Day of Violence

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. Matthew 5:38-42

A group of protesters walked past us. They were mostly the poorest of the poor. They were protesting a recent violent episode involving the police in their shanty-town like community. A young unarmed teen was shot in an enclosed shack while being interrogated. His mother was standing outside when this happened. She assured minutes before by the police that it was just a formal questioning. She had nothing to worry about until she heard the gunshot. It was something that happened too frequently. The people were peaceful as they passed by. However, their faces revealed a deep sadness and a sense of hopelessness.

Just a few minutes before, we witnessed a violent altercation. It was over something trivial that is not even worth mentioning. It seems like it does not take much to start fight. It involved a homeless adult and one of our most fragile teens, Alex. The adult started physically attacking the boy. A complete stranger and I had to get involved to curb things from escalating any further. Thankfully everything ended with minimum damage. The stranger was with his wife and children. They had come to streets to distribute blankets to the homeless. Perhaps the father wanted his children to develop a sense of compassion for the homeless. Instead, they witnessed an act of violence. If they had come today, it would have been completely different. There was laughter and camaraderie but they came on a day of violence. It was truly that kind of day. Maybe it was the perfect day to learn about compassion.

In reality, everyday is a day of violence. I wish it was just my opinion but all our news sources tell us that this is the way of the world. Ever since Cain, violence has become part and parcel of our human nature. Since I don’t have access to anyone’s personal thoughts except my own, I can only speak for myself. I consider myself to be against any form of violence but it still has a hold on me. I have my personal group that I dislike. In my mind, I have justifiable reasons to dislike them. I believe that they are the cause of all the violence in this world. I like talking about how bad they are. I will never admit it but I would find it hard to be compassionate if something violent happens to this group to disrupt their activities. I might imagine this kind of violence justified because it serves to nullify a greater evil. Unfortunately, every violent act is founded on this idea. Everyone who commits violence thinks that they are doing something necessary to avoid a greater evil, even criminals think this way. I have heard and believed in theologians and philosophers who made convincing arguments about so-called just use of violence. I read them and used to believe in them. Now, I find the gospel to be saying something else. It is in the light of gospel where I have to judge the validity of their arguments. Jesus did not make any exceptions in His teachings against violence. Since He comes before all theologians, only His words have to be taken into serious consideration. He addresses violence systemically beginning with verbal violence and summing up with the admonition to love those who we are usually taught to despise. His message goes against our human nature. This is why we ignore it so easily. After reading these tough words of Jesus, I have become more aware of my own violent tendencies.

Jesus tells us not to resist our enemies. He wants us to turn the other cheek. No matter how much we try, we cannot interpret this text to make violence excusable in some situations. Jesus lived what He preached. He did not resist His enemies. He prayed that God does not take into account their cruelty towards Him. I am not usually a violent person but I am definitely prideful. This is not a confession but just a fact. Like many men and women, I suppose, I don’t want anyone to think that I am weak, especially my enemies. For this reason, when I read this verse, I feel uncomfortable. I want to resist a little bit just enough to show that I am not weak. Unfortunately, Jesus is not allowing any room for my pride. He doesn’t think that it is necessary for us to convince anyone of our strength with violence. He proved it with His own life. The standards are clear and the choice is a tough one. It is either we live in this world and speak the language of Jesus or we just become part of the world. The latter operates on a vocabulary of violence.

After the protest passed us, the children and teens began talking about the altercation with the homeless adult. Everyone’s adrenaline was pumping. The conversation was about violence. They were talking about retaliation. They thought a grave injustice has been committed. No homeless adult should physically hit a young teen. In their minds, the wrong can only be corrected through violence. Finally, I told them to stop the discussion. I said that we have seen and heard enough violence for one day. We don’t need to prolong it. They acquiesced. It was almost as if they wanted to have the permission to stop the violent talk. Then I saw the stranger and his family walking past us. They had given out all the blankets. He smiled at me but his wife and two daughters looked a little nervous and frightened. Understandably they were shaken up. I hope that this would not stop them from being compassionate. On the other hand, it is to this violent world that Jesus calls us to serve.

