There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.-John 1:6-8
And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, he did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” And he answered, “No.” They said to him then, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”-John 1:19-22
A friend offended me once, unintentionally of course. It was a good thing. Obviously no one in their right mind wants to be insulted. However, this particular incident was a great help to me. The topic of the conversation was about altruism. The statement was a generalization. The subject was none other than Mother Theresa and the unfortunate term, “messianic complex” was thrown about callously. There is no need to go into details. One can figure out how everything unfolded. There was complete silence for a moment after the unsavory term was used. Our friend realized that he had inadvertently insulted us. During this uneasy moment, my own personal thoughts went wild. I began wondering if he was actually right. Am I serving in this ministry to the homeless because I secretly want to be their savior?
I eased the tension by reverting the subject back to Mother Theresa. I defended her but in reality I was desperately trying to find arguments to defend myself. I wasn’t sure if I was convincing. It did not matter. Everyone wanted to move on to something else. However, his comments had penetrated my soul. I was questioning whether I have a messiah complex. On the other hand, we are all attracted to messiahs. We read about them. We flocked to the theaters to watch dramatized versions of their heroic deeds. They are people we want to imitate. Maybe the question should be who doesn’t have a messiah complex?
I can think of many reasons why I remain in this ministry in São Paulo. However, there was only one foundational reason that brought me here. It was and still is the gospel. I had no idea what the homeless situation was like before coming to this mammoth city. I had seen abject poverty before. I lived in Jakarta, Indonesia for four years. Then I lived next to a slum. I did interact with the very poor there. I am accustomed to the situation of urban poverty but homelessness is completely different. There is a sense of complete abandonment and hopelessness. Seeing children and teens in these circumstances added a more painful dimension to it.
Faced with such dire circumstances and armed with a privileged middle-class background, my mind was flooded with possible solutions to this problem. Somehow I thought that it was incumbent upon me to solve the malignant social illness. I thought that this was an intricate part of preaching the gospel. I fell into the trap without realizing it. I wanted to become their messiah. I read the scriptures and I imagined myself as their Moses, Elijah and David, not realizing that none of these were really successful messiahs. Moses failed, except for Joshua and Caleb, to bring the generation that he led out of slavery to the Promised Land. Elijah could not convince the people of Israel to abandon idolatry and David never could bring peace to Israel and his own family contributed to much of the chaos. Bedazzled by the prospect of being a messiah, I failed to see the truth about these great men of faith. Strangely, John the Baptist was never up for consideration. He was too simple. He appeared in the gospel for a few verses and then we never heard from him again until he was murdered. However, he was the one that I needed to heed. Jesus considered him to be the greatest prophet.
Occasionally, a young person who is unfamiliar with us will come and ask; “What are you offering us?” In a way, it is a fair question. There are various social agencies that go around offering their “solutions” to the homeless. There are many churches that provide food in the evenings. They are solving the problem of hunger. There are some religious groups that go to the streets offering shelters. Everyone is offering something. They want to know what we are bringing to the table. We don’t have anything concrete to say. I cannot say that we are bringing Jesus to the streets. That wouldn’t be true. He does not belong to us for us to take Him around like a prop. Besides, He was already in the streets way before we ever thought of coming here. Whenever someone asks this kind of question, they are usually not interested in anything beyond the material. Sometimes questions like these make us feel a little inadequate. Before someone thinks that they need reassure us that we are doing something significant, let me say that this is really a good thing. We need to be aware of our limitations and reality. We have nothing to offer that will end homelessness or other social ills. Therefore, I can safely toss out any aspirations of being a messiah. Thanks be to God because now we can really do something for the children.
There is one thing we do very well. We sit and wait for the children and teens to be with us in the square; our usual meeting place for a long time. We are mastering this art. The children eventually make their way to us, one by one voluntarily; Caio, Ruan, Guilherme, Felipe, Bruna….They come even though they know that we have no solutions for their situations. The interesting thing is that they never asked us to solve their problems. Danyel asked us why we haven’t been coming recently. I reminded him that we have been here almost everyday. It was he who had disappeared for a while. He smiled and asked to play a game and then he fell asleep in the middle of it. Felipe asked our help with his documents. He said that he found the whole process intimidating and he wants us to be with him to give him a sense of security. Bruna showed us the latest piece she had colored. She wants to send it to her newfound friend in Florida and asked our help to write a letter.
We discovered something better than trying to be the messiah. We can just love and enjoy them. People flocked to John the Baptist despite his strange outfit and mannerisms because he loved them. He cared enough about them to boldly proclaim the Truth which that the coming Messiah loves them more than they can ever imagine. We realized that we make lousy messiahs but we can be good John the Baptists. However, there is a significant difference between us and John. Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11)
We have something more powerful to share than John. John proclaimed the coming of the Messiah. Jesus has given us the message of reconciliation. Christ reconciled us to Himself and now has given us the ministry of reconciliation. The Shepherd of our souls has come to reconcile all people. Our children and teens were cast out of their homes and society and God wants to gather them into His eternal rest. It is a message of eternal love. Our children and teens need to be ready for reconciliation. They need to know that they are included in God’s Kingdom.
Yes, I was once possessed by the “Messiah complex” but thankfully Love exorcised this false image of myself. As for my friend, he will never know that his offensive words have helped me put things into perspective. I am grateful that I was offended. Nevertheless, I don’t want it to happen again.