Today, there are more than 24 million homeless people living on the streets of Brazil. This is really shameful for a country that has so much untreated and uninhabited soil and so many untapped and poorly divided wealth!
Only in the city center of Sao Paulo (peripheral areas excluded), there are more than 10,000 people who spend their nights on the street or in improvised dwellings.
Campinas, a city with 2 million inhabitants (near Hortolandia, where we live) in the Sao Paulo province, has hundreds of people in its midst who are addicted to alcohol, drugs or simply impoverished and have to “make” their beds on the streets, under the bridges, in front of entrances to business facilities, banks, and shops, in the yards of mechanical workshops, etc.
But talking about numbers is something completely different from visiting these places at night, talking to these people and listening to their stories.
Brothers of the Poor
Together with our friends, a nineteen-year-old Leticia, her mother Sandra and father Manuel, we recently went to Campinas. We attended the Sunday Holy Mass in the church near the community of “Brothers of the Poor”, as they are called.
The brothers are inspired by the charism of Francis of Assisi; they live modestly, in poverty and in the service of the most poor in their midst.
Every Tuesday night, together with young volunteers, they go on the streets where they visit homeless people, give them food, hot drinks and blankets, things that are especially needed now that’s winter.
That day we visited the brothers in their community and responded to their invitation to join them on Tuesday for this lovely charity event.
Of course, we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to feel the reality of the homeless at least a bit and at the same time experience the ‘Operando’ in its most pure form, that is, God who is present in the poor and calls us to meet them so he could meet us.
In her early teens, Leticia was not too excited about the faith, prayer, and the word of God. However, she regularly visited a youth group into which both of her parents were included.
At the age of sixteen, when she was preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation, she and other young people went to Campinas to attend spiritual exercises. There she had a strong spiritual experience about which she later told her mother and father.
Manuel and Sandra encouraged her to join the volunteers of the Hope and Life organization that is dedicated to poor people on the streets.
‘I’ve always somehow feared these people as I met them on the streets. As I walked by, I didn’t want to get too close to them but I never remained indifferent. compassion awakened in me, something that disturbed me. When my father and mother proposed this kind of volunteer work, I felt this was a chance for me to overcome my fears.’
When God speaks
And so she left. At the age of 16, she met the homeless people for the first time in her life and made a step that completely changed the course of her youth.
‘I was with these volunteers, but I was one step behind. I was afraid, I didn’t know anything about working with these people. All this was new to me. Others shared food and talked with beggars, and I just watched them.’
But there was a turning point. Intervention from above, one might say. That ‘Operando’, Silva and I believe happens when you open yourself to God and meet him among the poor, his beloved ones.
‘We were on the square in front of the Campinas Cathedral where there are the most homeless people. One of them approached me and asked me for the number of a psalm in the Bible. Of course, I couldn’t answer him at that time. But when I came home, I opened the Bible and the words of that passage hit me straight into the heart! It was Psalm 45, 11-12.’
Leticia felt she had to leave the comfort, the house of her parents, so she could meet God and follow him.
Answering the call
The impact of that excerpt is still felt as she’s seriously thinking about entering a monastical community and join the “Sisters of the Poor” and completely devote her life to God. As she told us, it became clear to her she could only meet God through the poor.
Since that meeting in front of the cathedral, she has become a loyal volunteer, she has regularly gone on the streets, she gradually lost her fear and has become a friend of the homeless.
‘I was drawn by their simplicity, joy and freedom. I began to identify myself with their characteristics and found out that when I was with them, I felt very close to God. When I give them food, they are happy. I’m also surprised by their mutual solidarity.
They can share food with each other if there’s not enough for everyone. When I’m with them, I feel the transformation in the way I think and gain new insights. There’s mercy awakening inside of me, which is a gift only God can give. I feel completeness and satisfaction.’
Among the homeless
That evening, at 7 PM, we went with Leticia and Manuel to the house of “Brothers of the Poor”. There was already a group of other young volunteers who were prepared for a new meeting with the homeless, and a new meeting with the Lord.
