Celebration of Life: A Problem at a Perfect Time

I don’t know how to introduce Gabriel. He is a paradox. He is one of the most interesting teens, yet has no particular interest in anything. He doesn’t like to draw. He is illiterate but never shown any interest in learning how to read. The only thing he wants to do is play Uno. On his birthday, we got him a deck of cards. He thanked us for it and then asked us to keep it for him. He was afraid that he might lose it. Then he never asked for it again. I have been wanting to share about this young man for a long time. However, I was afraid that my description of him might make you think that Gabriel is just an unmotivated and apathetic teenager. This would be a false impression of this fascinating young boy. Despite his lack of interest in almost everything, there is something in him that made us connect with him almost immediately when we first met him three years ago. I had to wait for the right moment to share about young Gabriel and it finally came.

Our children and teens are like stain glass windows in God’s eternal church. Some windows are located in places where the rays of sun shines through it first thing in the morning. Others reveal their beauty in the later part of the day. There are some windows that are hidden in obscure corners. Their colors and beauty are not seen easily. You have to wait for the right time of the day to capture their true glory. The sun has to shine at a perfect position and it does so only for a brief moment. It is easy to miss this opportunity if you are not attentive. These windows are often overlooked and even considered as dull and uninteresting. However, they are God’s windows. Therefore, they cannot but contain the beauty of the divine Artist. Perhaps, their exquisiteness is not obvious to the casual transient but through the grace of God, some of us are privileged to be present at the right place and right time to gaze upon this beauty. With Gabriel, the precise moment came when he had a problem with his foot.

No one likes to go the free clinics here, especially the homeless. There are only handful of places in society where the homeless are treated with dignity. Government agencies are rarely part of this handful. Despite this fact, Gabriel went to a clinic on his own. He had plantar warts on the sole of his foot. He mentioned it to me once and I offered to take him to the clinic but he refused. This time the pain must have been unbearable for him to face the condescending attitudes of the staff in these clinics. He got an appointment for a treatment but he missed it. It wasn’t deliberate. He could not find anyone to go with him and did not feel confident to go alone. He wanted to reschedule another appointment and asked us to accompany him. The administrative staff at the clinic was not interested in making things easy for him. He wanted Gabriel to provide some paperwork first which was not previously necessary. At this point, it is pointless for me to go on about the convoluted process. The end result was that Gabriel almost gave up getting any treatment for his problem. Fortunately, in Brazil, there are licensed alternative medicine. They are private and cheaper than the regular private doctors and they tend to treat people more like human beings. We asked Gabriel if he wanted to go to these specialists. We told him that we would take care of the expense. He did not expect this and did know how to react. He just smiled and thanked us quietly. The other children and teens heard this too. We could see that they were pleased with our offer. The normal envious reactions were absent in this case. They must be aware of the pain that Gabriel was suffering with his foot and so did not demonstrate any form of jealousy.

The appointment was on a Wednesday. Gabriel was wearing the best clothes he could find and waiting anxiously for us. In the initial consultation, the podiatrist told us that his problem was treatable but it has advanced and required several sessions. Thus began our weekly excursion to the specialist center. It became our personal one-on-one time with Gabriel. On our first trip, Gabriel started talking about his family. He has ten brothers and sisters. Not everyone has the same father, he said. On another occasion, he told us that he has never met his father. He also revealed that he was not able to read because he needed glasses. Unfortunately, his mother never provided them. As he began to share bits and pieces of his life with us it became obvious that Gabriel was neglected from a very young age. He suppressed his interest in things because he knew that no one would be concerned and help him to develop them. It was his defense mechanism. He also asked us about the letters from Florida. He had never shown any interest in them previously. He wanted to know how we received the letters. It never occurred to us that the postal system was a mystery to him and perhaps the other children too.

With each trip to the podiatrist, we saw that Gabriel was not really a teenager without any interests but one who was afraid to express them. He asked me to read a letter that he received from someone in the States. I had kept this letter with me for months and suddenly now, he was ready for me to read to him. The person who wrote the letter talked about working as a volunteer with seafarers. This perked his interest. He asked if I could help him write a reply immediately. He asked her if she knew stories about the seafarers’ experiences in the high seas. He wanted to know if the writer of the letter has ever travelled to different countries. He confessed that he always interested in foreign countries and what they were like. He started asking me about the countries I visited. We sat on the floor of the church square and talked about traveling. He wondered if he could do it one day. I assured him that it was not something impossible or absurd but was within his reach.

