In the city of São Paulo there are over 25,000 people living on the streets. They are our “brothers and sisters of the streets”, to borrow the phrase used by the missionaries of the Bethlehem Mission (Misión Belén), a mission outreach founded in 2005 by Fr 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 with the poor. But soon they realised that what was needed was to give these people shelter, and so began their work of welcome, rescuing the men and women, children and old people living on the streets… And this, in most cases, at the same time involved 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 Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI are often on the lips of the missionaries of the Bethlehem Mission. Fr Gianpietro tells us that it hurts like a wound to the heart when he hears people say that they are a social aid agency. “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 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 these past 14 years 1500 people have asked to be baptised.”
One of the people rescued by the Bethlehem Mission is Rafael de Jesús. His childhood suffering spiralled into a life of violence, drugs, robbery and spells in prison. He ended up in the centre of São Paulo at the point where he no longer wanted to live. He had been living on the streets for six years, a crack addict, eating from the rubbish bins. His only prayer was that God would end his life; he wanted to fall asleep and never wake up again. “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 was still wearing the same clothes and hadn’t washed for at least two months. I knew that God was merciful, but I didn’t realise 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.
It is above all on account of this work of evangelization by the Bethlehem Mission among these marginalised street dwellers that ACN is happy to be part of its story.
Every individual who is welcomed to a mission 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 is living this Gospel. At the same time, thanks to this diary, many people 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 youth catechism YOUCAT, which is given to every individual after a stay of six months.
“It is wonderful to realise that in the Church we are all one. We 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 their own contribution. It is wonderful because this benefactor thereby becomes a real instrument of evangelization. If we did not have Bibles and catechetical materials, how would we go about our work?”, asks Fr Gianpietro, profoundly grateful for the generosity of ACN’s benefactors.
ACN is supporting “Misión Belén” with catechetical and other religious materials for the next four years – a promise it is able to make because it is backed by the generous donations of its benefactors. At Christmas time many people are looking for a way to help the most needy, and many would be happy to make a radical difference to the life of people living on the streets. This project is a great opportunity to do so, and your support can restore dignity to the lives of people who, like the Holy Family, have found so many doors closed in their faces, but now have the chance to experience the birth of the Divine Child in their hearts.