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.


Almost a Tragic Evening

Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.- Hebrews 2:14-15

I was waiting for the team members in front of the steps of the Roman Catholic Cathedral which is located in the old center of the city. The square pertaining to the church is where many of the homeless have found refuge at least for the past twenty years. In the evenings, some religious and altruistic societies come out to feed the homeless here. Consequently, it has became a the gathering point for the homeless towards the end of the day. While waiting for the team members to arrive, I noticed a man shouting out with much conviction and enthusiasm that he was from a state in the Northeast of Brazil even though he supported the local soccer team. He kept repeating this the whole time I was standing there. For some reason, in his state of insanity, he believed that the whole world should be made aware of this fact. Everyone just ignored this man which infuriated him even more and he started shouting at every passerby. This is quite a common scene among the homeless. Most of them suffer some sort of mental illness and it is not uncommon see people arguing or having heated discussion with an imaginary enemy. My mind was drifting off aimlessly thinking about the people in my surroundings and I can see how easy it is to tip over to the other side. Thankfully, the team members arrived and we found a large group of children and teens in the square.

The children were unusually eager to do activities with us. We were playing all kinds of games and some of them were even in the mood to chat with us. So far everything was going well. In the midst of this, there was another insane homeless woman who was accusing the children that they had stolen something from her. Nobody paid any attention to her including myself. I was having a great conversation with one of the teens. Then, all the sudden, I felt an icy cold liquid running down my hair and within seconds my shirt was soaking wet. I felt someone pouring what felt like a bucket of cold water on me. I stood up and saw that it was the crazy woman and she had emptied a large container of fuel alcohol on me. She was yelling at everyone saying that she meant business. I was really annoyed and confronted her. Then one of the older teens ran up to me and warned me that she had a lighter in her hand. The older teens surrounded her and threatened to hit her. She had a knife and a lighter in her hand and had threatened to set me on fire. I was in a daze for a moment and I heard people telling me to stay away from her. By this time, I began to sense the pungent stench of the alcohol. All the children and teens who are accustomed to violence in the streets were shocked at what had happened. They could not believe that someone would be aggressive to those who come to help them. The insane woman kept trying to light up her lighter and everyone told me to leave right away because I was still in danger. Finally, she gave up and ran away. The children came up to me and asked if I was feeling okay. Strangely, I was not afraid nor angry. I don’t think that I was in a state of shock. I am not even sure that I felt my life was in danger. The children advised me to go home and wash off the alcohol. It was good idea and I told them that I will be back tomorrow.

Some people would say that prayers of the saints protected me last night. I would like to think that this was true. However, I am also aware that there are many innocent people have died tragically last night in some cruel and unexpected way. I have read about people dying in similar circumstances before and on Monday, I could have been one of them. It was unprovoked and unforeseen. It was just someone with a mental illness doing something without a complete understanding of what was happening. I am glad that she wasn’t able to go through with her plans but she has marked my life nevertheless. She reminded me that mortality is something that could come to us at the moment we least expect. Despite what happened, it was a good night and bad things often happen in moments when everything seems to be going well. This is the state of our mortality. It is not something that we can avoid and it is definitely not something that we should fear.

I am going back to the same place today. I think that the lesson I learned from this incident was that I am happy doing what I am doing right now. I am not going to change it. I wasn’t feeling afraid, not because I am a brave man. Bravery is not necessarily a virtue in all situations. I could very well be insane myself and not see the danger. Maybe there might be some truth to this. However, mortality does not make any appointments with us. It just comes and I would like to continue to do what I am doing now when the time comes for me to surrender to my own mortality.

Having said this, prayers for our protection are always welcome.


Can we change the political system?

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.”-John 18:36

In my last post there was some criticism made through the social network that I was not addressing the need to change the political system. The reason why I did not address the corrupt system is because I don’t believe that we can change it. I am also not convinced that the most effective way to serve the homeless is through political change. We are living in the 21st century and we cannot be so naive as to believe that there is a political party or system that is going to resolve the problems in the world. I do believe that in order to achieve any kind of substantial change in the lives of the poor we need to be realistic. Believing in political solutions for poverty is not realistic in my opinion.

“For you have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good but Me you do not have always.”-Mark 14:7

Jesus was not being pessimistic when He said this. He was being realistic. We cannot make any positive changes in our society without realizing that the poor will always be with us. There will always be injustice in this world. Jesus did not try to overthrow the oppressive Roman Empire but He established something even better in its place. He established the Kingdom of God which transcends all the kingdoms of the world. The Kingdom of God is a spiritual Kingdom. However, there is a tendency to think of spiritual as something shadowy or unreal or impractical. This is the pagan idea of spiritual existence. The Christian idea is that the spiritual reality is the acknowledgement of a deeper Truth that exists beyond the material reality. The world functions on a material level. It attempts to address issues on a temporal and limited foundation. God works on eternal goals which are superior and profound. They are not goals reserved for life after death. They are effective changes that transform our here and now.

The Kingdom of God works in the heart of the individual. This perhaps is quite uncomfortable for those who believe in a social gospel ideology. They might think that I am suggesting a purely personal individualized religion. I think an individualized religion is not compatible with the Christian religion. Everything Jesus did was for the common good. He died for the common good. The apostles gave their lives serving the common good. They did not sit in political councils or spend time discussing the latest theological or political ideas or concepts from a distance. They went to meet individuals and communities and became instruments of love and humility in direct interaction with the poor and the forgotten.

Any casual reading of the Bible would show that God has a preference for the poor. It is not that the poor deserve it. No one deserves God’s preference. God chooses certain groups to be His vehicle to reveal His love. He chose the Jewish people because they were marginalized and ostracized and God exalted them to be His channel of blessing to the world. God chooses the most unlikely candidates to reveal His goodness. The world political system chooses people based on a different standard; even the socialist systems choose among the elite to be their spokespersons. Jesus chose fishermen and women and other marginalized people to be His spokespersons.

We serve the poor because Jesus is among them through the Holy Spirit. We discover the wealth of the gospel when we serve where Jesus is present. In our ministry, we realize early in our work that we do not have the answers. We also discover that it is not necessary to have the answers. Anyone who thought that they knew how to solve the problem of poverty usually ends up being an enemy of the poor. The poor are not a concept but individual people who have come to this situation because of various factors. A singular theory does not do justice to the problems we face. Education and employment can produce opportunities but they cannot heal the hopelessness. We need a Healer to do this. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of healing and renewal.

We do not have the power to heal but we know that Jesus is alive and active and He is a healer of our souls. We also know that we cannot depend on any political system to bring improvement to the lives of the people. Therefore, we are not going to wait for anyone. We just go and serve the King who is establishing His kingdom through healing and renewal; one soul at a time. We can participate by being His instrument of love and humility. We don’t have to wait for election day to do this. We don’t need money or influential people to promote our cause. We just have to step out of our doorsteps and find the those who are lost and forgotten in our society and the Holy Spirit will welcome you with open arms to participate in the transformative work of our God. This is the only way we can truly change the world.