An evening in the neighbourhood

Arrived just recently in the fraternity, one of the brothers shares some of his first impressions.

A brother suggests I accompany him to pray with a little community which meets at the only Catholic chapel in the neighbourhood. After our prayer, about 19.30, we climb up to Alto da Cruz, a few streets away from the community house. There is a full moon and, for the first time since I arrived, the night is beautiful to behold. We go up and greet an old man who is strumming his guitar on the threshold of his house. Cuban music, a good guitarist. Then we meet one of the very young mothers, Jacy, who comes to the afternoon children’s activities with her son, who has severe learning difficulties.

We arrive at the chapel, where some old ladies are praying the rosary fervently. Juvencio, an ex-alcoholic who leads the prayer, had funded the building of this little chapel from his own money at the time when he promised to stop drinking. Since then, he has become a layperson with many commitments in the district. He leads the prayers and songs with conviction. Outside, a small group of young people, wearing their caps back-to-front, are listening to music conspicuously at the chapel door – music that is half-funk, half-rap and seems to be the latest craze amongst cap-wearing teenagers. The ‘Ave Marias’ get mixed up with the “ghetto blaster”. A dog passes behind the altar. All this happens as naturally as can be. Introduction to the Brazillian version of the mystical life.

The prayer ends. Juvencio wants to take us to the ‘House of Israel’. This is a centre welcoming alcoholics and drug addicts, that he runs, close to the chapel. As we enter, the other brother, who has just returned from a trying time in Haiti, says that he is tired and would prefer to go home. Here I am, ‘alone’ at the centre, with the little Portuguese I’ve been able to accumulate in the 10 days since I arrived… Juvencio offers me a coffee. We use one hand to ward off the mosquitos which swarm once night falls, and the discussion starts again amongst this group of a dozen men. It is a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. My presence doesn’t bother them at all. There seems to be a strong trust between them. They are busy talking about one of the twelve points of their commitment: to repair what can be mended and to ask forgiveness of those who have been hurt by their addiction. The eldest begins by saying that the hardest thing for him had been to forgive himself. Like an undertone of noise, the deep groans of a man in another room. Juvencio gets up when he screams too loudly. It is a man who has been turned away by ‘l’abrigo’ – the centre for poor people in the town. He seems to have difficulty in bearing the separation. In the middle of his moaning, the youngest of the group, with cap and hood on his head as protection against the mosquitos, carries on talking about the difficulty of quitting this ‘pigsty’ that is crack. He also mentions the fact that “oxi”, the cheap new mixture of crack and petrol, has already arrived in the district. The discussion ends and everyone rises for the ‘Serenity Prayer’: “My God, give me the serenity to accept those things that I cannot change; the courage to change those things that I can change; and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Juvencio asks me to add a few words: in my bad Portuguese I express my admiration for their fight, and tell them again that God is great and that his greatness is forgiveness.

Then we go to see the centre and visit the bedside of the beggar. I am very moved by Juvencio. When he accompanies me back to the bottom of the road, Natan, one of the boys that I have already met, calls out to us. He hardly ever goes to school. Juvencio talks to him like a father. He tells me that all of this is the Gospel. How can one not welcome others if one takes the Gospel seriously?

I return home and everything gets mixed up in my head: the old ladies and their rosary, the children, the rap music in the street, the perseverance of these addicts, the comradeship of their group, the admirable tranquil force of Juvencio. Introduction to the Brazillian version of the mystical life: as I go to bed, I feel for the first time as if I have really arrived where the brothers sent me to, from Taizé.

Last updated: 25 May 2011