On Forgiveness

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Matthew 6:14-15

Novinha was upset that we didn’t get her a gift on her birthday. It wasn’t even her birthday. It was just jealousy. Her birthday was several months ago. However, it was the birthday of another girl. We got her a notebook. We have known this girl for several years. There is a strong bond between us. On the other hand, we barely knew Novinha. She lived in the streets but she hardly spoke to us. She was just not interested in us. This was fine with us. Not everyone wants to be our friend and we certainly don’t want to force ourselves upon anyone. However, Novinha was imposing. She demanded a present for birthday that was long gone. She kept insisting. Eventually, it became unbearably annoying. She was not a young child or teenager. She was about 23 years old. Her behavior was unbecoming of her age. Perhaps it revealed her true reality. It was something we never considered at that moment. Her persistence forced me to give a brutally honest answer. I told her that we give gifts to people whom we know. This was the truth. Gifts are something that flow out of a relationship. However, it was not the right time to say it. It wasn’t said in love. I was annoyed with her. I just wanted her to stop with her demands and it worked. The fact was that we never warmed up to Novinha. We were always disturbed by her attitude. She is a mother of a toddler. Often times, she brings her child to the streets where the child is exposed to all the vices of the streets at a young age. It is not uncommon for her to leave the young child unattended while she sniffs paint thinner. It is easy to dislike someone like her.

After this conversation, Novinha ignored us completely. Sometimes she would walk pass us without acknowledging our presence. We would try to say something to her sometimes and she would give us a weak response. She had lost all interest in us. The relationship just kept gradually deteriorating. Nothing happened to make it better. Then one day, all of the sudden, there was forgiveness. She forgave us first. She approached us and asked to play a game together. Surprisingly, we had a good time together. Then several weeks later, we ran into her with a stranger in the streets. She told us that he was her friend from Columbia. In her introduction, she reminded her friend that we are the people whom she often speaks about. This was strange. We never imagined that she would have such consideration for us.

Things between us got eventually better. Somewhere along the line, forgiveness took control of the situation. We forgave her for being obnoxious. We forgave her for being an irresponsible mother. We forgave her for being demanding. These conceived thoughts we had of her were hindering our relationship with her. We had to release them. She had to release her image of us. Maybe she thought that we did not have room for her in our hearts. She interpreted our actions according to her concept of us and we did the same. We needed to forgive each other in order to discover the true character of each other.

We started talking more often. We discovered that she was born into homelessness. Her mother was a crack addict and she lived most of her life in the streets or in the state orphanage. She never had much of a childhood. She did not say this about herself. She wasn’t aware that there is such a thing as childhood. She was exposed to drugs and violence and abandonment since she was an infant. Now she is a mother. It would be unfair to expect her to act like a perfect mother when she had very limited resources.

This year we bought Novinha a gift on her birthday. Actually it was something Mary made for her last birthday. We did not forget her birthday last year. Even though she hardly spoke to us, we still had a small gift for her. Unfortunately she was nowhere around to receive her gift then. Weeks turned into months before we finally saw her. Since she did not speak much to us then, giving her the gift out of context would be awkward. We even told her about it when she was persistent about buying her a gift. She did not believe us then. However, when we finally gave her gift on her birthday this year, she received it with a timid smile. She did not say much, just enough to show that she appreciated it. A couple of days later, she approached us and asked us for help about a situation regarding her child. She really wants to be a good mother. She is aware that she needs to change many things in her life. It wasn’t our conversations that made her realize this. It was within her all along. Perhaps she just needed someone with whom she can share these things; someone outside her circle who would understand her plight. She needed some resources to help her make these changes, They are available to her but she is afraid to go to these places alone and ask for help. She asked if we would go with her. She is not afraid to do the talking. She just needs someone to be with her in these places.

