More than One Way of Watering

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. – 1 Cor. 3:6-7

It started as an experiment. I used some fresh herbs for a recipe. I had a scrawny stalk leftover with some miserable leaves. I thought that it would be fun to see if they would root. They did and now my apartment is scattered with pots of basil, oregano, tomatoes and other vegetables. It evolved from a mere hobby to something else. I can’t really explain in words. It deserves a word better than hobby. The plants make feel connected with something in me that I never knew existed. Now, I cannot imagine life without plants. They have become a vital part of my existence. Therefore, leaving my plants for two weeks was a concern for me. It has been a while since we went on a vacation. We needed the break but I did not want to lose my plants. Thankfully, a friend offered to be their caretaker in our absence. However, there was a problem. She was doing graduate studies in theology and had a paper to present in a conference so she would be away for three days. Perhaps, I should have just trusted the plants could survive without care for three days. However, I wanted to play god and manage everything. I asked our building janitor to water them for me in our absence. Unfortunately, he overwatered the plants and the plants did not like it. I should have just left things alone. Playing god never works for anyone.

Two weeks came and went swiftly. We enjoyed our break but we were happy to be back home. We missed everything about being here. I was happy to see my plants had flourished without me. Despite the brief setback with the enthusiastic janitor, the plants looked healthier and better than when I was looking after them. Our friend was not around when we arrived. We invited her for dinner to thank her personally. She was happy and told us that she missed our plants. It sounded funny but she wasn’t joking. She connected with them.

Our friend is also a writer. She writes short but beautiful theological reflections that penetrate one’s soul. In her time in our apartment, the plants communicated with her and they inspired to produce a beautiful reflection. She had an open mind and God used the plants to broaden it. As she was tendering to their needs, she saw the correlation with the heavenly Gardener nurturing our soul. It is something that we hear about often but it is another thing when the truth sinks into our innermost being. The plants helped her discover this Truth in more profound manner. They become a channel of God’s word in her life, enriching her life. She enjoyed their presence without any expectations. She did even have any rudimentary knowledge of plants. It wasn’t necessary. Prior knowledge is not a prerequisite to enjoy God’s creation. All we need to do is to be open and God will communicate to us through his creation.

Our janitor watered the plants and noticed that one of the herbs that he tried to grow doing well in my apartment. He wanted to know how I did it. He was a very pragmatic person. For him, plants exist to serve our needs. He did not expect the plants to say anything to him. Our friend, on the other hand, allowed the plants to minister to her. However, they both watered the plants but one came out of the experience richer than before.

We were away for two weeks. We were in a beautiful place by a lake where the air was fresh. In the evenings, the skies were filled with stars and there was absolute silence. No pollution, no police sirens in the middle of the night and no unpleasant odors. Strangely, we found ourselves missing the city. Our thoughts did not take a vacation. We thought about the children and teens. We were not necessarily concerned about them. It is just that they have become part of our lives. We cannot imagine life without them. However, it is still good to take a vacation. It is good to remove ourselves from the ministry just to know that we are not indispensable. Life goes on for the children and teens with or without us. Their world doesn’t fall apart when we are not there. In a way, the children don’t really need us. We do not have that kind of relationship with them. It is not based on needs. We hope that they want to be with us. We definitely want to be with them. It made us wonder if the feeling was mutual.

Before we left, the children asked us to buy some souvenirs for them. This is the first time they asked this of us. They are not really collectors. They can hardly keep their personal possessions without losing them. They always ask us the keep all the letters they receive because they are afraid of losing them in the streets. Despite this, they wanted souvenirs from us. I thought perhaps they wanted us to remember them when we are away. It could also mean that they were afraid that we would not return and making us buy something for them is a way to ensure our return. Maybe I was reading too much into the situation. We bought some postcards and special pencils for them.

