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.