Jesus faced all the harsh realities of His time and yet never used the language of this world. Violence was not part of his vocabulary. The world could not understand Him. His words did not resonate with the way the world operated. They tried to mold Him into their way of thinking. He did not resist them because the only way to resist them is through violence. He preferred to suffer death than speak their language. He preferred humiliation rather than revenge or justice. He spoke to them in another language. It was a heavenly one. It would be a great mistake to think that his message is about non-violence. Non-violence could be used as a tool to resist your enemies. Jesus was and is taking everything to higher level. His message is about Love where hatred and violence have been eliminated from its vocabulary. It is not a message that the world wants to hear and this is why we will never be at home in this world.

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Our Missionary Journey

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken…..Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” Acts 2:4-13

When God poured His Holy Spirit upon all peoples, some mocked the disciples and said that they were drunk. This was not the only occasion that people failed to recognize His audible voice. Prior to the Passion, God spoke to Jesus in an audible manner. Some just heard thunder. Some thought an angel spoke. Only a few heard God’s voice (John 12:29). These were not special people. They were just people whose hearts were ready to listen to God. The Holy Spirit changed radically how the first disciples understood God and faith. God was no longer a property of a specific group or culture. He was, in a way, liberated to be who He is truly; a gracious and merciful God of all languages and peoples. He became truly impartial in the hearts and minds of the disciples. All languages contained the capability and concepts to express the divine mystery of God’s grace. In other words, God revealed that He was and is speaking and working among all peoples. Our missionary task is to discern His presence among them.

I have been a missionary in three different seasons of my life. I started out as a lone ranger missionary. It wasn’t because I thought that I did not need anybody. I just allowed my zeal and enthusiasm dominate my actions. I wasn’t necessarily foolish. Maybe I was a little impatient. I was only 23 then. I had an idealistic view of missions. I left for the missionary field thinking that it was a lifetime call and I was never going to return to my land of origin. This actually turned out to be true. I remember saying goodbye to my father at the airport. It was the last time I ever lived in the same place as he did.

In my first missionary experience, I went out with the intention to bring the gospel to people who have not heard the gospel message. I went to the Amazon first. It sounds cliché but I thought it would be a good place to start my missionary journey. It was a complete failure, at least from my perspective. However, it did help me realize that I am diehard urban citizen. I only felt truly at home in a concrete jungle. Any city under 4 million habitants was a small town for me. It became obvious that I should retry my missionary efforts in São Paulo. I left for São Paulo from the Amazon as I was turning 25 and started working with the homeless children and teens immediately. I loved it. It was like coming home to a place where I never knew existed. I always felt close to God where a normal human being would want to flee. Not because it was dangerous. It was the unforgiving stench. It would be obscene to try to describe it. We are still not immune to it but we won’t trade places for anything. It is the place where God meets us. He meets us in the strangest place. It was here where I met my wife and we became one unit in ministry. People now cannot imagine a time when we weren’t together. Things were going great until we had to leave against our will. It was an issue with our visa to stay in Brazil. We moved to the States and worked on returning to missions. We managed to do it but it was a failure. Well, perhaps at this point, it would be appropriate to mention that there is really no such thing as failure in God’s economy. It is all part of our personal maturity. A true failure would be giving up completely. We almost did this but something gave us the strength to move forward. Before we could do this, we needed to understand why the failures were pivotal in our understanding of missions.

