Christmas is fast approaching… At this time of year we usually take in one or two of the ReVive girls, who don’t have any where to go to spend Christmas, into our home to spend it with us. This always reminds me of something I wrote a long time ago (7 years!) about one of the boys who we worked with when we helped out at a project called My Father’s House. I’ll leave it with you…
“Christmas Eve 2009 will be the first anniversary of the death of Jonathan Romario Alves da Santana, one of the ‘old’ boys of My Father’s House project, who at the age of 13 was brutally murdered by being shot 5 times in the head by a gang who had been after him for over a year.
Jonathan has never been far from my thoughts over the past year and his tragically short life encapsulates the lives that many of Brazil’s 25 million street children and many million more around the world share, in which a fair few will also share in a senseless violent death.
Jonathan grew up on one of the many ‘favelas’ or shanty towns in the greater Recife area and it just happened to be the favela by the side of Olinda’s rubbish dump where the Anglican Church of Living Waters and My Father’s House project reaches out to the poor and needy. Jonathan shared a childhood which isn’t unlike many of the other children on the favela; his Mother found a new man who was violent towards Jonathan and made his Mum choose between her son and himself. She chose him which effectively forced Jonathan out of the home. Out on the streets Jonathan became engrossed in the world of gangs, guns and drug trafficking and at the age of 11 became an ‘aviãozinho’ (little aeroplane) – a delivery boy for the gangs. He would be armed with a pistol as he delivered drugs and money around the favela. He was eventually caught by the police and naively gave up some names of his gang superiors – effectively a death sentence since he ‘talked’. My Father’s House found him and took him into the project to hide him from the gang.
This is where Jonathan entered into my life in March 2008 while I was a then worker in the project. He was very small for his age, very affectionate but had massive mood swings which could make him quite violent. During his stay in the project a change was beginning to take place in Jonathan; he wanted to leave gang life behind but remained quite troubled as we learned that the gangs hadn’t called off the death warrant. This led us to believe that Jonathan had done something else to anger the gang, we never found out exactly what it was but many for many nights he wouldn’t sleep until I had prayed with him sat on his bed.
After a few months, things got too much for Jonathan and he ran away from the project. I got a call one morning telling me that the gangs had tried to kill Jonathan; he had been shot in the shoulder but had survived and was now in hospital. I went to visit him along with another project worker to see what we could do. I met his Mum and his uncle who I drove to the bus station and paid for Jonathan and his uncle to get a bus to his Grandma’s house who lived in the countryside – a place where he would be safe.
He stayed there for a few months and was apparently doing well, studying and working to get a little bit of money. A few weeks later I heard that the gangs had killed Jonathan’s uncle after trying to find out where he had gone. I still remember the day when my phone rang and Jonathan’s Mum told me that she had gone to get Jonathan and had brought him back to the city. ‘Why would you do such a thing!?’ I asked, ‘Because I was jealous of his Grandma having custody of my son’ she replied. Sometimes the family needs more help than the actual boy.
Four days later, Christmas Eve 2008, Jonathan was ambushed around the corner from his home and at just 13 years old was shot and killed.
My faith is constantly challenged by those short months that I knew Jonathan and by the many other lives of children which I am involved in. What is my role, our role, the Church’s role in a world like this?
Christmas time is a time when the Church proudly proclaims the birth of Jesus Christ, ‘the King has come’, ‘Emmanuel – God with us’. Can the poor and needy of this world truly say that God’s representatives in this world, i.e. the Church – the body of Christ, are ‘with us’?
At Christmas time the Church celebrates the birth of a child, but do we show day by day the same life transforming power that Jesus Christ showed or do we merely talk about it?
Thirty odd years after his birth, this ‘Servant King’, would rebuke the religious leaders of the day for talking too much and being too legalistic and hypocritical. Whereas Jesus sought out those shunned by society and those looked down upon by the religious leaders – a prostitute who was set free from her demons; an adulteress who was held at the point of death by the ‘church’ of the day but who found forgiveness at the feet of Jesus; a cripple healed on the Sabbath; and an ‘easy’ woman who came face to face with ‘a man who told me everything that I had ever done’ – the messiah, by a well in the midday sun. The gospel, perhaps in its full form. Sometimes I see that same attitude of the Pharisees in me and within the Church as I struggle to find my role and think about the Church’s role in the world – perhaps we need to follow more of the example that Jesus set; proclamation and demonstration of the gospel.
I don’t think I will forget the last words that Jonathan ever said to me as he climbed out the back of my car at the bus station – ‘Andy, you and the project, are the only ones who ever believed in me.’ I believed in Jonathan because I believe in Him – Jesus Christ and his power to change and restore lives. Can our non-Christian friends, the poor, the needy, the sick, the shunned, the downtrodden, can they really say that we, the church through Jesus Christ, are the only ones who truly believe in them, who by God Emmanuel are ever ‘with’ them? As Bill Hybels said, ‘the local Church is the hope of the world’, I believe that.
Rose and I have been challenged by this thought and so this Christmas, our first as a married couple, we’ll be receiving Emerson for four days, one of the boys in the project who can’t go home for Christmas as his Mum is an alcoholic and drug addict who lives on the street. It’s a bit of a challenge and a few sacrifices have to be made but it’s also a tremendous privilege and a pleasure to be able to give someone something that he has never had before – Christmas in a loving family.
If I may, I’d like to leave you all with a Christmas thought – that during this very busy Christmas time amongst the presents, food (for many kids here Christmas lunch will just be whatever they manage to find on the rubbish dump), drink, left-overs, carol services, midnight communion services, wrapping paper, mince pies, mulled wine, please find some time to think – not just about the real reason for Christmas i.e. Jesus’ birth, which is quite easy to remember, but rather – what does Jesus’ birth mean to me and what effect, if any, does that have on my life?
Christmas Eve, here in Brazil, is the traditional time to meet with family, exchange presents and to have the Christmas meal. This year, however, there will also be a time found and a glass raised to Jonathan, the effects and challenges of whose short life still resound in mine and, I’m certain, will continue to do so throughout 2010.
To all of you, our dear friends and family, we wish you all a very happy Christmas and hope to see some of you in this coming year.”
Andy and Rose