Tag Archives: streets

Jeferson Revisited

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.

Rev. 7:9-17
9After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”11All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12saying: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”

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,

“They are before the throne of God
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,

Benjamin Michael



Filed under beauty, favela, streets, tears

I wish you could…

Sometimes I struggle with the concept of language – it is such a frail thing, these jumbles of letters and sounds that are associated with certain meanings and carry such emotional weight and power. But it is all I have to attempt to pierce the shadows that permeate my being, and share the day-to-day reality, beauty, brokenness, and heartache of living among the poor.

I wish you could ring my annoyingly loud buzzer doorbell that makes me flinch and drop things if I’m standing too close to it. I wish that I could yell out to you from my window to come on up, and laugh as you fumble with the latch on the gate and scurry up the stairs. You’d walk into my living room, see the hammock and the guitar and my picture of Jeferson and Isabel hanging on the wall. We’d sit down and have some coffee or a fresh fruit smoothie (think Jamba Juice, only better!) and just laugh. I wish you could be here when the neighbor girls timidly ask on the door to ask if they can borrow some flour, and run off giggling when I wink at them.

I wish you could see the madhouse my place is when the gang of ten little neighborhood punks comes running up the stairs, knocking on the door, and crowding into my tiny living room to gather on the floor and play dominoes and cards and guitar, and talk, and get in fights over how to play checkers. I wish you could be over at the house when Rodrigo and Lucio ring my doorbell at 1 AM cause they’re hungry and lonely and scared and they want to tell me that their mom has just been arrested. I wish you could laugh as they examine themselves for the tiniest injuries so they can bathe them in hydrogen peroxide and put a band-aid on them.

I wish you could have been here last Sunday afternoon – watching the madhouse that is MY house. I wish you could have seen the guys from Lapa who call the street their home – Cleiton and Silvano and Williard and Thiago – as they decided they wanted to cook us a “Brazilian” dinner. I wish you could have observed as they bickered over how much oil to fry the meat in, how much vinegar to put in the salad, how to cut up the potatoes, and whose fault it was when the meat was knocked off the stove and landed on the floor. I wish you could have felt the pride emanating from them as they served us the fruits of their work. I wish you could laugh with me as they dally in front of the mirror, douse themselves in cologne and aftershave, dab gel in their hair, and finally are dragged out of the door to try and not be MORE than 45 minutes late. I wish you could be in church when they sing the visitors song – “It’s so good to have you here with me, to talk and get to know you” as everyone moves around giving high fives, kisses, hugs, claps on the back, and massive grins. I wish you could sit beside me and I would nudge you in the service to look behind and see Silvano sleeping through the sermon, while Cleiton sits with a rapt expression on his face.

I wish you could have been here tonight as I sat around with the Servant Team discussing “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger” by Sider. Hearing their insights and convictions and their unique personalities and the way God speaks to me through them, and then hearing the doorbell ring again. You could have run down the stairs with me to find Cleiton and Michael Jackson. We would have listened to them tell how that evening the police had come by again, thrown all their belongings in a pile, and lit it on fire. We would have heard how the police burned all their blankets, mattresses, and anything else they could get their hands on. We would have invited them upstairs to sit and talk and get out the pain-killers for Cleiton’s toothache. We would have postponed the book discussion and decided to finish talking about it later, because our friends, our brothers were here in front of us, and alone, and in pain, and tired. You could have sat around with me and laughed as I tried to explain Jon Stewart’s jokes to Michael Jackson. You could have gone into the kitchen and been part of the Gnutella fight between Emily and Laura, and helped Cleiton take pictures of the whole thing.

But I really wish you could have sat with me as I talked with Cleiton. I wish you could have heard Cleiton’s voice break as he talked about his brothers and sisters – his mom struggling to make ends meet – his pain at seeing her go through that. I wish you could have heard him as he picked up a book with the picture of Jesus on the cover and asked me, “Why is it that all the Jesus’ I see are white, with blond hair and blue eyes? When I picture Jesus, I picture him as black with tight curly hair…” and the discussion that ensued. I wish you could have seen the expression on his face as he cut himself off in mid-sentence and said, “Who am I to tell you this stuff. You know it better than me…” And then I wish you could have seen his expression soften as I told him how much I learned from him, and even how God said that he uses the weak things to shame the strong, and the foolish to shame the wise, so we know that it is from Him.

I wish you could have been a part of the story telling that took place as we looked through my pictures. You would have laughed at the picture of me up on the platform speaking at our church – all nerves and awkwardness and fumbled speech that thankfully don’t show up in the pictures – and helped with my response as I answered his question “What did you talk about?” I wish you could have drunk in his eyes as he listened to me tell the story of the Prodigal Son. I wish you could have seen the light flickering behind them as the meaning of His grace flickered across the surface of his soul. I wish you could have been there as he asked, full of quiet wonderment, “So you mean… that’s how God feels about us?”