A simple trip to the podiatrist has given this young teenager to courage to show his interests again. Perhaps he realized that they won’t fall on deaf ears. He has already asked my help to write two letters. He expressed an interest in learning how to read and write and wants Mary to teach him. All the sudden our apparently unmotivated teenager has been given a new surge of energy. All because he realized that he is not going to be ignored. This is perhaps something new in his life and consequently it has caused a fresh reaction in his outlook of life.

When we met Gabriel for the first time, we wondered why his parents never came looking for him. He was such a sweet and kind young boy. I am glad that we have our Wednesdays with him. They have given us a vision of this stained glass window of God and to capture its beauty was worth the wait.

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Not without Grace

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Eph.4:7

The question came out of the blue. We were just drawing and talking as usual. Ruan was asking questions about things we did at home. He said that he would like to visit our home one day. He knew that we did not have a TV and he was intrigued by this. He wanted to know how we occupied our time. He was overall curious about everything we did away from the streets. Then all of the sudden, he just asked this question; “Why don’t you just adopt me? I want to live with you.” There was a moment of silence. All the years we have been here, this was the first time any of the children have asked this question. There was an awkward silence.

There was an easy way to answer. I could have said that legally this is not possible. Ruan is technically not an orphan. However, this would be the coward’s way out of this situation. Besides, Ruan knew this deep down. He wasn’t asking us to take him home immediately. He asked in jest and yet there was a seriousness to it. He wanted to know the boundaries of our relationship. He was curious to know if adoption or even acceptance into our household was something that was on the table with us. The rest of children and teens were silent and pretended to draw or color while secretly listening. They wanted to know how we would respond to this question. We were wondering about this ourselves. How can we answer Ruan and the other children honestly?

The problem is honesty. Frankly speaking, I like the way things are now. We come to the streets everyday and spend time with the children and teens and then we go to our quiet home. It seems like a good system. Everything is going well. Our time with the children is time well spent. Our conversations have grown and we are talking about deeper things and they are not afraid to ask us some tough questions present including the one just mentioned. We are learning to see God’s grace working in their lives and hopefully they can perceive this in us too. We love spending time with the children and teens and we can say this honestly. I also like going back to a quiet home and spending the evening reading and relaxing. The time we spent alone has become sacred to us too. We have grown accustomed to the way things are now. We don’t perceive a need to change anything because of the simple fact that we don’t want changes. Unfortunately, a simple question from a young boy whom we have grown to have strong affections is threatening to devastate this so-called comfortable situation. It is almost as if God is asking us through him how far are we willing to go from here. In a way, it is a “yes” and “no” question. The children were waiting for an answer from us. We needed some guidance to give the right answer. However, I was afraid of going to the Bible. It might tell me something that I don’t want to hear for now. My fears were right.

I did not look to the Bible for the guidance but the Word of God spoke to me despite my deliberate negligence. It did not happen in some mystical way but rather through the regular and traditional means. I was in church and the lesson read from the lectern was from Isaiah;

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
…….and to bring the homeless poor into your house;” Isaiah 58:5-7

According to the text, this was the worship that God considered to be true and acceptable. At that moment, it seemed to me like an unreasonable request on the part of God. Not many people would sign up to serve Him if they knew that this was the standard. Whenever we hear such tough sayings from the Bible, we have two choices before us. We can pretend they are not for us but written for specific period and age where homeless were nice, clean and jolly fellows who would be a joy and pleasure to bring into our homes. Since we have different kind of homeless today who can be dangerous and mentally-ill, we don’t really need to heed these verses. The other option is just face the Truth and say this is God’s word for me. Keeping in mind that the scripture is not telling us to go out and grab the first homeless people we see and bring them to our homes. It does tells us that serving God involves openness to radical changes in our lifestyles.

Since we are here to serve the homeless, we only have one choice and that is to face the Truth.

God’s standards are always the best standards for us to live our lives. His standards are not given to impose a heavy burden on us. God is not interested in making us feel bad or guilty. He is genuinely concerned about the poor and their welfare. He wants to help those who in need in a way that would really help them. His standards are a manifestation of His love. They are the only true guide to help us understand how to love our neighbor the way He loves us. Besides, they help to keep us from feeling self-righteous. We need high standards to keep us humble and open to learn from others.

