I want to tell you all a story. Like all true stories, it is beautiful, and funny, and sad, and a melange of emotions that I really don’t understand yet. Let me begin at the beginning.
About two years ago, I met a young man named Jeferson. He had just turned 14, was a few weeks older than my little brother Jonathan, and was living on the streets of Rio. Lapa was his home. I and the Servant Team were invited to go with Jeferson and a woman named Carla, a volunteer with another organization that we had seen down in Lapa a few times. She had planned an outing with Jeferson for the day to the Naval Museum, which included a free boat ride in the bay. So we went to spend the day with them.
It was a cold, grey, rainy morning. Mist fluttered around the lampposts of Praça XV, and coated everything in a shiny, glistening film. We grabbed a quick breakfast at a café, and then ran to the museum. A few images stand out from that day – Jeferson, Zach (ST member) and I running through the submarine, taking pictures of ourselves with all the mannequin crew members, looking through the periscope, and trying to scare the girls by popping out of apparently inaccessible places. Then came the boat ride – cold, wet, and exhilarating as the sea breeze whipped around and over and through us. Again, running and taking pictures and laughing. I knew I had made a friend.
After that, Jeferson slowly became a part of my life. Seeing his playful grin, and hearing him laugh as he yelled across the square “Ben-edita da Silva!” (a famous woman from Rio, and my nickname to him) were signs that it was going to be a good day. I remember one day when he was over at my apartment. We were playing a soccer type game that involved standing on opposite ends of the hallway and kicking a beach ball at each other as hard as we could. The object was to get the beach ball past the other person and through the doorway behind them. If you did, you scored a point. I don’t remember who won. I do remember playing for 45 minutes before one of us kicked the ball a bit too hard. It hit the ceiling, knocked off the glass light fixture, and sent it plummeting to the floor where it exploded into 8,592 pieces. We both sheepishly cleaned it up, and stopped the game.
I remember sitting with him this last Mother’s Day. I was asking some of the boys questions about their mothers – things they liked about them, things they missed, fun memories, etc. We laughed and got sad, and then a few asked my about my mother. So I told them. They wanted to know how she died, and how I felt about it all. Jeferson didn’t say much. He just sat quietly next to me. I answered their questions as best as I could, and was touched when one of the boys sympathetically patted Jeferson and me on the shoulder and said in a soft voice, “It’s hard to lose a mom…” With those words, and the compassionate touch, Jeferson began to cry. So we sat on a moldy, smelly, falling apart couch with our arms around each others shoulders, and cried, and laughed, and remembered.
I remember eating spaghetti and pizza with him (his favorite meals). We buried each other in the sand at the beach. We played card games and board games and computer games. We watched Batman together. We teased and joked and laughed. We prayed together. We sang together.
When he was over at our house, he heard a particular worship song from Zach. “O Praise Him” – “Turn your ear to Heaven and hear the noise inside, the sound of angels, the sound of angel’s songs, and all this for a King. We could join and sing ‘All to Christ the King!’ – O praise Him, O praise Him. He is Holy. He is Holy…” Jeferson loved to have me sing it. “Sing that song – you know…” So I would, and when I reached the chorus of O praise Him, Jeferson would join in. Somehow, I feel he’s still singing it.
Friday, August 26th was his 16th birthday. I talked to him the day before and he asked me if I would take him to the “Enchanted Land” (an amusement park here in Rio.) I told him I was busy that day, and couldn’t do it. I was sorry. But Saturday was the day we had planned to spend the day together. I was supposed to go downtown and pick him up in the morning. From there we were going to go to the beach, swim, watch a movie (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), go back to my home, and then hang out and have a pizza and a pie that Jenna baked as we celebrated his birthday. That was the plan. We had it all worked out. As I walked away that Thursday night, I yelled to him “Happy Birthday! Don’t forget! I’ll see you on Saturday…” I didn’t though. That night was the last time I saw him.
He didn’t show up on Saturday. I couldn’t find him. We didn’t see him next week either. On Wednesday, Jenna was down in Lapa and she ran into Monique and Vera, Jeferson’s sisters. They had bad news. Jeferson was dead. He was killed – another victim of Rio’s senseless drug wars. He was killed because of where he was from, and who his friends were, and because he went into the wrong neighbourhood. Jeferson was from a CV-affiliated favela. He was invited to a party in an ADA-affiliated favela, along with a group of friends. They went, not realizing it was an ambush. Jeferson and four others were killed.
The funeral was the following day – Thursday. Standing there beside the coffin, the reality of Jeferson’s death fell upon me and crushed me, and I began to feel it as true. Looking at him lying there, covered in white flowers, a bruised lump on his forehead, his eyes closed, his skin cold to the touch, I wept. He wasn’t going to wake up. And I continued to mourn. I wept over lost opportunities. I wept because I missed my friend. I wept because he was alone and in pain as he died. I wept that I had not been able to save him. I wept for the pain of his sisters and his friends. I wept.
Walter Brueggemann, in his book “The Prophetic Imagination”, states that tears and mourning are acts of prophetic criticism, as they emphatically declare that all is not right with the world. Something has happened that should not have happened, and tears are our acknowledgement of that. They are the starting point from which we must travel on our search for hope. And that hope, though hidden in the most unlikely places, still remains.
Last year at our WMF staff retreat, Rachel Langley, a WMF missionary in Peru, stood up and shared a passage of Scripture she gained solace and strength from . In reading it these last couple of weeks, I too have drawn hope from the truth it conveys. Allow me to share it with you.
13Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” 14I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15Therefore,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.
16Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat upon them,
nor any scorching heat.
17For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Rachel said, “If anyone has gone through a great tribulation, it is these children of the street.” From birth, their lives have been a tribulation. I know Jeferson was washed in the blood of the Lamb. And I cling to the rest of the promise for him… “Jeferson is before the throne of God and serves him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over Jeferson. Never again will Jeferson hunger; never again will Jeferson thirst. The sun will not beat upon him, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be his shepherd; he will lead Jeferson to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from his eyes.”
I know that one day, I will see him again. But not yet. There is still much to do…
Thank you for your prayers and your love,