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We were putting warm blankets, hotdogs prepared by our brothers, and thermos with hot tea and coffee in our cars. The atmosphere was pleasant, and we felt joy and expectation.
We still felt the experience we had with the homeless people in Ukraine. We wrote about it here. There was winter in Kiev and Odessa, minus ten degrees Celsius, perhaps even less. This time too, the weather was cold and quite windy. At ten degrees Celsius we were cold and we could only imagine how cold were the homeless people on the streets.
From station to station
At half past nine we were ready. The “voluntary expedition” was led by two brothers, Joan Augosto and Vaticano. Both are very simple people, experienced in working with homeless people.
We were so many we had to leave with three cars. We drove from point to point where the homeless people stayed.
She has a great sense of humor. She would send her partner with whom she lives on the street with us to Slovenia.
First, we stopped at two people who were lying in front of a building, each on his own side of the concrete lobby.
Some volunteers already knew them and they immediately divided. One group went to the one on the left, sat around him, talked to him, pulled out a set of cards and started a game. Brother Joan went to other one, sat at the end of his mat and started talking to him.
Every Tuesday, the brothers return to the same spots. Often, the same homeless people stay at the same spots so they already know each other but there are also a lot of new homeless people. Since Brazil has been confronted with the economic crisis, there has been more and more of them.
In some ways, they’re creating a network or, to put it more politely, a family; they make friendships and include the homeless people into their circle: a circle of hope, comfort, and above all material and spiritual support.
So far and yet so close
We stayed for about a half an hour at the first spot. Conversations, laughter, dynamics – definitely very welcoming for a person who is accustomed to contempt and abandonment. They took each of their hot dogs, coffee and tea, and immediately started eating their dinner.
Before leaving, we joined together in a circle, held hands and prayed with them. We did the same on every station to follow.
For two and a half hours we drove around and met the homeless.
We visited a young couple (aged about forty) who lay in the yard of a shop.
They were fenced with cardboard packaging to protect themselves against cold wind. The man expected us in front of the dwelling, while his friend lay wrapped in at least three layers of blankets, a jacket and a hat.
As we approached her, she quickly rose and greeted us. We didn’t understand much, but according to the loud and hearty laugh every time she said something, we concluded that she had a great sense of humor.
When they explained to her that we were coming from far away, from Slovenia, she hinted to her partner and asked us if we could take him with us.
Old, young, sick
We met another homeless person at the entrance to a bank. He was an elderly man. He talked about the pain in his arms and legs, told his story and proudly responded when we asked him if we could take some photos.
Meeting a young, twenty-five-year-old boy who has been living on the street since he was ten, was shocking. He is mentally impaired and has a milder form of cerebral paralysis He has a mother, father and brothers, but says the street suits him better and that he doesn’t want to live at home. We can only guess why.
Painful to see was also a sad face of an elderly homeless person. He sat in his corner and told us he was suffering from a severe form of diabetes. He says the doctors can’t help him because his body temperature fluctuates greatly. He takes medicine that ease the symptoms, but he doesn’t have enough money to fix his life and live in better circumstances.
Prejudices that distract us from God
When we talk about the homeless people we usually have a lot of prejudices. But prejudices are often created from a distance and are the consequence of misunderstanding and ignorance of life stories and the circumstances in which these people were either born and raised, or were forced into at some point in their lives.
In Third World countries, social support is not something that goes without saying. It’s enough to get sick with a serious illness or stay without work and money, it’s enough to succumb to a personal crisis and resort to addiction in your weakness, and land on the street alone.
They have their mission
Nevertheless, these people, though often helpless and weak, have a great mission and in reality they don’t know how much they are able to rock even somebody who is on firm grounds.
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They don’t know how deeply they can cut into the soul of another man and radically change the course of their lives, as happened to young Leticia.
They are unaware of how Jesus works in them, softens the hearts of the people who come in contact with them and speak to them:
‘Thank you for coming, thank you for meeting me.’