Behind the Façade, This Is God’s Island

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.

wooden walkway over sewage between houses in slums

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.

slum community with high rise buildings in the background

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.

16 Comments |Add a comment

  1. Ryna March 8, 2015

    Oh my Gosh, what a story, hope God has been protecting Bruna and all innocent people living there! The story was published 4 years ago and Bruna must be 20 now. Are there any updates on her life? I truly hope she is doing fine.

    1. Susan Sayler March 9, 2015

      Hi Ryna! It looks like Bruna completed our program in December of 2012. At that time she was doing well, she had completed high school and really latched on to the vocational training with computers at the center. She knew the Lord and loved singing in worship. Regrettably, that is all that we have on her at this point. I pray with you that she is doing well.

  2. Pat Turner February 25, 2011

    Your eloquence brought your experience into my heart. I am a Casa Volunteer (Court Appointed Special Advocate) and have had to deal with the” facade” many times. It is frustrating, often heartrending and always worrisome. I sponsor -d 2 little girls in Ethiopia and when I received a notice from Compassion in January that one of the sponsored children no longer was with Compassion my heart gave a lurch. I am sure she is fine, I can not feel any other way. Thanks for your post.

  3. Jessica February 22, 2011

    Thank you for this story. Just thank you.

  4. Margo Mizell February 20, 2011

    Thanks for sharing this story… people need to hear about things such as this – people need to be made aware. My heart is sad to hear about this reality, but I am also more determined than ever now to stand in the gap and be a voice for those who are in such desperate situations.

  5. Emily February 19, 2011

    Thank you, Kathy, for putting that painful story into words for the rest of us. I can only imagine the depth of the horror you must have felt later hearing the truth about Bruna’s dad… ugh. I hurt with you. But, I agree with JD above, that your words to Bruna and your loving presence in her home made a difference, no matter what. Praying!!

  6. Jennifer Fisher February 19, 2011

    Thank you for posting. I am nearly speechless witih gratitude for the home I live in, and the fact that Bruna can hold onto her dreams in the midst of her circumstances is proof that miracles do exist. The fact that CI is there is proof that God sees and knows her. Our prayers, whether we ever see her or not in this life will help her dreams become her life.

  7. Suzanne Sneath February 19, 2011

    This makes me think of my own business. Do I really care for others? Am I one of the wicked who is self focused or am I truly seen as righteous in the sight of God? I have been asking that question for the past few days. We don’t have to go to Brazil to see the facades of beautiful homes, only to look inside and see the pain of abuse in the families within. The question I ask myself today…what shall I do to reach out to someone? What shall I do today to encourage and show the love of God to someone who has never known the hope of Jesus?

  8. Linda Wrage February 19, 2011

    What a powerful story! I pray that Bruna will be able to reach her dreams.

  9. Lorraine February 18, 2011

    This is devastating – I know about these things and I have seen some similar things in Honduras. It makes me want to sponsor a whole smack more kids, but … Praying for these and others trapped in these places and thanking God for Compassion!!!

  10. Ana Rafaela February 18, 2011

    Kathy, thank you for sharing this story, Thank you for bein Bruna’s voice. Obrigada 🙂

  11. Chrissy February 18, 2011

    JD, Praise the Lord for His love and redemption! Thank you for your encouraging words. That was beautifully said.

  12. JD February 18, 2011

    “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?”

    That is what I asked myself for the first 18 years of my life. It was one thing to survive those 18 years, but how do you reconcile having a Heavenly Father when all you know of fathers is that they rape you and hurt you? Eventually, it was through beginning to see God as a mother figure in my life: caring, nurturing, loving, compassionate, gentle, that I began to see the character of God in a way I could understand and embrace. I took the rubble that He found me in, and built an altar of worship to Him with it — and He redeemed all those years a thousandfold.

    Bruna’s story hits home, this entire story hits home… because no one saw behind the perfect facade that my father hid behind either, not even the rest of my family. Whether in the slums of Brazil or in the middle class suburbs of North America, children need to be protected — ignoring what’s beyond the surface won’t make it disappear.

    My heart breaks for Kathy — I want her to know that her time there mattered, and will make a difference. Every single time the silence is shattered, it forms a crack for hope to get through.

  13. Tania Mara Mendes February 18, 2011

    The Compassion’s Project at God’s Island is really an oasis for those children. The island is a poor place and a little bit frightening… Can you imagine having your house full of water everday because of the tide? It happens there with many houses…
    On the other hand, you can see the difference in the faces of the children that are attending the project, because they can find a safe and beautiful place to stay, and also learning about GOD.
    Good Job Kath! 🙂

  14. Ken M. February 18, 2011

    It was here that I really learned how children desire to meet their sponsor. I was playing with my sponsored son who was 6. A girl who appeared to be a least 13 or 14 watched our interaction. Then she made the comment that she wishes her sponsor would visit her. I told her that her sponsor does love her but the trip is very expensive.

  15. Ken M. February 18, 2011

    I have been to this place. Walking over the bridge, the stench hitting you and encountering the few colored homes is true. Then reality does set in.
    My youngest son doesn’t live in this neighborhood but this is where I met him during my time in Brazil. I remember wanting to take him to a neighborhood playground and push him on a swing and just run around the place with him. Then I had to remember that there are no neighborhood playgrounds.
    Compassion International is a bright star there. The children did have a safe place at the project. The staff was very kind to us. It is a place where a dream of a child can be birthed. I pray that Bruna’s dreams do come true. And may she reach back and help another’s dream become reality along with Compassion International.

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