For the past two years I've had the opportunity to visit local churches and serve as a missionary and translator in the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Macaé, Brazil. There is a lot I could tell you about these trips, the many things I saw and felt and learned. But here is the bottom line and overarching theme of everything I experienced, the message that the Brazilian people repeated to me time and time again: there is a God who changes hearts, and when he does truly amazing things happen.
This is Jefferson. He founded Casa Do Abraço (House of Hugs) in 2010. A small group of young people without any money who were concerned about the future of the kids living in their community. A few years later, what started as a volunteer project became a full time endeavor and he and his team began to take care of the kids in the community after school every day, providing food, tutoring and a safe haven. But above all else, his goal was to teach these children that they are loved and valued, a message often unheard in one of the poorer and more violent communities in the city of Macaé, Rio de Janeiro State. When Jefferson enters the gate the kids' moods instantly change. They behave better, they all flock around him, they tell him if other kids were mean to them, they listen (begrudgingly, but listening all the same) when he corrects them. They know that he loves them, and they love him back.
It's kind of surreal hearing some of the kids' stories. Some of them have been beaten. Some of them have seen their parents murdered. They see people doing crack and heroine. Guns, strangers, drugs, that's just normal life here. It's a reality most of us are far away from. We tend to hone in on the harshness of the the day to day, the roughness of the neighborhood, the struggle and the suffering, because it can be shocking to us. But that's just life for them, it's not their focus. Their focus is hope.
Last year I had a chance to talk more with Tais, the only other full time volunteer at the house. Tais is an incredible woman, she studied graphic design in school and then entered into a seminary program, visiting Casa do Abraço while studying. It was only supposed to be a short visit "but when I saw what God is doing here I felt called to stay and, you know, the rest is history." Tais is sweet and has a huge heart, but she's stern and has a look that can stop you in your tracks. As you can imagine, it gets a little crazy in there with 30 kids running around, all different ages, all different personalities, but she manages to keep them in line. She taught them a sign and will shout "BA ba ba ba bum" to which all the kids respond in unison "BA BAM!" followed by silence. "Só eu falando agora," she will say authoritatively ("I'm the only one talking now.") And they listen. And they love her. When I asked the kids to write things that made them happy on paper hearts, many of them wrote her name.
Sometimes they bring in volunteer doctors or dentists to the house to give the kids check ups. They bring in music and art teachers to do activities, volunteer barbers to cut their hair. Other groups in the city come by, other churches in different parts of Brazil come too. And it's not about trying to get out of the community. It's not about being successful (whatever that means) so you can leave, that may never be an option. It's about doing good where you are now. And that's something I think we all need to learn.
So you might be asking yourself, what business do a bunch of Americans have going to these communities in Brazil? I asked myself that question before going the first time. I'm usually not a supporter of short term trips like this, in most cases they do more harm then good. But I'll tell you why I keep going back. The work we do is 100% complementary to work that continues year round. We're not going to start something and leave it for someone else to finish, we come as a support team to existing work by Brazilians who live in the area. We help them do what they always do, give them a bit of a break, and help spread the word to what they are doing to the rest of their community. There is a give and take, but we go to learn from them more than to teach them anything. I always learn something, and I always come back changed.
And I'll leave with this, sometimes we have this weird concept that beautiful things only come out of beautiful places, that happy people only come out of happy places, that those who start with little will only have a small impact, and we forget that the savior of the world was born to a poor family living in an unimportant city with a bad reputation. Do what you can with what you can. It's enough.
I originally wrote this post back in March, 2017. I am sad to say that Jefferson passed away last fall after a bout of pneumonia. It was sudden and unexpected, the community was shocked. A friend of mine who attended Jefferson's funeral said he has never seen more people gather at a funeral before in his life. He was deeply loved and is greatly missed. His memory lives on in Casa do Abraço. Tais continues the work that he started along with other volunteers who have stepped up to ensure that the kids continue to have a place to go. More about Casa do Abraço (website in Portuguese): http://casadoabraco.org/