As human beings, we adapt to different circumstances easily and once we are settled in our space, we don’t like changes. It is just not natural to like changes. This is the way we are and God obviously knows this. This is why He always gives the grace to change. Without grace, it is impossible for us to garner the strength and courage to modify our lives. In a way, those who say “no” to changing their lifestyles for the sake of the gospel are saying “no” to the grace of God.

We told Ruan that at this precise moment God has called us to be a family to all the children and teens here in the streets. If we took him to our home, then we could not come to the streets everyday like we do now. We won’t be able to dedicate ourselves to the rest who need to have parents in the streets too. The answer was met with approval among all the children including Ruan. The answer we gave was based on our understanding of God’s grace. We move in the direction that His grace lead us. The fear of change will always be present in our hearts but grace will help us to move forward despite this hesitance. Perhaps there will come a time when we will have to take someone into our home and when that time comes, God will give us the grace to do it. For now, I’ll enjoy my quiet nights.

…the Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me 2 . Corinthians 12:9

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Celebration of Life: New Words for a New Life

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” John 3:3

On Felipe’s birthday it was raining heavily. It had been rained for the past few days. On days like this, the children and teens take shelter under the highway bridge. They won’t come out unless the sun comes out. I don’t blame them. The streets are usually wet and flooded with dirty water and a grey and gloomy sky only adds to the overall melancholic atmosphere. It is better to find a dry place and say put. No one dares to complain about the rain. We just came out of a severe drought. The rain is much needed even though a slight relief from its onslaught might be greatly appreciated. We were really hoping for sunny weather this particular day. We wanted to give Felipe his present. Unfortunately, it looked like it wasn’t going to happen. Felipe has spent many birthdays in the streets. Many times even he forgot his own birthday. He was not expecting any gifts or anyone to remember the day. Perhaps it is his defense mechanism. He won’t be disappointed if he doesn’t expect anything. On Christmas, we gave him a simple gift. He felt a little awkward. It was obvious that he does know how to receive a gift. He is accustomed to receiving lose change and leftover food but not gifts. Gifts are special. They are given with thought and consideration. Felipe has forgotten what it means to be remembered and considered. Maybe he had never experienced such sentiments. Consequently, he has no idea what to say or do when someone gives him a gift. He was lost for words. Maybe he didn’t possess the necessary words to express gratitude for something given with love and consideration.

Felipe lives in a world where people are a means to an end. His only connection with people outside his circle is through begging. It is a simple transaction. The people give out of pity and he receives and thanks them without much emotion or eye-contact. We have watched this exchange countless times. It is very dehumanizing for everyone concerned, as well as degrading for the person begging. They feel humiliated and so treat those who give as nothing more than human ATM machines. Sometimes people who give try to treat them with humanity but they are too close to recognize the kind gesture. It is quite heart breaking. No one escapes the degradative effect of begging.

Receiving a gift is different especially when it flows out a relationship. It is an invitation to a deeper and long-lasting relationship. This is something new for Felipe and the other children. They don’t know how to relate to people who remember them on special days or occasions. It is something new and perhaps even strange for them. They know that it demands a deeper response than the mere words of gratitude that they easily dispense in their begging. The gift forces them to open themselves to the giver. They have to respond to the love that is behind the gift. It makes them feel unsure and insecure because it is new. They don’t feel comfortable stepping out of their comfort zone but at the same time the lure of love is very attractive. They like the fact that someone remembers them on their birthdays. They like receiving letters from people whom they never met. They are touched that people are taking time to pray and think about them. All this is new to them. They know that it is something good and new. Now, they have to find the words to express this new thing that is unfolding in their lives.

“The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” John 3: 8

In search for something concrete and enduring, the kids come to the street. They want relationships that would help them discover their own self-worth. However, they only find others like themselves who are just as lost. Eventually they give up on finding anything good and worthwhile and drown themselves in whatever is available to help them escape their miserable situation. They have grown accustomed to this misery but things are changing. It is shaking the foundations of their existence in a good way. They don’t have the vocabulary to express their feelings and maybe their fears. Everything is new for them. They talk about it among themselves. They say that we are connecting them to people around the world whereas before people would just ignore or avoid them. They are accustomed to this. Now the foundation of their world is being shaken. They are not alone. Our personal foundation is being shaken as well. Our world is being transformed. We miss the children when it rains. Our day seems a little empty without our time with them. It seems almost pointless. We look forward to our time with the children and teens. They renew the hope in our lives. The hope that God is creating something new and eternal in our midst.