During our first missionary experience in the streets, the Holy Spirit opened our eyes to see that these children needed to be connected with the church. Our second trip we tried to create this connection according to our own understanding and wisdom and thankfully, it was a disaster. This is our third return to missions to the same place. This time we realized that missionary work is not our task. We don’t make things happen. It starts and ends with the Holy Spirit. It started on the day when God poured His Spirit on all peoples. The gifts He bestowed upon His disciples were to help them discern and participate in His work. We don’t bring God to these places or peoples. God is already there, about a million steps ahead of us. He calls us to do something simple. He did say that His yoke is easy. He calls us to listen and testify to His Voice of Grace and Mercy that is always actively present wherever people are present.

His voice connects us with each other. The church is defined by those who listen and heed the voice of the Holy Spirit. We took us many years to realize that any effective ministry begins by listening to the Holy Spirit. We listened and listened. Then our eyes were opened to see what God is doing. However, we still can’t see the whole picture. It is not necessary. God does not burden us with all the details. He gives us what we can handle. There is injustice and violence and pain and suffering where we work. We don’t know the answer to all these problems. However, we can love despite not having the solutions. Then God showed us that love cannot be separated by space and language. He is able to connect those who listen to His voice even if they are thousands of miles apart. We testify to this truth. It is amazing that a boy who can hardly read or write can say complex foreign names like Nancy and Jenny or Kat perfectly when these names are usually difficult in his native tongue. It is because they are no longer strange names. They are people who have become part of their lives. We thought that it was up to us to connect the church with the children. In reality, God was already doing it. Sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers who write to these children were not inspired by us to do so. They are people whom God has prepared for this task. It doesn’t mean that those who do not do this aren’t listening to His Spirit. It only means that God has another project for them. He is doing something among all peoples. Mission work is learning to listen and discern God’s project in our midst

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A Closed Book

Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. John 12:24

I just finished a book. It has kept me up for two nights. Thankfully, yesterday was a public holiday and I could afford a late night of reading. It was one of those books that demands a second reading. For now, it will return to its place on my book shelf. I am beginning to have a small library. It seems like I am always rebuilding my personal library. It coincides with the new phases of my life. This one is four years old just like our ministry here. I noticed that I am reading books that I never thought that I would read in another time. Before, I was more indiscriminate in my reading. Maybe it is a sign that I am getting old. I remember a pastor whose sermon I can no longer recall but I remember one small digression he made in his discourse. He observed that when he was young, he had tons of friends. Now he is older, he only has friends that he can count with one hand. Perhaps it is this way with everything. As we mature, we realize that it is not quantity but quality that really counts.

Some reading this might remember that I used to write frequently about Igor. Much of our reflections centered on our interactions with him then. I haven’t written much about him lately. For those who are not familiar with him I will give a brief introduction. He was a homeless young man who had lived in the streets since he was 8. For a short period, we were his parents and he was our son. I think this best describes our relationship. Thankfully, he is no longer in the streets. He managed to find his way out. He has not found a completely stable situation but he is at a stage where the streets no longer hold any appeal to him. He used to come by our house time and time again, kept us up to date with the ups and downs of his life. However, it has been a while since we heard from him. The last time was a phone call in the beginning of this year. The conversation was different. He called and then he was silent. It wasn’t a worrisome silence. It was a silence that informed our souls that things have changed. We live in different worlds now but it was good while we existed in the same one. I think that he just wanted to see if things have really changed. Perhaps, this was the reason for the call.

I had to bring up subjects to talk about. I spoke about Janaina. Now, I have to say something about her. Not everyone might know her. Well, the most succinct way to do this is to say that she was someone we knew when she was a homeless child 20 years ago. Today she is a mother of a beautiful child and a caregiver in a group home for mentally-ill adults. We never thought that we would be in contact with her again. Now, she comes to our house on a regular basis. Igor has met her once. I commented that she came by our house and was doing well. Then, he asked, “Does she have Jesus in her heart?” I have heard this question so many times but it was strange hearing it from Igor. He is part of a Pentecostal Church. It is his spiritual home presently. He has adopted its culture and mannerisms. The church divides people into two categories; those with Jesus in their hearts and those without. I understood his question but I don’t believe in its simple mathematics. I am an Anglican. We don’t open windows into people’s souls. I told him that Janaina is very concerned about doing what is right in God’s eyes. I hope it answered his question. He did not say much. He changed the subject and talked about his church activities. He is helping his pastor in the church and working with the pastor. The conversation ended soon after this.

