In São Paulo, Bethlehem Mission lives out first Christmas night in service to the homeless
IN THE CITY OF SÃO PAULO, Brasil, there are more than 25,000 homeless people. They are our “brothers and sisters of the streets,” say the missionaries of the Bethlehem Mission (Misión Belén), an outreach community founded in 2005 by Father Gianpietro Carraro and Sister Cacilda da Silva Leste. The charism of the community consists in living out the reality of that first Christmas night and “becoming incarnate in the midst of the poor, so that God can reach them in a more profound manner.”
The members of the Bethlehem Mission originally began their work by actually living on the streets side-by-side with the poor. But they realized that what these people needed was shelter. Thus began the ministry of welcome, inviting in men, women, including the elderly, and children—rescuing them from a life marked by drugs, violence and abuse.
“The person who does not give to God, gives very little,” these words of Pope Benedict XVI are often on the lips of these missionaries. Father Carraro tells Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) that it hurts like a wound to the heart when he hears people describe the mission as a social aid agency.
He says: “Of course, we do all we can to help these brothers and sisters of ours, but we are above all a work of evangelization. Jesus healed, preached, blessed and lived among the people, just as we do at the Bethlehem Mission. Whenever someone comes to one of our shelters, it means that he has already been touched by God, because it is extremely difficult for anyone to get off the streets and off drugs for any other reason. In the past 14 years 1500 people have asked to be baptized.”
One of the people rescued by the Bethlehem Mission is Rafael de Jesús. His troubled childhood suffering spiralled into a life of violence, drugs, crime and spells in prison. He ended up in the heart of São Paulo, no longer wishing to live. For six years, he lived on the streets, hooked on crack and eating from garbage bins. His only prayer was for God to end his life.
Rafael tells his story: “When I arrived at the Bethlehem Mission, nobody asked me about the bad things I’d done, but instead they embraced me, gave me the gift of a smile and offered me food, a hot bath and new clothes. I knew that God was merciful, but I didn’t realize just how merciful. Because I had had many opportunities and had thrown them away, I was convinced that I was lost. I thought that God had withdrawn his hand from me and that I would die on the streets.” Today Rafael is an altar server and he is planning to get married. “I feel like a human being once again,” he says.
Everyone who is welcomed at a mission shelter refuge is encouraged to make a retreat and is at the same time given a personal ‘spiritual diary’—a monthly leaflet with the Gospel of the day, a meditation on the Word and a space to write down how he or she is living this Gospel. Thanks to keeping this diary, many have been able to learn to read and write for the first time. However, it was difficult to provide the necessary continuity through this material, and this is where ACN has come in, helping financially and also providing copies of the YOUCAT youth catechism YOUCAT, which is given to every resident after six months.
“In the Church we are all one. You are on the streets, while at the same time there is somebody, often a very ordinary person, far away, maybe someone who cannot even get out of the home, but nevertheless makes a contribution. It is wonderful because this donor thereby becomes a real instrument of evangelization,” says Father Carraro.