Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Ana Cristina and Me - The Impact of One Child

At the beginning of 2011 I got the crazy notion that it would be great to sponsor at least one child from all 26 countries Compassion works in. So I jumped on the Compassion website and saw this picture:

10-year-old Ana Cristina was my first sponsored child from Brazil. As it happened, she was also the first child I’d sponsored who was smiling in their profile picture. I did not plan it that way, but this only became significant to me when I learned more about her life and community. 

Cristina lives in Fortaleza, which I understand is one of the worst places in the world for child prostitution, and the related evil that comes with it. She is one of 6 children, and her mother was 13 when she gave birth to her oldest child, Cristina’s older brother. I received a letter from the pastor of Cristina’s church, giving details about the community. They are surrounded by a dried up river full of untreated sewage and effluent on one side, and a swamp on the other, which leaves them at risk of flooding when it rains. Because of this there is no industry or commerce, which means there are no jobs, which means there is high unemployment, alcoholism, violence, drugs, gambling, unstructured families... Hell on earth basically.

It was then that I looked at Cristina and wondered: “How does a person manage to smile while living in those circumstances?” I am still at a loss to answer that, but my guess would be that that person has the hope of the love of God and trusts Him to provide for their needs.

After grasping that this was the reality for this child and her family, God moved my heart, and I sponsored eleven more children from Brazil, also in Fortaleza.

In August 2011, I received a letter from Ana Cristina’s tutor, saying that Cristina’s Uncle had been killed, and they had moved away for a while.
I desperately lifted her up to God in prayer for two weeks, and one morning received an email with Cristina’s name in the subject line. This is what I read:

Hi David,
My name is Hayley and I work for Compassion Australia.

Two weeks ago my husband and I visited our sponsor boy in Fortaleza, Brazil and also another Compassion project in the area – BR458.

Throughout the course of the day, one of the young girls at the project came up to me and shyly through the translator showed me the letter her sponsor wrote her. She said her sponsor was from Australia. I took a photo of her holding her sponsor letter.

Upon returning home and investigating further, I have discovered it was in fact your little sponsor girl Cristina! I attach some photos of beautiful Ana Cristina and her project and hope that you enjoy! 

It was such an amazing experience to visit her project (BR458). In fact, it was one of the highlights of our four week holiday! The community that Cristina, Rocy and Jessica live in is fairly horrific. Raw sewage runs through the streets, there is no electricity and worse, houses are small and fairly ramshackle and worse, there are a lot of people that have no hope. Drugs are a huge problem in fact, one of the boys in the project has recently lost his father in a drug debt related murder.

In the community, the children are taught that they were born poor, they will die poor. In the project, they learn that they are valued, that God has a purpose for their life, and that they can dream big. They go home with aspirations of becoming a doctor, or a teacher – in a community where playing cards and drinking at 11am on a Monday morning is normal practice... Then, as they change, they start to change their parent's attitudes. As a result parents are giving up drugs, trying to find work and some are even giving their life to Christ. To see and hear about this project first hand was just miraculous – God is at work! And - the project staff are amazing! The project director is also the church pastor, he attends the project 5 days a week and just does life with the kids, does pastoral care in the community, writes sermons for Sunday mornings (where the church has grown from 12 to 120!) and somehow finds the time to do large jig-saw puzzles which he then raffles off to raise money for the project and the church! His love and the love of the other staff towards the children was palpable – I was blown away!

I just felt the project was such a beacon in the community. There, the children were able to be children! They were joyful, hopeful and happy.

I was blown away by God’s grace and mercy in this situation, and He continually reminds me that as much as I love these kids, He loves them more, and has His hand on their lives.

Over the past few years I have visited Brazil three times, the first of which was in 2012. The Compassion staff took me aside and explained a bit more about Ana Cristina’s home situation, which involved drugs, violence and revenge killings. My heart broke for this 12 year-old girl caught up in the kind of life most of us only see on TV.

In 2012 and 2013 I was able to celebrate my birthday by taking the kids to a special park. They were truly unforgettable days!

Earlier in the year I had sent my kids a photo of me holding my two soft toys – a dog named Sam and a teddy called Yellow Ted. In one of her rare letters, Cristina asked “Will I play with them one day?” I was privileged to be able to give Cristina my toy dog Sam, who I’d had since I was seven. It was a joyful act of sacrifice.

On my 2012 trip I was not able to visit Cristina’s home or family, as they were in hiding in another neighbourhood. When I went back the following year I made a special request to visit her home and family if possible. God provided me with this opportunity, and seeing their reality up close turned out to be one of the hardest days of my life. Here is a sample of a blog I wrote about the day:

“To get to her house, we walked down a narrow rocky path, next to a stream of sewage. I tried to imagine living here with no other options or no way out. We came to her house, which was very well secured, and met her parents. I was greeted quietly and cautiously.

I found out that they had moved back to this house about five months previously. Eleven people share this three-room, 1-bedroom house, with a fence that is laced with the jagged edges of broken bottles. The rest sleep on hammocks. They had been renting a house in a slightly safer area further away, but Papa’s building work dried up, so they could no longer afford to rent, and had to come back. The house belongs to Cristina’s grandmother.