Igor has moved on. He is detached himself from the street life. We are still connected to it. It is the place where we are going to be staying for a long time, God willing. It means that he has to let us go. If not, his link with the street will be sustained through us. It is not a positive connection for him now. He needs to move forward and forget everything that was behind him in order to reach his goal. Unfortunately, we are intrinsically part of his past. Perhaps this was the nature of our last conversation. It was a realization that our time together has come to end. It was time to let things die. We understand. He needs to grow and discover for himself what it means for him to be a child of God in this world. We discovered that our place is in the streets. He has different books to read. We were glad that we were a chapter in his life. Now, I can close this chapter and put it on the shelf. We would like to read this book again, maybe sometime in the future.

Janaina was a closed book for a long time. One day the Holy Spirt blew the dust off the cover and loaned this precious book to us again. We get to read another chapter with her. She is studying English with Mary and, afterwards, we usually have lunch together. It is interesting that when we knew her in the streets, we never imagined this present scenery occurring. The English language was the bridge that connected us to Igor. It was the first thing he wanted to learn from us. We had regular English lessons with him in the streets and this was how our relationship grew. Perhaps one day 20 years from now, Igor will be having lunch with us on a weekly basis.

Igor is gone from our lives for now. Unfortunately Igor is not a book that belongs to my library. He belongs to God. We just had the privilege to read his book for a brief moment. Perhaps God will allow us another glimpse at it. I hope so.

Do we consider Igor a success story? Well, there is no such thing as success or failure in what we do. There are just blessings. It was a blessing to know him and it is an extra blessing that God has brought Janaina back into our lives. To call it a success would be reducing this wonderful thing into something trivial. I like the idea of books. They invite me into their world and I leave being deeply enriched. It was a wonderful gift from God to read a chapter in the life of our dear friend and one-time son, Igor.

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Judging Others

Jesus said, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). Reading this, I decided that it was time to take a look in the mirror. I saw a young teenager in high school. His teachers, the good ones, or rather, the ones that really mattered, were telling him that he was doing a good job in his studies and how proud they were of him. For unknown reasons, the boy was happy and terrified at the same time. He did not want to disappoint his teachers. He did not want to lose their affection, but alas, he lost confidence in himself. He sank into the abyss of low grades. He stopped interacting with his teachers. He thought that he lost their affection forever. They remained the same, perhaps just a little puzzled. They could not understand why the boy was not doing well. Neither did the boy. It just happened. Something triggered in his soul that made him think that he wasn’t worthy of this kind of attention. It didn’t make sense then and still it is mystery. We are such complicated beings. I have spent enough time in the mirror. Now I am ready to write to about another teenager who is not me. He was late and we had been waiting for him for almost an hour.

