Flashbacks


The neighborhood I work in is not the safest.  Neighbors warned us to be careful going to and from our cars – especially at night.  Crime happens in Chicago.  And yes, statistically speaking, it’s a rough neighborhood.  I just don’t think it really sunk home until today.

We often will take our kids to a nearby playground for a little exercise.  We were wandering over there on this crunchy sparkling fall morning, approaching the underpass before the playground when a firetruck pulled around the bend.  It slowed, the driver glanced at me, did a double-take, stopped the ladder truck in the middle of the street and hopped out.

“Whatcha doing here?”

“Just headed to the park for a little while.”

“Ya’ll live around here?”

“Just down the street…”

“Well, be careful out there.  It’s a rough neighborhood.”

“…thanks…”

And with that, he was back in the cab, and they were off.

I smiled, grateful for someone looking out for me, and realized the mix of emotions that hearkened back to my time in Rio.  It was practically the same reaction I’d get when I would tell someone I met where I lived.  “Manguinhos?  Jacare?  That’s up in the Gaza strip!”

Memories surface: walking down the street towards the Metro and noticing a police car driving down the road, shoulders tensing, forcing myself to walk casual, not speed up or look suspicious, knowing that just by being myself in this neighborhood I’ve already tripped their threshold for “not-rightness.”  Anticipating another conversation having to justify myself, explain that I’m not a drug dealer or a tourist looking for some adventures along with my chemically induced good times, respond kindly and compassionately and full of grace for the men who are supposed to protect this city, but may have been the ones who shot up my neighborhood the night before, and are now patting me down on the side of the road at gunpoint…  It didn’t happen every day – but it happened enough.

I thought I’d left that feeling behind when I moved – the mix of embarrassment at being picked out, understanding because on some level I don’t fit in where I’m at, compassion and frustration and rueful laughter and a hint of anger and recognition that thanks to my hair color and skin tone and gender I am distinctly privileged in the way that authority relates to me, and I didn’t ask for this…

But this is the way it is.  Which brings us to my question…  In light of this reality, how will I respond?  How will I live?  What will I do today, and tomorrow, and the day after that?  Because it’s little moments like today that remind me of the reality of the brokenness of this neighborhood, of this city, of this country, of this world…  And it’s moments like this that remind me how desperately we need hope – people who point towards hope, who live and breathe hope, who remind us that no matter the way things are, this is not the way things were meant to be.  Resurrection lies just over the hill.  So keep your head up

 


Bleeding daylight

Something about Tuesday nights makes me want to sit down and write… (that’s not entirely true. I may not want to write, but it’s times like that I need to sit down and make myself tell stories and share life, thoughts, and ideas.)

That said, I manage to put it off to super-late, and am falling asleep… so, in light of that, quick vignette for the day…

Dang it. No vignettes for now… I think my problem is that lately I have been seeing connections everywhere – I haven’t been able to take things in isolation – and the individual instances of the day to day aren’t representative of the whole – of what moves my heart, excites me, challenges me, relaxes me, makes me angry…

I was reading recently that writing is about making choices – beginning with a blank page (or screen) and filling it – choosing which words go where, what stories to tell or not tell, what details to fill in or leave blank… and my choices have been paralyzing me lately.

—–

I’ve been re-reading Gary Haugen’s “The Good News about Injustice” with this Servant Team who’s now here – this morning we say down and discussed the first part – I forget how good it is, and the hunger for justice that it wakes in me… Since then, a couple of songs by different Bruces have been resonating with me…

Bruce Springsteen singing a classic from the great depression – sung again shortly after Hurricane Katrina… the chorus is simple, poignant, and true “How can a poor man stand such times and live…” – and at the end the Boss sings “gonna be a judgement that’s a fact, a righteous train rolling down this track…”