I wish you could have been with us tonight as we walked the girls home, and avoided the puddles and the sprinkling and the cops and the guns, and breathed in the clean “after the rain” air. I wish you could have been with me as Cleiton and Michael Jackson walked home with me at midnight. I wish you could have stood beside me as I watched them walk away, heading back to their “home” on the streets, feeling a strange mixture of sorrow and joy – feeling inadequate yet hopeful.

I wish you could have Cleiton, and Michael Jackson, and Jeferson, and Silvano, and Ingrid, and Rafael, and Rodrigo, and Lucio, and Thiago, and Christiane, and Monique, and Adriana, and Marielly, and all the others burrow into your hearts. I wish you could know them and huge them, laugh with them and cry with them and love them, and be amazed as they teach you and love you in return. I wish you could know a piece of my life here.

I wish that my words were more than they are, but I am comforted by realizing that maybe this time, simple words may be enough.

I wish you could see it…

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Signs of Hope…

Jeferson Brandão, 16 years old. Born Aug. 26, 1989. Died Aug. 30, 2005.
We’ll miss you Jeferson.

A week ago today, a good friend of mine, one of the street kids we worked with, was killed violently.

Immediately after the funeral, I wanted to leave. Leave Rio, leave Brazil, and just go someplace easier – someplace far, far away. In the midst of that, however, I stumbled across a few signs of hope. I wanted to share some of them with you –

On Friday afternoon, I went down to Lapa for the first time since the funeral. I didn’t really want to be there. I stopped at some steps across the street from the Arcos for a few moments to pray and get myself together. As I was crossing the busy street, I saw Jenna holding a baby. Saw Milton and Monique (Jeferson’s sister)’s three kids, who are three of my favorite things about being in Brazil. I love them better than the beach, and more than words can express. I could play games w/ Christiane (the 4 year old boy) for hours and hours (and we do). Christiane launched himself at me from several feet away and gave me a crushing hug (but not as crushing as the one I was giving him). And I got a kiss from Maria Elena, and got to hold little Brendan (my godson – he’s beautiful – and perfect – and such a reminder that God is still at work here.) They looked so good and healthy since Monique has been living at home (and off the street) for the past few months. I’ve been really proud of her. And the fact that they are Jeferson’s nieces and nephews somehow was comforting.

I spent hours chasing Christiane, flinging him around, over my shoulders, spinning him around, tickling him, sharing popcorn, and acting like four year olds again… (one very large four year old, and one normal sized one). It’s hard to stay depressed when a little child loves you, and shows it. Christiane, Maria Elena, and Brendan are signs of hope.

On Saturday, I went to the beach. It was cloudy and chilly, but the waves and the sand and the salt breeze are a tonic for my soul. Being tossed around by huge breakers reminds me of how small I really am – it’s good for building humility – and I never leave the beach without a deep sense of awe in my heart. The beauty, the changing, the fun – how it seems like God made this little present for us, and he called it “the beach”… it’s like Christmas, and I’m four years old, and I can’t wait to get started… That was a sign of hope.

Today, I went to church and was invited over to a family’s home for lunch afterwards. That was a sign of hope.

Today, I went down to Lapa and watched Brazil trouncing Chile in a World Cup Qualifier (4-0 35 minutes into the game) with a bunch of the street kids. We were laughing and talking and cheering together. A sign of hope.

Today Cleiton (Clayton) came home with me from Lapa. He’s a very sweet, 16 year old guy from Lapa. He seems a little younger – lots of fun, very talkative – but he’s great. He wanted to visit my house, and so we spent the afternoon together, and then went to church. We came back here w/ the Servant Team, and then fed him spaghetti and coffee cake. We cut his hair, and I let him “cut” mine (he just trimmed it a little and fixed it up in the back. It was nerve-racking, though… =) Laughing about haircuts – a sign of hope.

Sitting in my living room talking tonight, Cleiton said something profound. He said to the Servant Team, “It’s always really good when you come down and visit us. We love it. It’s a distraction – something to take our minds off of the lonliness, the tiredness, the pain. We don’t use drugs as much when you’re there. You talk to us. You bring stuff for us to do. Sometimes you help us out w/ food. Some people say it doesn’t make any difference, you coming down to spend time with us, but it does. It makes a lot of difference.” Cleiton, you are a sign of hope for me…

Pray for these signs of hope – the big thing about hope is that is not yet realized. And in that fragile state, there is always the possibility that hope will fail. So pray with me – that the signs of hope I’ve seen will be things we can look back on in the years to come as different signs – signs of God’s faithfulness. Pray for Christiane, Maria Elena, Brendan, and Monique. Pray for Cleiton. Continue to pray for Jeferson’s family and close friends. Pray for our WMF community – that we might be a community of hope in the midst of death.

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Filed under beauty, photos, streets