In 2009 the Dutch filmmaker Enno de Jonge returned to Rio de Janeiro to find the street children he had photographed eighteen years before. He started his search where he had begun the project, at St. Martin’s Foundation. St. Martin’s is a citywide program for street children run by the Roman Catholic Carmelite order in Rio, where Enno had taken pictures of 30 homeless boys and girls from 7 to 18 years of age. But after a month of searching, he found only one: Maria, now 25 and the mother of two.
While Maria viewed Enno’s album of aging photographs, she pointed as she went, “This one is dead. This one too. This one died in the children’s massacre. This one has a son living on the street.” Enno estimated that at least a third of the kids were dead, half of the survivors were in prison, and the rest, except for Maria, were still on the street.
Who will hear the cry of Rio’s large population of street children to save them from hunger, misery, prison, and death? So far, society’s response has not been kind. It was not kind to the cries of John the Baptist some 2,000 years ago, nor is it kind now. Is the situation hopeless? Are these and the other causes for God’s Kingdom impossible? This season of Advent calls us to wake up, pay attention, and find the glimmers of light in the overwhelming darkness. Find hints of progress, take courage, and realize the Kingdom at work among us.
At about the same time the filmmaker returned to Rio, Americans Phil and Sarah arrived there, fulfilling a lifelong dream of becoming mission partners. They were to teach at a facility of St. Martin’s in the city’s northern zone that offers educational and recreational activities to Rio’s street children. One of their Brazilian sponsors, used to the unrealistic expectations of many foreign missionaries, had warned them, not unkindly, “These kids will never amount to anything. The most you can hope for is that they will stay with you while you keep them occupied.”
Phil and Sarah chose not to believe such voices. They had resources that included a dedicated building, classrooms, supplies, support staff, even a little money. While Sarah used her knowledge as a professional artist to teach poor children how to draw, Phil drew upon his years as a university language professor to teach English to a small group of adolescents. There were to be no textbooks and formal assignments to frighten the kids off, but rather simple dialogues that would build on one another, week after week, and eventually students would be able to sustain basic conversation.
Although Phil spent countless hours creating lesson plans, almost a year went by and his students were still struggling to master the first dialogue, based on “How are you? I am fine.” Every week he began his class with a review of that material, expecting to quickly move on, and every week almost the entire class hour was taken with just the review. By the time Phil and Sarah left Rio, the group’s English language skills were about where they were when they started. Phil gave thanks he had not invested money in textbooks.
Sarah, for her part, struggled with fortifying the children’s self-esteem. Many were convinced they could not draw, and the least confident used art class as a time to act out. One in particular, Christian, a boy of about 10, was known to be a troublemaker. Few of the staff allowed him into their classes. In Sarah’s workshop, he refused to draw; instead he preferred to create havoc among the other children by shouting and shoving. Sarah knew it was not worth indulging in lecture and punishment; that was probably already a constant in his short life. Instead, Sarah simply stayed with him, offering encouragement until one day the child began to draw. It took perseverance, but by the second month of classes, he was absorbed in his work – sometimes. Sarah never knew which Christian she would encounter on a given studio day – the troublemaker or the budding artist.
Both Phil and Sarah felt a bit like John the Baptist, described in today’s gospel reading, after the text of Isaiah, as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness”; as one to whom many flocked, but whose message went, if not unheard, unheeded.
At times like this, it might be well to recall that we are to repent from believing we are in control. None of us, not Phil and Sarah, not John, perhaps not even Jesus, is in control; the Spirit is. We lead lives of holiness by heeding St. Paul’s reminder to the Philippians that “it is God who works in you, inspiring both the will and the deed, for his own chosen purpose.” This puts a humble lowercase on the word “ministry.” We may think we know how and what we are doing, but in reality it is the Spirit working in and through us. Be patient, Advent mandates. Things are not as they seem; persevere in seeking and following even the smallest glimmer of God manifest. This is your repentance.
It wasn’t until the bitter end, when they were moving on to a new ministry in the south that Phil came to realize the worth of his work. He was stunned by the outpouring of affection he received from his students upon saying goodbye on his final day in Rio. They organized a going-away party and gave him a long-sleeved sweater, sorely needed in the cold south. And upon his arrival at the new site, he received a touching e-mail in which one of his Rio students said, ruefully, she had learned little English, which Phil knew, but she had gained admiration for the person who had left everything to serve the poor. Phil realized with some astonishment that English-language learning was the least of it. It was his presence among them that the teens had come to cherish.
Phil and Sarah thought back to the challenging words: “The most you can hope for is that they will stay with you,” and realized they had missed a sign. The English “stay” is only one translation of the Portuguese “ficar.” A more common translation is “be.” The missionaries had not been told the street children would stay with them as much as they would be with them. Their ministry was not one of doing, but one of being present to Jesus in their midst.
Sarah learned early on that her work was less about art and more about presence: she to the children but more, seeing Jesus in the children. This was not so hard to do on the good days, but when Christian was out of sorts, she struggled to hang on to the light of hope that Christian emitted on his better days.
John the Baptist was right; the Kingdom of God is at hand. It is right here, right now. Advent asks: Who of us will echo his voice? Who of us will respond?
Only the strong of heart have the courage to try. A Brazilian teacher at St. Martin’s likens it to the fable of the hummingbird who tries to put out the fire raging in its beautiful forest home by carrying in its beak one drop of water at a time to the blaze. When asked by the other animals why she even bothers, the hummingbird responds, “I’m doing what I can.”
John did what he could, one baptism at a time. St. Martin’s, as well as Phil and Sarah, are doing what they can, one child at a time. What are you doing?