Some received their gifts with glee and others had a confused look. They did not realize that we were away. It was fine. The children don’t have a notion of time. One or two weeks don’t make any difference to them. Those who knew we gone, welcomed us back with hugs and said that they thought we were not going to come back. We have been away before but I am not sure why they were concerned that we were not returning this time. The next day, Wanderson handed the postcard back to me. I was a little confused and then he said that they wrote something for us on the card. It was written with the pencil we gave him. It said;

“Obrigado para lebro de nois. Foi legal que voces voltaram para nois. To feliz! Deus te abesoi.(sic)”

The translation: “Thank you for remembering us. It is great that you returned to us. I am happy. God bless you.”

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Portuguese grammar would say that this is fraught with mistakes and colloquialism. I have left it as it was written without correcting the mistakes. For us, it is one of the most beautiful things the children have written to us. It came from the heart of a young man who is usually insecure to write anything on his own. He wrote this because he wanted to do it. Our relationship inspired him to produce something. It answered our questions during our vacation.

Perhaps you might be wondering why I mentioned our friend and the plants. There is a connection. There are several ways you can water a plant and our friend did so in a way that the plants gave her more than she gave them. They become part of her life. We can say the same about our children and teens.




Being Available

And it came to pass, in their going on, that he entered into a certain village, and a certain woman, by name Martha, did receive him into her house,
and she had also a sister, called Mary, who also, having seated herself beside the feet of Jesus, was hearing the word.- Luke 10:38-39

It has been a while since we saw Igor. An unexpected knock on our door on a Sunday afternoon and he was standing outside smiling. Looking different. Looking very much like a normal twenty year old. Teens living in the streets tend to have a style of their own; the same haircut, similar clothes, a distinctive way of standing, walking and speaking. All these characteristic were absent in the person outside. He wore a dress shirt and he was clean cut and well-groomed. He looked like an average person and this was excellent. He came in and hugged us.

It had taken him almost two hours to get to our place. He lives on the outskirts while we are in the old center. He is staying in a halfway house for drug addicts run by a Pentecostal church. He is not interned there. The church has offered a temporary place for him until he is ready to find a place of his own. He worked briefly restoring furniture in a used furniture store. Igor was the last one employed and when they downsized, he was the first to go. Thankfully, he wasn’t discouraged. He believes that something better will come along. For now, he helps out where ever he can in the halfway house.

Life is the halfway house is very structured. Every one follows a strict schedule including Igor. It is helping him to have the structure that he never had in his life in the streets. He changed the way he dresses and looks; he felt it necessary to leave behind everything that he learned in the streets except for the things that inspire him to become better. I suppose that we are one of the things- well if that wasn’t true, he wouldn’t have spent two hours on the bus to visit us.

Igor was able to stay a year away from the street life. For most of us, a year is not a long time. However, for children and teens who could not bear to be in a new environment for more than hour, one year is quite a significant period. He still feels a strong attachment to his friends. This is understandable. They were the closest thing to a family that he had. He visits them whenever he can. He wants them to know that there is life beyond homelessness. This is a beautiful thing. I asked him if he ever felt tempted to return to the streets, after all, it was his comfort zone. He told us that he never felt comfortable in the streets but it was the only option for him then. Now, he has options.

Igor’s conversation with us was peppered with religious jargon. There is nothing with wrong this. He knows that we are religious and he wants us to know that he is learning this new vocabulary to communicate with us. He is figuring out with each new social group that he encounters he needs to learn how to communicate in a new way. He does not use these words to hide behind them. The words express his genuine feelings and experiences. For us, it was strange to hear them coming out from his mouth. We were used to the old Igor but this new person was beaming with hope and life. He came to share a special event that took place in his life. He was just recently baptized. He said that it was a decision that he pondered seriously. He did not want to be one of those people who find religion and then go back to their old way of living. He wanted to make a life-changing decision. It is evident that this was a genuine one. We cannot but rejoice with him.

I asked Igor what made him make this bold step of leaving everything behind in the streets. Throughout his time in the streets, there have been many religious and social workers who have worked with him. He told us that these people were also present but it was very rare that someone would actually listen to him and help him express his own thoughts and understandings. It was only recently that he met people who took him seriously and allowed him to open up to them. In a simple way, Igor put some flesh and blood to the concept of ministry of presence. It is not just being there but it is being available to the person whom we serve allowing them to open up to us. There are people who want to help but only a few are available to those whom they serve.