Bruce Cockburn (a favorite, and proof that good things can come from Canada) has some great songs – two in particular have played over and over in my head today. In one (called “If I had a rocket launcher“), he sings “I don’t believe in guarded borders and I don’t believe in hate. I don’t believe in generals or their stinking torture states… I wanna raise every voice. At least I’ve go to try. Every time I think about it water rises to my eyes. Situation desperate, echoes of the victim’s cry…”

“Water rises to my eyes…” When I walk the streets of the favelas, and truly see what is going on like I did tonight, water rises to my eyes. Longing for hope, longing for change. And we do what we can. It is so little, and the need is so great. Many refuse what we do offer – an evening off the street, some food, talking, medical care, prayer… and yet, we keep offering.

Ran into a young boy named Tiago* who used to be on the streets downtown. I hadn’t seen him for almost a year – he’d graduated from the downtown streets to the favela streets. That means more drug abuse, more violence, closer ties to traffickers… I stopped and talked to him this evening amidst the smells, smoke wafting, crack, coke, and marijuana mingling as pushers yell out and offer free samples to 10-year olds… My heart burns. When I call him by name, he smiles, and is shocked. “You remember me. You remember…” it’s not enough to pull him away from the crack, but for a second, he is touched.

Bruce Cockburn has another song (“Lovers in a dangerous time…”) – in it, perhaps my favorite line in any song, ever…

– “When you’re lovers in a dangerous time, sometimes you’re made to feel as if your love’s a crime. But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight. Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight.” –

That’s what I’m still doing here in Brazil. Kicking at the darkness…

And sometimes, it's just because I want to


Flying?
Originally uploaded by still searching…

Point the first – This evening I went over to a friend’s home and thought it would be amusing to toss my keys in the air in front of her window until she noticed these inexplicably ascending and descending keys, and she would then let me in as she shook her head and rolled her eyes at my silliness. Except on try #2, said keys went off course and ended up on top of the neighbor’s second story roof. Oops. Head shaking and eye rolling did occur as I hung out of her second story window with a broom trying to reach my keys… You can’t win them all, can you? (That’s what I keep telling myself.)

Point the second – An odd thing about favela life… This evening, as I was leaving, I noticed a police jeep driving in. Painted on its side was the name of the community I live in. They come in every day. It’s expected. But I don’t think they really DO anything. Case in point – approximately 30 yards up the road I saw 15-20 people openly selling drugs. Do the police just drive right by it? Do they even see it? Is it their “understanding?” Corruption? Laziness? It’s not right, whatever it is…

Point the third – my friend Josh pretty much set up our entire class reunion/get-together that we all went to a couple of weeks ago. And while I could write my own story, I like his better… Plus, it has a picture of (quite possibly) one of the best tattoos I’ve ever seen. You owe it to yourself to go and check it out… I’ll give you something shiny…

Point the last – and now friends, I’m going to bed in the hopes that my impending cold/sinus trouble/ear infection will just go away and leave me alone. I can always hope, can’t I?

Beauty all around

Today we took a group of favela kids on a passeio to an island in the bay. Rather, today we helped some friends of ours who run a ministry in a neighboring favela by being extra bodies to hold on to the kids as we visited this island. There was much food for thought and reflection, and I have a few things to say – but right now, I’m too tired.

I would like to say that few things here bring me as much joy as taking these little ones who have so much pain and brokenness in their lives and celebrating life with them – having fun, joking around, laughing, running and playing in the midst of beauty… There are fun pictures, and more thoughts to come – but for now, it’s late, and I’m wiped out. 12 hours with these kids will do you in…

And the best part is that tonight, I get to sleep for my third night in a row without a fan. I haven’t had a chance to buy a new one yet… And it’s freakishly hot here in Rio right now. Last night I woke up around 4 AM because my bed was soaked with sweat – so I put my feet at the head of the bed, and my head at the foot, and slept for a few more hours before I soaked through the rest of the bed… It’s not a good feeling… Maybe tomorrow I’ll be able to get a fan… I can only hope…

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

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…