The Shield of Faith
Updated: May 2
Below is a report submitted by Elsie Gilbert. She talks about her experience in visit to Coque, a very poor neighborhood in Recife where Happy Child International supports local community development efforts.
Learning about Hope and Faith with Jamilly
On the way through the maze of back alleys and narrow passageways inhabited by the poorest the poor in the Coque, a slum in Recife, Brazil, the social worker had us prepare ourselves for what we were about to see and experience. Even so, I was not prepared. We visited three places that day.
I will describe one, the one inhabited by Jamilly and her family. She is 24 years old, mother to a 3-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy, pregnant with her third child. Mothering came after a few years spent in prison because of drug trafficking. When we knocked on the gate to her shack, her mother answered with a sigh of relief. “Oh, good, for a moment I thought you were the police.”
We walked eight yards through a narrow passageway to the back of the cramped lot. Recycled items, construction materials, an old bicycle, discarded plastic bottles, and many less identifiable objects stood along the walls on both sides. About four yards to the end of the lot, there was a single-room shack, built with bricks and asbestos shingles, a common type of roofing present in the poorer homes in Brazil.
Jamilly received us with a big smile. It was around 5:00 pm. Her children were already asleep on the only bed I could see in the 130 square feet home. A fan kept the children cooler and protected from the flies. Starting from the children on the bed I slowly turned around performing a full circle in place.
I was overwhelmed by what I saw. Tall piles of clothes filled the space reaching two thirds of the way to the roof. I think clothes took up any horizontal surface so I could not see a table or anything resembling a countertop. The space made me feel like I was walking through a tunnel. I located a battered stove with a few pots and pans and a working refrigerator but no bathroom facilities or even a sink with running water.
Jamilly explained the sleeping arrangements. She sleeps on a single bed with her two little ones. Her mother sleeps on the floor, next to the bed. Her father sleeps on the chair and her 16-year-old brother, inside the lean-to. When it rains, which happens an average of 171 days per year, father and brother are out of luck. The father lets his wife occupy the chair and the young man needs to leave his lean-to. They live in the lowlands where water tends to pool and stay for a while.
She then told me about Eduarda, a 13-year-old cousin who lived there as well until last month. I just could not imagine how they made space on the floor for that girl. Recently, Eduarda moved in with her 15-year-old boyfriend. In his shack, she gets to share a bed.
But what really tested my own resilience was a picture frame nailed to the wall way above the piles of clothes boasting these words “Herein lives a family who is blessed by God.”
I felt myself balk. Really God?
Is this what a blessed family looks like?
The feeling of being blessed is, in many ways, independent of circumstances. I recognize that despite my financial security, it is possible for me to feel abandoned or deprived of God’s blessings in my life. Jamilly did not present herself as someone lacking in joy and the will to make the best of her limited circumstances. Even so, this family’s extreme poverty shocked me. I do desire more for them.
Faith in God is a shield that protects the poor from desperation. We should learn from them. The temptation for us is to give up hope, to abandon the poor to their bewildering choices and stacked up obstacles. They have been at the receiving end of so much unfairness. The sheer magnitude of extreme poverty in shantytowns like Coque tells me that all is lost. Where is the hope? Every time I walk with the poor, my faith in a good and all-powerful God is challenged.
I should know better. Faith protects me from two equally inadequate attitudes: the arrogance of wanting to magically fix the problems I see around me and, the urge to flee from overwhelming human suffering. Faith tells me I do not need to know where God is going with this. It encourages me to follow his lead without demanding results. I believe someone who modeled this for us in modern times is Mother Teresa of Calcuta.
So we deliberately look for signs of hope. Here are a few:
Jamilly trusts the social workers and has opened her heart to a growing friendship with them.
Jamilly showed me their little business. She fills discarded soda bottles with water, freezes them and sells to vendors to keep their products cool.
Jamilly already received construction materials to add a second room. She was told that a volunteer architect and an engineer are organizing the construction.