Monday, February 14, 2011

Jesus on the streets - in Brazil

Amazon Relief brings aid and Christ’s love to "at risk" children and the poor who live in "The Green Hell"— an area near the equator, 1,200 miles up the Amazon River. The poverty in the region can hardly be described. Many children and families live in overcrowded shacks, built on stilts over perpetually fermenting sewage. There are no roads into these areas — only foot traffic over precarious docks. And then there’s the heat, the humidity, the disease, the lack of food.....

A friend of mine recently wrote an article on her blog detailing the mission of Amazon Relief. Please visit her 'Christianity101blog to read Parts 1 (detailed information of the beautiful mission to the poor) and 2 (David's story).

Below I have reprinted my interview. It really describes how Jesus is on the streets everywhere if we open our hearts and eyes to see.

1. Tell us how you first met Jim and Lois Flickinger and what led to your trip to the Amazon?

I first met Jim and Lois serving lunch for the homeless and those in need at the ‘Tuesday lunch’ in downtown Grand Rapids. I had begun a Saturday lunch program, ‘Jesus on the streets’. We joined forces under their non-profit. Shortly after, my husband and I started formation for Third Order Franciscans in the same fraternity they are in.

2. Where exactly did you go in the Amazon and what was your main purpose for going there?

We flew to Manaus, Brazil, a city of around two million people at the mouth of the Amazon River and stayed with a beautiful couple, Josue and Raimunda, who have been hosting Jim and Lois for 15 years.
We also journeyed by plane deep into the Amazon jungle to spend time with the Munduruku Indians. We stayed overnight at a Franciscan mission established almost 100 years ago to help the Munduruku.
My main purpose for going on this mission trip was to see Amazon Relief in action, to meet Jesus Christ in people of Brazil and see how we could further help them and also learn from them.

3. How long were you there, and what kinds of things did you do?

Our trip was eight days. We visited schools funded by Amazon Relief, playing with the kids and sitting in on some of their classes. We walked along broken streets visiting the homes of school children built on the edge of raw sewage. The homes, built out of scrap materials, were the about 12’ x 12’. By our standards they would be seen as dirty and small, but the mothers kept their very neat and tidy and warmly welcomed us in. We took the families of school children out for dinner; spent time learning and playing with children at the home run by the Sisters of Charity. They take care of children age birth through five years who would otherwise be on the streets or home alone all day; visited the leper colony where we sang songs, listened and shared hugs and smiles with “Jesus in disguise.” We served lunch in various parks, very similar to our ministry with the poor here except that this would be the only meal the people would eat for 1-2 days.) We also spent much time with various Franciscan priests and sisters, witnessing them live out the gospel in their ministry to the people of Manaus and in the Indian villages along the various rivers in the jungle.

4. What was your most profound memory from your trip?

There were many profound memories from my trip. It’s difficult to choose just one!They all center around the people – the lepers and especially the children. Everyone in Brazil invites you in with their beautiful dark eyes and huge smiles. Upon entering the walls of the first school we visited, I was surrounded by a sea of smiling children. They showered me with hugs and greetings like I was a dear friend. The only way to describe the scene is that my soul was so overwhelmed with joy I thought this must be what heaven is like – unharnessed love! They quickly swept me away with them to the playground. Yes, there is much material poverty, yet the children have an inner joy we don’t normally see here in the states.

My most cherished memories are the times we spent with two boys, Willame and Gabriel. Jim and Lois met them two-three years ago, and these boys immediately captured my heart with their warm smiles and gentle, courteous ways. We spent time with the boys every day we were in Manaus. First some background on the boys:
Willame is 15 years old, lives with his grandparents and nine other children in a two room tin-roofed wooden shack. His grandfather is the only one working a job – selling popsicles! This provides very little income for the twelve people living there. The threat of malaria is always present and malnourishment in the family is prevalent.