Martha and Mary in the text above invited Jesus to their home but only one made herself available to Jesus. The former was busy trying to make sure everything was perfect for Jesus. She didn’t even ask him what he wanted. She assumed that she knew. Mary did absolutely nothing; she just sat and listened. She waited for Jesus to let her know what He desired.

Another incident from some years ago is permanently imprinted in my mind. It was nothing dramatic, just a simple conversation between my friend and an homeless adult in the streets of Montreal. I was doing my final year of seminary then. It was scene that would be common in any big city. We were on our way to a coffee shop when a homeless man sitting on the pavement asked us for some change. Our friend heard him first and turned to him and told him kindly that we were sorry but we didn’t usually give money. My friend then introduced himself and us to this man. He told the man that we would love to sit and chat with him whenever we see him. He assured the man that we would be happy to give him our time freely. I can’t remember the name of this homeless person but never will forget what he said afterwards. He told my friend that he gave him something that was worth much more than anything money could buy. He thanked us for treating him like a human being. The attitude of my friend is an attitude of a person who is available. Today he is a Lutheran pastor of a small church and he continues to avail himself to people of all sorts and conditions. My friend is an ordinary person and he did something very simple and ordinary and made an impact in my life. Mary was an ordinary young woman and we are still reading about her after two thousand years. On the other hand, we shouldn’t think of Martha as a negative example. She was a good person and her intentions to serve were genuine. People like Martha do not have a messiah complex. They are sincere people who want to make this world a better place. I think that it is cruel to degrade people like her. Jesus did not do it. He just showed us a more perfect way.

Being available is not just listening. I have known people who are good listeners but they were not available. Being available means that we genuinely believe that the person to whom we are listening to has something to offer to us. It does not mean that we pretend that the vacuous things that people say are truly profound. Such an attitude in itself is condescending. We have to genuinely believe that people have something to offer even if they appear to be superficial. This is where being a Christian makes a big difference. A Christian believes in the active presence of the Holy Spirit. He or she believes in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all peoples as narrated in the Acts of the Apostles. Then, we must also necessarily believe that the Holy Spirit is present and working in the lives of all people. All peoples, even those who reject God; a hardened atheist has the presence of the Holy Spirit working in him or her. Many times people do not recognize this presence. They might be wrestling the Spirit the way Jacob wrestled with Him (Genesis 32:22-32) and they may not recognize it. They might never find out the true nature of their inner struggles unless they can have the opportunity to share this with someone. People will not often reveal these struggles or questions or insights if they are not sure if the person is truly open to them. When we decide to be available to people, we are not adopting a posture or an attitude but we are engaging in a spiritual discipline. It is a kind of prayer when we ask the Holy Spirit to open the heart of the person to share his or her depth with us. It is something requiring faith on our part; Faith that believes that the Holy Spirit is truly alive and active in our midst.

It is not easy to be Martha in this world. It takes time and energy. However, it is even harder to be a Mary. It means putting aside our prejudices and preconceived notions to listen and believe that the people whom we serve can actually help us to understand God even better. Igor met people who were available to him. They helped him understand his struggles and doubts. They helped him understand that his growing discomfort of the street life was the prompting of the Holy Spirit to move on and seek something better. We hope that we were some of these people who were available to him. The fact that he travelled two hours to see us as a good sign that he considers as such. On our part, I can safely say that we are receiving something from him. Igor did enrich our lives. When we saw him sitting in our living room sharing about the new things in his life, we felt privileged to have a small part in his life. We cannot take credit for the things that are happening in his life. We did not find a place for him to live. We did not get him a job. We did nothing for him in this sense and yet he thought that it was important for us to know all these good things that are happening in his life.