We had marked a dentist appointment for him. He had been complaining about his toothache for months. We tried going to the free clinics but nothing came out of it except free painkillers. This time we went to a private practitioner. This boy had suffered enough. It was time to get the problem solved once and for all and yet he was late. We told the dentist that we might have to cancel the appointment. She was kind enough to say that she was able to attend to him even if he showed up an hour late. Then we saw him walking nonchalantly towards us. We wondered what excuse he was going to conjure up. He did say a word. He just walked past us. I was furious. What a rude boy! I thought. Then I remembered that this was not unusual behavior for him. I went up to him practicing all the self-control I could muster up and asked him if he remembered his appointment. We had reminded him for several days and the day before we got the time and place finalized. He said yes and then mumbled something incoherent. It was pointless to sit there and talk about the virtue of punctuality with him at that moment. Time was ticking. We asked him if he still wanted to go to the dentist. He nodded and off we went. Two extractions later, he walked out of the dental clinic smiling and then he went on his way without saying a word of gratitude. It would be easy to jump to conclusions about this boy. He is not ungrateful or rude. He is who he is. One of the other teens remarked recently that this boy was truly strange. He is not strange neither. He was just severely neglected. It is not an excuse. It is just the plain fact. He does not know how to interact with people in a normal way. He is not autistic. He is aware of people but he doesn’t know how to engage them. He has spent most of his life unstimulated. His cluelessness is coherent. He doesn’t do anything illegal but he doesn’t know how to do anything positive for himself. He just exists without knowing why. He did thank us in his own way after two days. He greeted us with a big smile. This is the best he could do. I won’t mention his name. It is not necessary. We don’t want anyone to have a negative opinion of him. He has enough of that in his life. He is a very different kind of teenager but not by his choice.

Danyel has been in the hospital for five days. He suffered an accident. He almost got killed and fortunately he only suffered a broken leg. It is something that can be fixed. Naturally he was shaken up by the whole incident. He had been sniffing paint thinner and the doctors could not administer any painkillers until the chemical substance leaves his system. Apparently this is an eight-hour process. He just laid there in agony on a cold bed in the intensive care. He was surrounded by adults but none of them were his parents or relatives. Only one visitor was allowed at a time. Mary went in to see him first. He saw her and then broke down and cried. Perhaps he was waiting to do this the whole day. He needed to see a maternal face. I entered after her. He was much calmer by then. He told me that he almost died this day. He closed his eyes and rested.

His father showed up while he was in surgery and never returned after that. His mother only visited her son for the first time five days later. We were in the room when she came. She did not hug him. She said something to him but there was an obvious lack of affection. It wasn’t deliberate but strangely natural. Danyel is accustomed to it. He was happy to see her and was satisfied with her minimal display of fondness. It is not that Danyel is a hard child to love. Everyone adores him in the streets including complete strangers and even the nurses and doctors in the hospital fell in love with him. His mother looked like a person who had had a hard life. We got ready to leave the room so that Danyel could spend time with his mother. He insisted that we stay and she went downstairs to get some fresh air even though she only had been in the room for five minutes. The next day we found out that she did not stay long.

I can understand why Danyel and his brother are in the streets. The neglect is very clear. However, it is not intentional. His mother cannot give what she has never received. It is not fair for me to take the speck out of her eye. I don’t know her life. I don’t know her experiences. I know Danyel in the streets and I am amazed how he has managed to be such a kind and considerate boy despite his circumstances. Each of us are different. Danyel and the unnamed teenager are victims of neglect. Danyel ran away to the streets when he was younger and perhaps, in a strange way, he suffered less from the consequences of neglect. The other boy just got accustomed to being neglected. It was his way of life.

Neglect is such a strange thing. It is not something peculiar to poverty. Children of millionaires can be victims of neglect as well. There is no cure for it. All our children carry the scars of neglect with them. Perhaps all of us do in reality. Not everyone suffers neglect equally. Some of us have people who help us overcome the neglect we have suffered. I don’t remember if I suffered it when I was young. I remember being complicated. I remember the teachers whose kindness and genuine concern remained imprinted in my soul but I don’t remember anything they taught me. I just remember that they cared for me despite my idiosyncrasies and insecurities. They did not judge me. They just cared for me. Maybe they did judge me. They judged me to be worthy of love.

Jesus said, “For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:2)

Hopefully one day Danyel and our unnamed friend will have many faces that are clear in their minds as they look into the mirror to take the log out of their eyes.

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Speaking in Tongues

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.- Acts 2:1-4

Learning Portuguese is a challenge. Well, learning any language is a challenge. There is no such thing as an easy language. It takes relatively a short time to learn the words. However, they are not just mere words. They represent symbols and experiences of a people. I can say the words without understanding their deeper meanings. I can spend years speaking without really communicating. I can only connect verbally with the Brazilian people when I allow their symbols and experiences to inform my soul. Only then there will be a communication between souls.

