I took a trip to the Atlantic Ocean the other night. It was just across the street from my hotel in Recife, Brazil – a beautiful resort town known for powdery beaches and turquoise water.
It will also be the site of World Cup soccer in 2014. The people here are excited about it and the government, no doubt, is thrilled. Construction is everywhere as the best of Brazil will be on display – but upon closer examination, there may be some flaws in the diamond that no one is aware of. And it’s better this way.
I went to church at a place, invariably named, God’s Island. Here, the stench of sewage greets you as you make your way over a bridge and into a dark slum.
At first glance, some brightly colored row houses are visible, and immediately the warnings given about this area seem to dissipate as the trek over the bridge continues.
Once on the island, the stench is stronger and so is the fear, poverty and hopelessness.
Beyond the church, which sits at the end of the bridge, abandonment and oppression sets in. We must leave by 4, but it feels more like flee or evacuate. That’s when the gangs take over.
While at the child development center, I went to the home of Bruna, or Brunahita (little Bruna), as she is affectionately called.
Bruna was different. Her home life is different. She did not reflect her surroundings and seemed an anomaly in an area of grave similarities.
Bruna is 16 and part of our sponsorship program. Her parents have been married for 18 years, which is highly uncommon in this environment, and were both there when she was interviewed. They even took part in the conversation.
Bruna was very open about her fears, especially her fear of being shot during the gang wars in the community or being raped on her way home from school like other girls. It happens often.
The false teenage invincibility we’ve come to know well in the United States does not exist on God’s Island. Bruna talked openly, period, and that was a refreshing difference from what I’ve come to experience so far in the Recife favelas.
She has a goal of becoming a flight attendant and traveling the world, meeting different people and experiencing different cultures. She knows the Statue of Liberty as the symbol of America and wants to visit. She also wants to see Germany and Italy. The more we talked, the more I understood that Bruna knew of a world beyond her imagination, a way of escaping the horrors of her environment.
So did her mom and dad, who said they would do anything to support her dreams.
Her home was one of the nicer ones in the area, guarded by a pit bull. Yet her bedroom window was wide open to the community, giving at least another appearance of protection – a troublesome thought upon further reflection. She hears gunshots in the night, outside her open window, and the drug lord is part of the neighborhood leadership.
I met Bruna’s 14-year old sister, whose arrival prompted her mother to cry.
Bruna’s sister ran away for eight months with her boyfriend. Only four days before, her dad finally rescued her after the boyfriend had given her a black eye.
I was prompted to interrupt and tell Bruna’s dad that he was a great father. Yet, on the other hand, it was obvious that Bruna’s mom was deeply troubled by what seemed to be a normal occurrence in the community. People are violent here. All the men and boys are involved in drugs. That’s life. So, her tears troubled me.
It’s hard to imagine a church existing in such a dark and oppressive place, much less a child development center. No other organizations exist here. The area has been abandoned. And Bruna’s mom says that with Compassion, Bruna now has the hope of a life.
Odd word choice – “a life.” With gang curfews and drug trafficking, I suppose she is right. Life does not exist here. It is merely survival. Desperate, savage survival at all costs. A place worthy of reference in Dante’s Inferno – “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Thankfully, the center’s social workers are keenly aware of the environment, of the struggles and, as we found out, of Bruna’s personal story – another façade, like the colorful housing, that was eventually destroyed, to my great sadness and horror.
According to the social workers, Bruna’s sister ran away because her dad is a violent man; violent enough to sit in a two-hour interview, not out of protection and support, but out of control; violent enough to have killed her mom’s first husband over 18 years ago; and violent enough to cause the tears of regret and fear flowing from a mother who wanted more for her daughters than the life they are inheriting.
Talking openly was a cover. As long as they stuck to the story, the façade would not be discovered.
After my embarrassing and ego destroying manipulation by dad, I was hoping that the words I left with her will stick and that the pictures she desperately wanted of the two of us will serve as a reminder of what I said to her.
I told her to make sure that her value does not come from others, especially boys. And to never allow anyone to raise a hand to her in anger and violence. And to always respect herself, and to value herself, so that others will do the same. And to use the difficulties in a positive way – to make her stronger and more driven.
Now, I am led to ask myself,
“What does a child do when her greatest earthly protector turns out to be a predator? What does she think about her heavenly Father when her earthly father is her abuser?”
I couldn’t ask her this, I couldn’t talk her through this, and it haunts me now.
I left the island not with relief, but with heaviness and defeat. While walking back, we found out that the government is planning to build more colorful row houses on God’s Island, aesthetically placed to overshadow the sewage-filled, gang-ridden shanty-town of nearly imprisoned inhabitants.
The houses are yet another erected façade created to hide an embarrassing reality from the eyes of a world. A world that is too surface to notice, or care about, what lies beneath.