Stephen Dass hails from Singapore; his wife, Mary, from the United States.
They’re missionaries, people who have found their vocation, and their fulfillment, among the street kids of the Southern Hemisphere’s greatest metropolis – São Paulo.
Among their photos, here is one I found particularly touching:
The words on the wall are part of a longer text, some kind of slogan, but "um pobre" can also be taken to mean "one of the poor". To really appreciate this photo, please click on it to enlarge it. The child is holding a dog.
Like their photos, the tales the couple has to tell are often heartbreaking, but often, too, illuminated by rays of hope.
Here's Stephen with one of them.
Leighton - Monday
Veronica was seven years old when she ran away from the shambles of her nuclear family. Her mother was a sex worker. She attempted to abandon Veronica immediately after giving birth to her, but was hit by a car as she was leaving the hospital. Veronica knows her birth mother only because of this incident. Her mother survived the accident but she never was a mother to Veronica. Veronica told us that the only positive memory she has of her mother was that one Christmas she gave her a pear.
Veronica's family festered with dysfunction. Her grandfather sexually assaulted her. Her uncle was the only one who showed any concern for her, but he also exploited her by making her beg for money in the streets from the time she was four years old. Veronica describes the day she ran away as the happiest moment of her early childhood. Back then, she said, other children were intimidated by her because she was so aggressive. We met her when she was eleven.
Here’s a (sorry, it's very bad, but it's the only one we've got) picture from that time. We did not see, and I do not think that you will see, the aggressive child she claims to have been. Instead, we saw a child that desperately hoped for a better life.
This glimmer of hope helped Veronica maintain her innocence despite all that she had experienced. There are about a thousand homeless children like Veronica presently in the red light district of São Paulo. They share similar family backgrounds. Our task as missionaries to these lost and forgotten children is to help them nurture or rediscover this hope. It is this hope that is going give them the courage to embrace life once again. Veronica said "Yes" to life and she taught us about the courage to live.
Here is a recent picture, Mary with Veronica, shot at a shopping center in São Paulo. Now thirty, Veronica was completing the final semester of her law school education.
Things have worked out for her, but comparing the São Paulo of 2013, with the São Paulo of the 1990’s, the situation has gotten worse. There are more children and teenagers in the streets, not to mention the ever increasing number of homeless adults. Most of them pass their time sniffing glue or using crack cocaine. These children and teenagers engage in self-destructive habits because they want to kill the pain of loneliness and hopelessness.
All those long years ago, we were part of a multi-denominational team of missionaries who came together and lived in an international community. The purpose was to provide a home for these children and teenagers. Veronica made this community her home. Veronica had never experienced unconditional love before and she attempted to prove the community that she was worthy of our love. It only made her look more needy and desperate. She saw a psychiatrist and counselor, but they were not able to help her. She needed time and patience to learn to receive unconditional love and love unconditionally. It was learning process for all of us.
Life is never easy for these children even after they leave the streets – and none of them expect it to be. They are used to hardship and pain. However, they need a reason to face the harsh realities; a reason to say "Yes" to life.
We only have the courage to say "Yes" to life if we know that we are loved. Love makes us human and helps to live our humanity to the fullest. It is Love that is going to bring these forgotten and forsaken children out of this pit of mire and self-destruction. However, we don't live in a fantasy world. We don't believe in false claims of perhaps well-intentioned religious people who say everything will be well if we believe in God. Our position is that we must show them we have hope for them even though the rest of society might consider them as hopeless causes. We do not claim to know the answer because there are no easy answers; only the wrong ones are easy.
The theological virtues of faith, hope and charity are our tools. We have faith that these are God's special children. Our hope compels us to share and also receive love from these children in their harsh reality. I am not a romantic. No one who has the experience of living rough in a red light district could be. We have seen the violence. We have seen the brutalities of life. But we have also seen that our approach works.
If you are interested in knowing more about our work, or contributing to it, please contact me via email at fr.StephenDass@gmail.com