Our relationship with Novinha was a strange journey. We didn’t like it at first. We thought that it was going nowhere. Then forgiveness came into the picture. It gave us a new direction. It changed how we looked at this young woman. We thought that she was an unfriendly person and an irresponsible mother. She was really an abandoned child who is a little lost and afraid in this world and yet she wants to have the courage to do the right thing in this life. She still brings her child to the streets occasionally. Now, we can say something to her about it and she listens. She wants to do what is best for her child. Forgiveness opened our eyes to see this. It wasn’t a gift she was demanding in that unpleasant encounter. She wanted a relationship. I am glad she forgave us first. It made us realize that we needed to forgive as well. This is how it all works. Mistakes abound but forgiveness…it is just a wonderful gift from God. When we receive and use this gift, our eyes are opened to see people for who they really are.


A Silent Visitor

I met Grace this week; not a concept nor a girl with that name nor a gracious person. It was a young man who did absolutely nothing. Yet, he helped me understand grace in a strange way. He appeared out of nowhere. We never have seen him before. He just stood there and watched us. It wasn’t from a distance. He was close enough for me to reach out and touch him without moving an inch. However, it wasn’t the proximity of his presence that caught my attention. It was his unrelenting gaze. Yet, it wasn’t uncomfortable. There was no awkwardness. It was a just silent gaze.

I made eye contact with him. I thought perhaps he wanted our help or even join us. There was room for him. He responded with a vague smile and then continued watching us. He never said a word or made any gesture that he wanted to join us. He was content doing what he was doing. Naturally, I assumed that he was mentally-ill. After all, who in this busy city of chaotic activity would take the time to stop everything and watch complete strangers doing activities with homeless children and teens. Perhaps he was but it doesn’t matter. Grace is not hindered by our shortcomings.

He was not a Brazilian. He looked like an immigrant from the African continent. There are a group of street vendors in the center from several African nations. Initially I thought that he was part of their group. However, he did not have any wares with him. He was just on his own. The children initially were indifferent to his presence and then slowly they started to turn their attention towards him. They were obviously fascinated and at the same time, they pretended that they were not allured by this man’s quiet aura. Our children like the majority of Brazilians have African heritage. For the children, this man was a living reality of what was just a distant memory for them. Most of the African refugees here can name the tribe to which they belong. Our children have no concept about anything of their African heritage. They don’t even feel like they belong to the society where they live. They gently approached him. He maintained an unassuming smile. They started talking to him. He did not say anything but somehow the children felt comfortable with him. Their curiosity got the better of them and they became bolder. They asking tons of questions and eventually their hands started wandering to his hair. It would seem a little disrespectful for the casual passerby but there was a sense of innocence in their actions. The young man smiled and allowed the children to play with his hair. They were comparing their hair with his. It would have appeared racist if our children weren’t Afro-Brazilians. I was going to say something to make them stop but I didn’t get the chance. I was glad. Felipe quietly walked around this young man and gently told the children to stop what they were doing. They seemed to understand that they got out of hand. They slowly left the man alone. Felipe stood close by like a bodyguard to ensure that no one would bother this young man.

It is amazing to see Felipe act this way. He is one of the young adults who has been in the streets the longest. He told us that he has been homeless since the age of eight. He had some brief stays in the state orphanage but he practically spent all his childhood in the streets. No parent or teacher taught him any ethical values. In a world of the survival of the fittest, Felipe survived. He could have been one of the children in Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Instead of a wild child, we saw a kind young man going to the defense of another whom he perceived as being subjected to undignified treatment and protecting him. Felipe did this act gratuitously. He wasn’t aware that we noticed him. He does not know that I am writing about his actions. It was goodness in its purest form manifested in Felipe’s life. It took a quiet man to help bring this forth.

I did not see our quiet stranger after this day. No, he is not angel. He was just a man. He did absolutely nothing and yet he did many wonderful things. He made the children to be excited enough to learn about another person. It seems like a simple thing but actually it is very rare that people look beyond themselves. We live in a world where people have lost their sense of curiosity for their neighbors. Everyone is busy, caught up in their narcissistic existence. Yet, this man without saying a word or doing anything drew the children unto himself. He gave Felipe the courage to act compassionately. He gave us the privilege to see that, despite being abandoned and homeless, God still teaches His goodness to His children. After all, the most important thing in life is not being successful but being a compassionate person who gives without expecting anything in return. We need grace to understand this. This is why I call this quiet man Grace.