There is one lingering problem. I can never appropriate the meanings of these foreign words perfectly. They will always be foreign words to me. I cannot integrate them perfectly. Amazingly, I find this is quite irrelevant. The Brazilians, more specifically in our case, the children and teens don’t seem to mind. They are happy to hear their words flow out of our lips. We might say the words in a disjointed manner but they are still able to accept us. They can see that we want their experiences and symbols to be part of our reality even in an imperfect manner. Perfection is not a prerequisite, just a willing and open attitude. The strange thing is that we are beginning to use these foreign words to express some of our deepest thoughts now. It is no longer “their words” but now we feel that they belong to us as well. They reflect who we are. The children and teens have grown accustomed to our way of speaking and now they don’t even notice the difference anymore.

Mary sat down with Ruan to teach him to read. He spent some of his time correcting her pronunciation. Then he realized that it takes an extra effort on her part to teach him in a foreign language. It made it more special for him. Now, he only wants her to be his teacher. No one else can take her place. It means that he needs to make an extra effort to decipher her accent to understand the words. It doesn’t matter to him. She is able to communicate perfectly to him. She understands his symbols and experiences. Native speakers of Portuguese might have a better advantage over Mary but it doesn’t mean that they would be able to communicate with Ruan. Learning to communicate takes time and patience and, most importantly of all, love.

The Post Office was on strike recently. I only realized it when the strike ended and I received a stack of letters. They were all for the children and teens. We have established a letter reading ritual with the children. I inform them that they have received a letter and they demand that I read it to them at once. Then we sit down at the nearby square together and they open their letters. They want to be the ones who open them or at least, they want me to open the letters in front of them. They like to see the words in English. They are proud that they are written in a foreign language. They can tell others that they received a letter from abroad. However, seeing and touching the letters do not make them meaningful until they hear them read in their own language. The act of translation works like magic for them. The foreign words are suddenly transformed into tangible notions for them. Alex was not happy with just hearing the words in Portuguese. He wanted me to write them down and give him this translation. He is illiterate. He can barely read his name. However, it is important for him to have these words from his special person in the States in his own language. This way he can own these precious words permanently. One day the children asked Mary to read one of Alex’s letters in English. They wanted to hear the letter in its original language. She did it and Alex was baffled. He took her aside and asked how she learned how to read in English. He could not imagine that Mary, once upon a time, did not use the same language as he did.

Words are abundant in the city of São Paulo but communication is always lacking. It took us years to learn how to communicate with the children and teens. We are not there yet completely. It is a long process and there are no shortcuts. It is not a question of using impressive vocabulary or having perfect pronunciation or abiding to the convoluted grammatical rules. All these things are helpful but they don’t necessarily guarantee perfect communication. Communication is something that comes from the heart. Words are spoken everyday without any attempt to communicate. They are like a clanging cymbal. They do not bring peace or joy to those who hear them. Words are necessary but they have to come from the heart to touch the soul.

I have some influence of the Pentecostal movement in my spiritual journey. It was a long time ago. Whenever someone would ask me if I spoke in tongues I always had the right answer for them. However, Mary is not so fortunate in this sense. For years, she said “no”. However, as we grow older, we understand this gift of the Holy Spirit better. The coming of the divine Spirit was to give us the ability to communicate meaningfully. It means that we recognize that God is not limited to one people’s symbols and experiences. He is present and active in all people’s languages. The gift of tongues is the ability to recognize God’s presence in these symbols and experiences. Mary definitely has this gift. She communicates clearly to the children and teens with her gift. It is not about the words.

There is much talk about dialog and communication today. Perhaps, the feast of the Holy Spirit is more relevant today than it has ever been in the history of humanity.

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