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.


Unexpected Grace

Her book was exiled to the $0.25 shelf of an used bookstore in the States. It was in Portuguese and it is very rare to find anything in this language. The price is symbolic. It was an unexpected gift for me. I bought it but it never got it what it deserved. It sat on my shelves for almost 8 years. Recently, I decided to read it.

I discovered later that this author* is highly esteemed in the Brazilian literary culture. Books and thesis have been written about her. She never considered herself as a professional writer. Her priorities were being mother, friend, and common observer. Her ordinariness provided her with an unique outlook of life. She had the gift to be amazed with the common things of life. She revealed her secret. She never felt at home where she was. She was of Jewish extraction living in a predominantly Catholic nation. She was born in Lithuania but the only home she knew since she was a toddler was Brazil. All these life experiences helped her maintain an outsider perspective while being deeply engaged in her world. It sounds like the spiritual vocation of a Christian. We live in this world and yet we don’t belong to it. This could be something devastating or beautiful. It really depends on one thing. This author, despite being a non-religious person, wrote extensively about grace. In fact, most academics noted this trait about her. This is why I am writing about her here. Perhaps it is not necessary for me to say so much about the author but nevertheless she deserves the recognition. I want my posts to be a portrait of people. In this case, she would be a portrait of the power of grace. It does not limit itself to a certain people or religious groups. God freely pours His grace to all. One of things she mentioned about grace is that it comes to us in an unexpected manner. It seems appropriate that I am reminded about this peculiarity of this divine gift through a book bought on the $0.25 shelf.

We use the word, “grace” a little bit too freely. We have forgotten that we can only use this word accompanied by awe and wonder. Sometimes some churches think that they have ownership of grace because they have defined it. However, what they have is a watered down version of it which does not deserve its name. Grace remains free because it belongs to God. I remember trying to explain its meaning to a group of teenagers. I could see in their faces that my explanation was empty. They were kind about it. I knew that I failed. I wanted it to be refreshing and life-giving but the words could not do any justice. It was refreshing to read about a grace from an author who was not religious. She had a simpler idea of grace. Perhaps it was purer and perhaps truer to the biblical notion. She described it as a moment where everything becomes crystal clear and harmonious so much so that it touches the depth of our souls and leaves us wondering about life itself. She used the Annunciation as an example. I can think of another one: the Transfiguration. In both events, the people who experienced it were willing to have a radical change in their lives. This is what grace does; it gives us the power to change.

There is really nothing more simple and ordinary than a letter written to a stranger. Our children and some adults in Florida have been corresponding with each other. Often times, both parties tell us that they don’t where to start. Consequently, the letters are written in the simplest manner. Nothing special or dramatic is revealed. Everything is very basic. This was the kind of letter I read to Wanderson. It was really the first time I ever read a letter to him. Despite its spartan content, the sincere and genuine concern was obvious. I asked him if he wanted to write a reply. He nodded to say yes. Then he confessed that he had been sniffing paint thinner all day and he was not in the right frame of mind to compose a letter. It was an unnecessary confession. He is always sniffing paint thinner. It is almost as if he has a bottle of this dreadful chemical surgically attached to him. He promised, however, that he will not use anything the next day so that he could write the letter with a clear mind. We left it at that. About fifteen minutes later, he came back with a card in his hand and a receipt. He spend half of the money that he had kept aside for drugs to buy a card for this woman who wrote to him. He said that it was only right that he gave her something special since she took the time to write to him. For today, Wanderson found something better to do with his money than using for drugs.

No one told him to do this. He had the receipt in his hand to show me that he did not steal the card. He is not the kind to steal or engage in any criminal activities. The other children were watching. Alex who has received several letters asked him how much the card cost. He said that maybe he would buy some to write to the people as well. I did not say anything. There was really nothing to say. Maybe some would not understand what just happened because nothing really did happen. Everything that occurred was something ordinary. We buy cards to send to people without thinking about it. For us, it is the most ordinary thing. In Wanderson’s case, it was something different. He had experienced grace which opened his eyes to see that there was something much better than drugs. He decided to forego a few hours of chemical induced stupor for the sake of an ordinary woman who took the time to write to him. We did not tell him what to do. It was just simply grace in action. For a moment through ordinary means, Wanderson saw a harmonious life being offered to him instead of the drug-induced chaos. He decided to grab hold of it. Even though it may be for just a moment but it is still powerful. It is a gracious moment and it has the power to help a person to take a step towards transformation.


*The author’s name is Clarice Lispector


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.


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.


Children Connecting with Children

People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them. Mark 10:13-16

I made a simple challenge to write letters to our children and teens in the streets. Quite a few people took up the challenge. The letters came in slowly but steadily, then we got a package. It was a bunch of letters written by children from a church in a small city in Florida. The letters were open and honest in a way only a child could write and get away with. We decided that we were going to read these letters first. We decided to read one letter at a time. We did not want to overwhelm our children. Most of them have never received a letter in their lives.