Melancholic Beauty

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.-Romans 12:1

There have been weeks where I didn’t post anything. Those weeks are gone forever without any memories. I lament their silent passing. They deserve better. I started writing this blog as a way of keeping in touch with people but it has evolved into something special and sacred. It has become like altars constructed with words. The biblical patriarchs built altars to mark an encounter with God. They used stones and we use words. I usually spend the week waiting and listening for these words. They come to me through different means. On rare occasions, they come through a book or a casual conversation. More often than not, these words are spoken through the children and teens themselves. After all, this is why we are here; to hear and discern the voice of the Spirit in the midst of His lost sheep.

Every week we experience the same cycle. We start our Mondays as if we are stepping into the unknown. We are taught to believe that each week is a linear progression to a goal. However, in reality, every Monday is a reset in our experience. We have two days break in-between. Many things can happen during this time. Our children and teens don’t have a notion of tomorrow and next week. They only have today before them. They can only deal with one day at a time. It is not to be confused with modern pseudo spiritual jargon of living in the moment. They don’t live in the moment but in a state of melancholy. It is not joyful. It is sad. They cannot afford to think beyond today because they cannot imagine a future. The past is something that they use drugs to forget. Today is all that is left for them. When they don’t see us for two days, they have lived two days without our existence. They have grown accustomed to life without our presence. When we reappear on Mondays, they have to redefine their world once again to accommodate us. Mondays are always unpredictable. Sometimes there is a subtle rejection. Other times, there can be excitement to compensate for the lack of attention they experienced in the past two days. We have even experienced Mondays where everything is just perfect. Like I said before, it is like stepping into the unknown.

Tuesday is more predictable but not necessarily good or bad. It is just uneventful. The children and teens are around but they usually don’t want to do anything special. They speak to us for a few minutes and then go away. Sometimes we sit and wait for them and no one comes around. If they do, they might spend just a few minutes with us. They still need time to get accustomed to us.

Wednesdays are hopeful. We find them waiting for us. They greet us with a smile. They announce to everyone, “Stephen and Mary are here.” Some might even leave a message asking us not to leave without saying hello to them. They ask about the letters. They complain that they are not arriving soon enough. They promise to write replies to the ones they received in the next couple of days. Everyone wants to play all the games we have at the same time. They will make plans for excursions with us that most of them will not go on when the time comes. Wednesday is the day when we are fully accepted into their circle. They will even encourage other children to give us their attention. I think that the children think that they are ministering to us and, in a lot of ways, they are right.

Thursdays and Fridays are when the flowers bloom. Things become crystal clear for everyone. They understand our presence here. They want us to stay longer. They are game to do anything as long as we are doing it with them. It is on one of these days last week when Felipe asked us if we talk about them with other people. We thought that it was a strange question but then it made sense. He wanted to know if they are part of our lives apart from our time in the streets. His question inspired my reflection today. As I was writing this, I realized that they are an essential part of our weekly liturgy. The purpose of liturgy is to help to us pray and discern the presence of God in our lives. In the Anglican tradition to which I belong, we use the Book of Common Prayer to aid us in saying the right words and thinking the right thoughts about God. Our children and teens are our living Prayer Book. The Spirit uses their words and actions to show us how to think and reflect about God. To Felipe, my answer is a resounding Yes! We constantly talk about you and the rest of the children to our friends and families. You are part of our liturgy.

A Serbian Orthodox priest here told me that liturgy is suffering that brings forth beauty. It made me have a fresh understanding about liturgical practices in the Bible. They seem like a lot of work. I think about the churches that want to make liturgy light and sentimental in order to be more appealing, they usually lack beauty. Beauty hides behind melancholy. It reveals itself in the strangest times and places. In our lives, it can show its face on any day it chooses from Monday to Friday. This is why we take courage and participate in this melancholic liturgy every week because we know beauty is lurking around the corner.


