The favellas of Sao Paulo only get running water every other day. Houses are constructed with make-shift walls, cement block, and aluminum siding, typically ranging from 2-4 rooms. Some are neat and clean, a tiny oasis midst a wretched desert of refuse. Other homes accurately reflect the struggle to rise above addiction and poverty.
Children carry their younger siblings or neighboring toddlers up and down the twisting streets littered with trash and diseased dogs biting at their sores. Teenagers cradle infants who are not their siblings–the girls are the un-wed mothers craving love and acceptance in a society comprised of alcoholics and drug addicts.
The scenery suggests hopelessness, and yet there’s hope. Roberto and Rachel Pena (with Seeds of Hope) arrive every few days, smiling, with arms and hearts open, bringing physical and emotional sustenance. One week, they might carry beans and rice; next, they arrive with vans filled with Americans, coming to build classrooms, play soccer, or articulate a message of hope through Jesus Christ. Progress is slow but tangible. They are the Pied Pipers of the slums–wherever they go, a cluster of joyful children and curious adults trail behind them.
On our first evening visit to the favellas, we witness a cocaine rendez-vous in the shadows. On Day 2, we give the drug lord, a woman whose face bears the strain of demonic control, a quilt, made with love by an American lady. She is told that Jesus loves her. I wonder if anyone has ever told her that she’s loved. She cries and accepts the quilt with a toothy smile.
We make house visits, giving away afghans, quilts, hygiene supplies, food, and scarves–anything to make the ladies’ simple, desperate lives more comfortable and beautiful. Kids follow us through the narrow streets because we carry a large bags filled with toys and stuffed animals. In each house, the women share their fears and heartaches–for the safety of their children, for alcoholic husbands, for incarcerated sons, for sickness. At the first house we visited, a young mother had miscarried a baby daughter only the day before. At another, a woman weeps over her son trapped by a life of drugs and crime. Another pulls us into a bedroom of suffocating stench, where her husband in sprawled across a filthy mattress, his body shrunken by alcoholism. They both cry as she laments having to care for him and 5 children, with no income and no peace over leaving him to die in his squalor.
It’s hard to pray. Poverty offers few alternatives. There’s no exit plan for the residents of the favellas. There’s only survival from day to day.
So we pray for hope. We pray for protection from evil. We pray for parents and children to search for God and make wise choices. We pray for the people to attend the English classes, camps, and Bible studies starting up in their favella. We pray for courage for the women and a spiritual awakening among the men. We pray against the dominating power of gangs, drug dealers, alcohol, and teen pregnancy.
We also teach and share, in a 3-day women’s conference, (the first ever in this community), about the struggles all women have, regardless of nationality or wealth. Fifty women pack out our little cement “community center.” They cry and laugh with us, through Roberto’s interpretation, and they empathize with our struggles, as we empathize with theirs. We hope they understand that we all need God’s love and grace. We are the same–desperate human beings, divided by economics, certainly, but not by spirit. And not by need for God’s intervention.
Every lesson is accompanied by gifts and giveaways, symbols of the lessons learned and the hope offered to those listening. Many of the ladies bring all their gifts to every session, carrying them around like a child carries her favorite toys. They also bring their young children, and we relish in holding these sweet babies and entertaining the older ones outside with crayons and coloring pages. The language barrier seems minimal; we sign to each other and smile. We hug them and tie hair ribbons into the girls’ pigtails. Love is a universal language. And they are starved for it.
What we do seems small and inconsequential. How can a hug, a prayer, and a few trinkets begin to change a life dominated by hopelessness? That’s where God comes in.
Mtt. 25:37-40–Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me.”