although he thinks it would have been better if he did. It was the unkind words proffered against him by his mother that have scarred his soul till today. He left his little rural town when he was barely thirteen and went to a city as far away as possible from his mother. This was the last time he saw her and he is twenty-two now.
It is rare that we have a serious conversation with Wellington. He is jovial person and often uses humor to hide his true nature. Today was different. He was ready for a conversation. Wellington shared that he was there on the night when a mentally-ill person poured gasoline on me and tried to set me on fire. He actually pushed her away when she tried for the second time to light her lighter. I was in a such a state of confusion that I did not notice his presence there. He said he was amazed that the whole event did not change the way we work with them. He attributed this to faith. He also said that the woman had recently died and I was still well and alive. I stopped him before he could say that it was retribution. I wanted him to know that things don’t work this way. It was sad that this woman had met a tragic end. She had suffered her whole life with mental illness and hopefully she is at peace now.
I told him that I don’t why the lighter did not work at the moment. If she had successfuly set me on fire, it would not have changed anything about God or our faith in Him. Nevertheless, I was glad and grateful to be alive. Wellington asked if I believed that God protected me from a premature death. I told him that some would answer say, “Yes!” without any hesitation. However, it is not an easy question to answer. The very night of the incident, I read some news about a young college student in the States who experienced the exact same thing as I did but she died. Her family and friends described her as a kind and gentle person. Her family might ask why God did not save her? We have no answer for the family. We can ask why God did not spare His Son from the Cross. There can never be an adequate answer. Perhaps the question is wrong. God came to be with us. He wants to show us something more profound and mysterious of life. It is not about getting him to do things we want or desire. I desire that everyone I love would be safe all the time but God did not come to this world to do this. He is Emmanuel, God with us.
All I can say confidently is that God was with me at the moment and He was with the girl in the States. The outcome is different from both of us. We need faith to process what God is doing in each person’s situation. In my case, God wanted me to return to the streets the next day. I believe that having faith does not mean that God is going to do exactly what we want. It is just knowing that God is going to be with us and He will give us the strength to rise above each situation.
Thankfully the conversation did not end there. Wellington went on to share his favorite story from the gospel. It is the one quoted above about Zacchaeus. He said in the story everyone was gathering around Jesus. They had expectations of him. They heard that he did miracles and healing. They wanted to experience these things. Zacchaeus was despised by society and naturally he did not expect Jesus to treat him any different. Perhaps he was the only one in the crowd who did not have any ulterior motive. He just wanted to see the person of Jesus. There was no expectation on his part, except the joy of seeing the Messiah. Jesus did not perform any miracles or healing in Zacchaeus’ home but He just dined with him. The result was a transformed life. Wellington went on to say that he wants to have the attitude of Zacchaeus. He confessed that whenever he prays in church he wants God to do things for him but at the same he just really wants to see God’s presence in His life. He does not need God to answer his prayers at all, as long as he knows that God is present.
I sat there and listened to Wellington profess these beautiful words. He has said something that suffices for the moment. He defined what it means to have a relationship with a personal God. It is an unconditional relationship. He is not a personal God when He does things for us. He is a personal God because He is present in our lives. Wellington wants to be like Zacchaeus because he wants a genuine transformation like the one the tax collector experienced. I believe that it will happen one day. For now, I am glad that I had this enriching conversation with him.