Willame sleeps on the bare floor with no pillow or blanket with two other children in a room about 8’ x 8’. Only recently were they able to put in a toilet. Many of the homes use a hole in the floor where the waste is deposited below the house. When it rains, the sewage and trash flow freely in the streets and in trenches built to help the problem. Precarious bridges are built over the flowing river of sewage in order to get from one part of the slums to the other.

Gabriel, 11, lives nearby with his older brothers. Like Willame, he never knew his father, and his mother deserted him a few years earlier. He is a shy, but caring young boy with eyes that cry out to be loved. He is a good student who loves to sing.

Seeing pictures of where these boys and others live doesn’t give the full picture. Food is scarce, dogs bark constantly day and night, along with other noises like the deafening rain on the tin roof. The air is hot and humid with a stench of raw sewage, and there is little to no privacy in which the kids can study for school.
With all these circumstances, the boys were kind, eager to spend time with me playing games, talking or studying for school at the home where we stayed. They held my hand whenever we crossed the very busy streets and made sure I didn’t step in any holes or on trash.

One night we took them out for pizza. The two boys and I played foosball in the back room of the restaurant after we ate - such a simple time, but so full of joy. None of us wanted the night to end. On the drive back to their neighborhood, they leaned their heads on my shoulder and just smiled. The day before we left for home, Gabriel asked if we could take him with us in our suitcase! Willame and I hugged and cried at the airport at our departure. I told him that he was a strong boy. Most 15 year-old boys hold back their tears for fear of embarrassment, but not here. I would adopt these boys in a moment, but truly believe what’s needed is to see that they are nourished and cared for in a safe, loving environment; given spiritual formation to know the love of Christ and offered a good education so they can thrive in their own country. Then they can give back in their own culture and make it a better place for everyone else there also. Through Amazon Relief, Willame and Gabriel and other children like them are not without hope. Amazon Relief provides some of that hope.
Every day I pray for the children’s’ spiritual and physical safety. I hope you will, too.

Our time in the leper colony was so beautiful I didn’t want to leave. There is much suffering – physical, spiritual, emotional, financial – among those afflicted with leprosy. What shines above all this is the peace that permeates the atmosphere in the hospital. It’s hard to describe how suffering and peace can co-exist in one place, but the people I met showed me great strength and hope that only comes from deep faith in God.
As we were visiting with people at the leper hospital, a gentleman walked by us a few times. The third time he passed by, he just stopped right in front of me. We looked deep into each others eyes for what seemed an eternity, but was really about 15 seconds. He then gently took my hand, smiled, nodded and quietly walked away. Mother Teresa always said she saw Christ in the poor. That day, in that moment, Jesus was there in that man.
God did show me Christ in the people of Brazil. Around every turn, in various people and circumstances, Jesus was present teaching me and calling for help from His brothers and sisters around the world.

5. What specifically is Amazon Relief able to do with donations?

Donations provide financial support for six schools for young children (4-14 years of age). Currently the schools serve over 1,000 children, teaching them reading, writing, arithmetic, gardening and hygiene --- and feeding them a meal each day.
Working with "graduates" of our schools (children who have gone through our schools) as they continue their education. We have established an accelerated learning/tutoring program designed to help high school children prepare for college; we have hired a professor to give computer instruction; we have begun to provide computers and textbooks to some of our graduates; and we are giving some tuition funds for further educational opportunities.
Donations fund two vocational schools in remote areas of the jungle wherein over 200 high school age students learn skills which are useful and will provide them with jobs in the community (woodworking, motor repair, cooking, sewing, etc.).
They offer adult education courses to parents of our students.
They fund eight soup kitchens which provide over 3,000 weekly meals, provide food, medicine and clothing for the poor.
They provide education and spiritual support within the leper colony. Also, special carts are provided for those with leprosy which allows them greater mobility.

Please pray for the people of the Amazon and consider donating to this mission. 100% of donations go right to the cause. Not even 1% of your money will go to administrative costs.