We read the first letter to a young man named Sandro. I wrote a brief description of Sandro to the churches and in it I stated that he liked airplanes. Two children wrote to him. One was older and the other was obviously a very young child. The latter drew a picture of a plane and wrote his wish for Sandro;

“Maybe one day you could get your own airplane and fly around.”

Sandro listened intently while smoking a cigarette. He smiled and said that this was his wish too. He is twenty but he still is very childlike. Listening to the words of another child just brought out the childlikeness in him in spite of the cigarette in his hand. He looked at the picture. It was the artwork of a eight year old. He liked it and said that he was going to keep it. He is good at art. He wants to draw a picture as a present for this young boy. The other letter was from an older girl. She talked about airplanes as well. She shared that she wants to learn how to fly as well. Something that she shares in common with Sandro. They both ended their letters saying that Sandro was in their prayers and they want to hear back from him.

Oh yes, there was another question from the young boy. He wanted to know if where Sandro lived there were cars, buildings and an airport. He wrote that where he lived there were just cars all around and buildings. Sandro thought about the question for a while. He said that he should write that São Paulo has everything that the city where this boy lives has. I told him that this wasn’t true. The letter was written in a small town in the Florida. São Paulo has a hundred times what they have there. We were surrounded by gigantic skyscrapers as we were having this conversation. I told Sandro that it was hard for someone who never been to this city to imagine the immensity of São Paulo. Sandro smiled and was trying to process what I said. In his mind, everything in America is big and wealthy. He could not fathom that he was living in a city bigger and richer than the one where this boy lives. However, the wealth of the city where they live has little bearing on their personal lives. They both come from two extreme realities. However, this difference did not stop them from having a simple connection through a thin slip of paper and with some rudimentary drawings.

The next letter we read was for Felipe. It was from a young girl this time and from her letter, we gather that she must be about ten years old. Felipe lost his dog whom he loved dearly and I mentioned this in my letter to the churches. The young girl used this to create a connection with Felipe. She seemed to understand what it means to lose something or someone precious.

“I hope that you are not lonely without your dog. If you are, you won’t be anymore because I am your new best friend.”

There was no ceremony or hesitance in her offering her friendship to Felipe. He listened to it and had a shy smile on his face. He was touched by this offer. This child did not hide her motivation for writing this letter. She wanted to have a strong connection with Felipe. He did not laugh it off as a childish gesture. He was able to perceive the genuine intention of this child. However, it wasn’t just a one sided offer. She thought that Felipe could help her as well. I wrote that Felipe likes the Old Testament stories. She wrote a verse from Hosea 12:1-2.

“Ephraim feeds on the wind; he pursues the east wind all day and multiplies lies and violence. He makes a treaty with Assyria and sends olive oil to Egypt. The LORD has a charge to bring against Judah; he will punish Jacob according to his ways and repay him according to his deeds.”

She asked if Felipe could write back to her and explain the meaning of these verses. I want to see what he is going to say about it. It seems like a random verse but that again, it could mean something special to her. I reckon that it is just an attempt to say that she believes that Felipe has something to offer to her as well.

The final letter that we were able to read this week was for Ruan. It was a simple letter and it said,

“I want to let you know that we are praying for you and when you get into trouble, God is with you and He will forgive you.”

It brought a smile to Ruan’s face immediately. He is always getting into trouble. He is a mischievous boy. However, it wasn’t the words that touched him. It was the intention. The child who wrote this letter did not judge Ruan and focused instead in a gracious and forgiving God. Ruan said immediately that he wanted to write to her back.

There are many more letters from children and adults. I have read letters from adults above the age of seventy. The children marveled that people lived that long. They thought Mary and I were ancient. Now, we were introducing people to them that were older than us. All letters were received with a shy smile. Even those feign that they were not interested, could not help but listen to the words of people who have written to them. They were happy to hear their names being mentioned in the letters. It was a sign that someone out there knows their names. Besides this, we are seeing some unforeseen consequences developing. Felipe who has a low self-esteem started getting interested in English. He is beginning to show interest in learning how to draw and improve his writing skills. Ruan is beginning to read simple words and has been doing his exercises with Mary faithfully. These are just some of the consequences. However, there is something that is also something else happening that is deeper and more meaningful. It is opening doors for us to talk about their responsibility to people. They have lived most of their lives abandoned by their families and society. They have lived without having any responsibility to fellow human beings. Now, they are receiving unconditional love in form of letters from children and adults who have nothing to gain from them. It is an invitation to be connected to them through the bonds of friendship. Now, they have to learn how to respond. I believe that they want to do it but they don’t know how. Perhaps, this is something we can help them to do this year.