Intimate Silence

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” (Mark 1:35)

It takes a while to get accustomed to noise and São Paulo is a noisy city. Where we live, there is never hiatus from the hustle and bustle of downtown city life. There are always cars honking, loud engines of buses and trucks, the police sirens followed by the blaring ambulances, and not to forget the endless supply of drunk people who think that they have wonderful singing voices. We live on the first floor and there is a stop light just outside our window. Every time there is a red light we are tormented by the music that blares out of the cars. Sometimes people park their cars below our apartment building and blast their favorite music from the car stereos. It almost never the kind of music that I enjoy and most frequently the kind that I detest; such is life. This is a noisy city. It is a typical city. There is never moment of silence.

The children sleep under a highway bridge now. They were kicked out of the square when they had been sleeping for the past three months. They are back under the noisy bridge. It is dark and dirty. Rats and cockroaches are their companions. The highway is always busy day and night. It is a dangerous place for a pedestrian to cross and it is not uncommon for our children to get hit by cars while crossing. The noise is unbearable but they claim that they are accustomed to it. I am not sure if it is possible. Maybe it has become comforting to them.

I have been to the home of a family that lived in extreme poverty but they had a TV and a radio. I don’t believe these were purchased. Someone gave these to them. People tend to be very generous with the non-essentials of life. When we visited them, they had both the TV and the radio on at full volume and yet no one was watching or listening. When we sat down to talk, they did not even want to lower down the volume. Finally, I asked them to turn it off so that we could talk. Then the silence invaded our space as aggressively as the noise. It was quite intimidating. We sat there and faced each other in the uncomfortable silence. It confronted the true nature of our relationship with this family. It was not one that was comfortable to be with each other in the silence. I did not realize this until the noise was gone.

Our time with the children can be uncomfortable sometimes. There are times when they just don’t know what to say to us. They just sit with us in silence. Most of the time, we, the adults, fill this empty space with questions. They are always the same questions. Where do you live? What do your parents do? How long have you been in the streets? Don’t you miss your family? etc. At one point, we convinced ourselves that these questions are essential in building our relationship with them. In reality, most of the children and teens with whom we have a strong relationship have never said anything about their past. Most of my good friends here do not know anything about my life in Singapore and yet this lack of information does hinder us from having a good relationship. Knowing something about someone’s past is just information. We think getting information is the same as knowing someone. It is just like thinking that living in a noisy house is living in a happy home. It is just noisy and nothing more. We ask questions to avoid the awkward silence. We are afraid of it as well. It makes feel inadequate. It makes us confront our true selves. We prefer noise. Noise helps us avoid the real issues about ourselves.

We decided to sit near the children and color in silence. I told the team that we are not going to ask questions anymore. We don’t have to interrogate anyone about their past. It is not natural. Friends don’t bombard each other with questions that probe into their past. Friends recognize the privacy of one’s personal life. We are not psychiatrists nor social workers. We don’t need to know about their past unless they want to share it with us. We have a different reason for being here. We want them to know and recognize the presence of God in their souls and around them. Our God speaks to us out of the silence. Therefore, we sat and waited in silence. As we did this, we communed with God in the innermost part of our being. We faced ourselves in the presence of God within us. It was not easy but it was not hard as well. It was different. Then Alan came and sat next to us. He was quiet and just watched us coloring. After a few minutes or so, he asked if I was choosing a certain color for the background. I told him that I wasn’t sure and then he asked how I decided on the colors. There was no answer to this question. I said that I did not know. It was fine not to know until the time comes. He understood and sat there and watched. Alan doesn’t usually speak to us. Today, he wanted to be just there and watch. He felt comfortable to sit and there and watch us. He was silent and we were silent. We were comfortable. We felt peaceful and then some of children came over and joined us and colored together in silence. It felt nice not to feel that we have to say something. It was nice to be there in the silence with each other and feel complete together even if it was for a moment.

I won’t say that words are not necessary. On the contrary, I would say that words are a gift. However, noises or empty words should not be confused with words that come forth from the silence. It is out of the silence that God spoke the life-giving words, “Let there be Light”. Then He gave us the gift of Sabbath which is a time of silent waiting to listen to the words of Life that comes from the Eternal Light that dwells in our souls.

São Paulo is a noisy city. God is teaching us to find a quiet place in the midst of this noise.