I’m not a big fan of running for pleasure. If you’re on your way somewhere, or are late, or are playing some sort of game, or even if you are just trying to beat your last record for how long it took you to race down the mountain (or Masada), it can be useful, and even fun.
I realize though that my flight from “reality” is much more insidious and pervasive – I don’t know if you could say I enjoy it… But I do get something out of it. Or rather, I avoid facing the hard, difficult things in life.
There is something about the way my brain is wired that though I notice things and can be fairly perceptive in certain areas, I don’t really notice them unless I take the time to sit, process, think, and most importantly, write about them. They don’t sink in and become real. They’re not a part of me until I write about them.
Like tonight. I don’t want to write about this evening, because it will make it real. And when I distract myself (through books, music, TV, movies, video games, food, relationships, or jus plain busy-ness), I buy myself some time, and allow the painful, the disturbing, the unsettling, the tragic morsels of life to dwindle and lose their power. I make life less painful. I make it more comfortable. But I also make it less real. My sin differs in degree, but not in kind, from the youth we see on the streets – using thinner, glue, cocaine, marijuana, crack…
Around 5 o’clock this evening, Jannika (a Dutch friend of ours who, along with her husband, runs a program in the favela I used to live in) went for a walk through the boca de fumo of Manguinhos. It was raining off and on all day, so by 5 the streets were muddy and the air was damp and chilly. We normally go to the bus station to spend a few hours with kids on the street, but decided (because of the rain) to focus our efforts a bit closer to home.
It doesn’t matter how many times I have walked through the boca… I never really get over it. These are boys and girls (but mostly boys) who I know. Some used to be my neighbors. Others I know from Lapa and downtown. A few more know me from Timonis. I know them. And they know me (or rather, many of them would if they weren’t high) – the dull stare and hacking cough of one too many hits of crack, the collarbones protruding from thin shoulders hunched against the autumn chill…
Jannika and I invited pretty much everyone we saw under the age of 15 to come back with us to the building that Timonis owns – probably 60+ people – for snacks, hanging out, a time of prayer, and games. At the very least, it was a warm place out of the rain… About 10 accepted. One hasn’t eaten in four days. Another is missing one leg – he arrives carried on the back of another boy. Two young girls join the crowd. And we make our way back through the boca, dodging men with AR-15s, handguns and grenades, young men competing as to who will give you the best price on crack, glassy-eyed stares, nervous twitches from the lookouts holding fireworks, side-stepping mothers walking their young children home from school, small stores closing and churches opening… We are a strange procession – two fools, leading a motley collection of misfits and rejects down the road. We are the Pied Piper. We are trying to be Jesus’ hands and feet. We are looking for Christ, hidden among the poor. And sometimes, we catch a glimpse of him.
But most of the time, I can’t see him. Instead, I see children who have been abused and kicked around all their lives turn and do the same thing to their friends. I see fights break out and blood shed over blankets and food and pride. I step into their midst – not thinking at all about “blessed are the peace-makers” – the only thoughts running through my mind “how can I defuse this and make sure no more blood is spilt, no more bones broken… what are the words I can say, the actions I must take, to halt this…” It is no spiritual calculation, but a gut-wrenching instinct that at the same time goes against what my “instincts” should be – self-preservation, seeking comfort and safety, etc. It is love.
And at the end of the night, it is time to walk away. I don’t know how many hundreds of times I have shook hands, hugged their bodies to mine, made some type of human contact, and then turn around, and gone home. It is the worst on nights like this – cold, rainy, windy, miserable… Yet I cannot stay. And I cannot stay away. Love compels me back. Love for the least of these – no matter how badly they smell, how broken they are, how violently they treat each other, how much they take advantage or abuse grace… Love for Jesus… Love.
In writing about it, I enter into it again. I re-live it. They are here with me. And as painful as it is, I don’t want to lose that. I don’t want to live running and hiding. I want to remember, and live as one fully alive.
And as we remember together, let us hope. Hope for a future where wounds are healed, lives restored, the wounds they have caused and the wounds they have given…