Within our Limits

Sometimes certain images haunt my mind throughout the week. They make demands for a reflection. One of these was of a mother walking away from us. All I saw was her back as she walked away. We wouldn’t have noticed her if one of the boys hadn’t told us that it was Dreyson’s mother. She came to convince her son to return home. She wasn’t successful. Dreyson was sitting in front of us. He did not look upset. He was just adamant. He wasn’t going to go home. She gave up and walked away without looking back at her son. We stood there in the middle between the mother and the son. Perhaps some would wonder if we could have done something to meliorate the relationship between the child and parent. If we go after the mother, we would be entering a complex maze of problems and situations. It is a world that is too big for us. We might become lost in it and in the process we might even lose focus on Dreyson. We are just finite beings in a world of infinite problems. We need to recognize our limitations. Dreyson was sitting in front of us. He is staying here. It only makes sense that we stay with him.

His parents named all the children with the letter “y” in their names. Besides Dreyson, there is another young son in the streets. His name is Danyel (pronounced as Daniel). The “y” is purposefully inserted to make their names stand out. These parents wanted something special for their children. They had good intentions. We don’t know what unfolded that resulted in their two sons being in the streets. We met the boys when they first came to the center about three years ago. Danyel was 12 and Dreyson was 13 then. The streets haven’t been sympathetic to them. I have seen Dreyson in tears many times. He suffered but has survived the street life. When his mother came for him, he was emaciated and wearing filthy clothes. She wore clean clothes and looked healthy from the back at least. Yet, he wasn’t convinced that his home was better than the streets.

The other children chided him for not going home. It was their chance to be self-righteous, even though they would do exactly the same thing in his position. Only Ruan was honest. In fact, he is one of the most honest teens in the group. He said that it would take more than words to bring him back home. He said it quietly but loud enough for me to hear it. I have been to his house. His mother has a big screen TV and a small dining table. Ruan would rather have a big table and a smaller TV.

I think this is what the children and teens want now. They mostly come from extremely poor families. Thanks to the availability of credit cards, some of their families are able to acquire amenities that they cannot afford. They have entrusted the care of their children to these things. This is another devastating effect of poverty that is hardly addressed. It gives people the false notion of material things. They put all their eggs in the material acquisition basket. The children, on the other hand, want a home where people sit at the table and talk and listen to each other. They want there to be an empty seat with their names permanently written on it. In Ruan’s house, there are hardly any chairs but there is a worn out couch placed in front of the TV. Conversations are non-existent. Ruan and the other children and teens love to talk.

It took a few years for Dreyson to open up to us. It happened a few weeks ago. We were waiting at the square for the children and teens. Only Dreyson showed up. He sat down next to us and did not say anything for a while. I asked him if he wanted to play a game or do something. He wasn’t interested in doing anything. He just wanted to sit with us. Then he said that he missed traveling. His father used to take him and his younger brother to different states in Brazil when he was young. He remembers almost every detail of these trips including the color of the buses and scenery. He said that his father did odd jobs to earn money for the family. Suddenly our usually gloomy young friend became alive. The conversation flowed in different directions. He started talking about school and how much he enjoyed learning new stuff. He asked questions about ourselves and asked what we liked to do. We had a lively conversation for more than an hour. Unfortunately, it was abruptly interrupted. Nothing drastic happened. It just the reality of the streets. Interruptions are part and parcel of it. However, they did not steal or destroy the time we spent with him. We asked Dreyson if he wanted to go a science museum the next day. He nodded his head enthusiastically. We planned the time and left. He did not have a clean shirt for the excursion and I said that I would give him one of mine.

The next day I had a nice t-shirt for Dreyson but he did not show up. We went to the museum with another boy. We were going to take them both together. When we returned, Dreyson was waiting for us. He ran up to us and apologized profusely. He said that he overslept and felt extremely bad. We assured him that we will plan another trip to the museum together. It took a while to convince him that we were not upset at all. Then he calmed down. He was assured that there is still a chair with his name on it in our lives.

This is the Dreyson that was sitting there quietly as his mother walked away from him. He was terrified that he had disappointed us but he did not budge when his mother asked him to return home. Something happened for a child like Dreyson to prefer the streets. It is not normal for a young boy to reject the embrace of his mother. Perhaps, we will never know why he refuses to go home. Perhaps it is not important. It is essential that he never forgets that he has a place where he can talk and be heard. Maybe one day he might have the strength to go home and face his reality there. Until then, we will stay with Dreyson in the streets.