It rained for two days straight before we had a brief reprieve. Felipe was waiting for us. He looked as if we was waiting for us for two days. His face lit up and he wore a big welcoming smile. He said out loud, “You missed my birthday!” He wasn’t mad or sad. He was glad that he could say these words to someone who cared about his special day. We told him that we didn’t forget it. We had a small gift for him. He did not open it immediately. It is almost like he wanted to savor the moment for a while. Finally I had to prompt him to open the package. It was a comic book that he had wanted for a while. He smiled and thanked us. We told him that we had some letters for him as well. We sat down and read one. He wanted to write a reply immediately. In it, he wrote these words,

“God has sent many people to show us that He will care for us.”

It seems like he is discovering new words to express what is happening to him and the other children.

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Celebration of Life: The Fabulous Purpose of the Gospel

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 2 Corinthians 5:18-19

I made a pleasant mistake of picking up a copy of the “Imitation of Christ” in the beginning of this year. I read it before but this time I found it to be annoying and yet, I could not stop reading it. I found myself disagreeing with it while at the same time, I could not disregard what it says, mainly because it exposes my own struggles with pride and insecurity. It was as if it was written for me. Then, I realized that I was again being an egocentric person. There was no winning with this book. It was written for all peoples; everyone is flawed with a tendency to confuse the message of the gospel with our own personal ideas. I began the year thinking that I should have goals for our ministry so that I can show myself that I have achieved something. However, this is not my ministry. It belongs to God. We either serve His purpose and set aside our personal desires or we aren’t part of it at all. There is no middle ground, only God’s goal established in His gospel matters.

God does not have resolutions like us. He just has one simple eternal plan for the world laid out in the gospels. The gospels testify about the person of Jesus. In all the four gospels, we know that Jesus is notorious for not giving a straight-forward answer. If Jesus were to be present in the flesh in our midst and we asked him what is the essence of the gospel, I am sure that Jesus would answer with a question. He gives nothing away on a platter. He wants us to have the joy of discovering the answer. Thankfully, we have St Paul who attempts some answers. He sought to live the gospel in its plenitude. His complex and rich summary of the gospel was that it was a message of reconciliation. My own plans and goals seem pitiful compared to this lofty aim and purpose. God wants to reconcile the world. With division and strife surrounding us, it is a powerful notion. Our situation is not something new. It has always been like this ever since Adam and Eve had their first children. This is why the ministry of reconciliation is such a controversial and powerful message in every age.

Our responsibility as Christians is to stand in the place where God has called us to be His witness and ask what does it mean to part of this ministry of reconciliation. In our streets, the Holy Spirit is opening our hearts to understand that it means celebrating the lives of the children and teens who have been forgotten and despised by many. St Paul, who was a strict Jewish leader who once disapproved violently any idea of reconciling with the Gentiles, became the champion and model of reconciliation with the very people he despised. They became part of his identity and he loved them and celebrated their lives.

Reconciliation goes beyond saying affirmative statements about an individual. We recognize that our lives have become richer through our relationship with such and such person. St Paul said that everything he lost for the sake of the gospel he considered as dung in comparison to what he had gained. These were not mere words; he laid down his life for these people. He discovered something greater and more precious than his previous status could ever offer. He found God’s beauty and love in the people he once despised or disregarded. He had genuine reasons to celebrate the lives of those whom he served.

We are in a moment in our ministry here where we can say we want to celebrate the lives of the children and teens. Part of celebrating is sharing. There can never be a true rejoicing in isolation. The deep joy of being part of something wonderful and precious is being able to share it with your friends and family and even total strangers. However, evangelical celebration of lives must be done in Truth. If not, it would be reduced to something sentimental and there is no future in this. We can only perceive the true value and beauty of our children and teens through the Holy Spirit. We can only be sensitized to the presence of the Holy Spirit through faith. One of the keys to unleash our faith is through prayer. Before we can truly celebrate, we need to pray; not for God to change things but for Him to change the way we see and understand people. I noticed that whenever I pray, I see more clearly how special and precious these children are even when they are difficult.

I want to begin this year praying that God will reveal to us how to celebrate the lives of the people who He has put into our lives and neighborhood. It doesn’t matter how the world considers these people but God has given them to us so that our lives would be richer. I want to share this wealth with you. I invite you to pray with me as you read about these treasures that we share with you. I am sure that prayer will unleash your faith to celebrate the lives of these little ones together with us in a genuine way.

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