At the time, neither parent worked. They receive help from Compassion, where Ana Cristina and her younger sister are sponsored, and also a government assistance program, from which they receive maybe 50 reals a week ($25). There is a marshland over the back fence that floods when it rains, and contaminates the water

There were only three occupied houses in their street. The rest moved away because it is too violent and dangerous. Gunshots are regularly heard. They cannot leave the kids alone in the house, or leave the house after 7pm, because it is simply too dangerous. Their oldest son, who was 20 at the time, fell in love with a 14-year-old girl, and they had a baby together. They also live in an area which is more dangerous than the one we were standing in.

The extent of their dreams for their children are to be able to move to live in a different, safer area. This was survival and existence at its most raw. I was staggered and stunned at what I was hearing, and yet I was still on my feet. Right now there was no happy ending with a bow and a cherry on top.

Unfortunately there is no quick fix for poverty; no miracle cure. Even as much as I love Compassion, I have never said that it’s an instant solution to all life’s problems. The Project workers come alongside the family, and offer support for the children and their parents. It’s a long term process.

This was the reality for my precious Ana Cristina. And yet, when I asked her if she was worried about anything, or what she was afraid of, she shrugged and said “nothing.” I got the sense that she has a quiet confidence in the protection of her parents, despite their inability to provide materially for her, and also in the Compassion staff. She has been shown enough love over her time at the Project to be secure in the fact that God loves her, no matter what else happens in her life. 

I gave some gifts, which were received with quiet gratitude. I thanked Mama and Papa for their honesty and trust in sharing their lives with me, and I left Ana Cristina with these words: “As much as I love you, God loves you SO much more. He created you for a purpose. Please always trust Him to protect you and provide for your needs.” I was then able to pray for the family: provision of jobs, protection, safety, first and foremost.

As we walked back up the rocky path, past the sewage stream, a thousand things were going through my head, and yet I was composed. Halfway through lunch, the reality and the tragedy of what I just witnessed hit me so hard. I excused myself, went outside and cried out to God. I can’t even remember what was said, but I was just shellshocked. I begged and pleaded for Him to intercede on behalf of that family and my precious girl. God had to remind me of my own words to Ana Cristina: “They’re mine. I love them so much more than you do. Trust me.”

At the start of 2014 I moved to The Philippines to work in an orphanage, and my friend and colleague Cathy Ward agreed to take over financial sponsorship of Ana Cristina. However, such was the impact God had used her to make on my heart, she stayed in my thoughts and prayers. I returned to Australia at the start of 2015 and of course my next trip to Brazil wasn’t going to be far away.

I planned a trip for mid-September 2016: visiting ten kids at five Projects in five days, including taking them all to a special park for my birthday as I had done on the two previous trips.

The day finally arrived to visit Cristina’s Project BR458. I actually said to myself in the morning “Surely it can’t be as hard a day as last time,” referring to the home visit that had left me in tears and crying out to God for the plight of her family. How wrong I was. Five minutes after arriving I was informed Cristina was at hospital getting checked for a potentially serious medical issue which she, at 16, should be far too young to have to deal with. I was initially told I’d see her in the afternoon but at lunchtime I found out she had to go for more tests and she possibly wouldn’t make it to my birthday celebration the following day.

Things were unravelling quickly. If I was honest, the thing I was looking forward to most was seeing Cristina again after three years and for this to possibly not eventuate was devastating to even consider.

The day of the celebration arrived and we arrived at the Park. I’d had lots of people praying overnight and, as usual, God came up with the goods. Cristina was at the Park from the start of the day with her mum and sister.

She seemed nervous and apprehensive when I greeted her, so I made a conscious effort to engage her and make her laugh through my tone of voice and gestures, to put her at ease.

I was thrilled to see she was a lot more chatty and relaxed than during our previous meetings, when she had hardly said a word to me.

I think the fact I have a girlfriend certainly helped matters, so she asked lots of questions about what Sharon is like and how we met. Her smiles and laughter came easily, which was amazing to me considering her family situation over the past few years and recent health problems.

It really was a day sent from God. I was able to pass on a beautiful necklace and earrings from her sponsor Cathy,

and then the most profound and holy moment came at the end, when I was able to pray WITH and for her in person. Believe me, I’d had a lot of conversations with God about Cristina over the previous six years and watched on helplessly as she went through more than I could possibly imagine. But now, standing with her and being able to hold her in my arms as I lifted her up to God, it was a moment I’ll always remember and I’m sure she will as well.

At 16, Cristina only has a couple more years left in the Compassion sponsorship program and then....who knows? It’s been an amazing six years being involved in her life and God has taught me a lot.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Brazil Compassion Adventure - The Big Birthday Bash!

Brazil Compassion Adventure blog series
Intro & Visit Day #1 (BR417)
Visit Day #2 (BR453)
Visit Day #3 Part 1 (BR110)
Visit Day #3 Part 2 (BR329)

Visit Day #4 (BR458)

Several years ago I read about the then-owners of Gloria Jeans Coffee throwing a huge party for their 250 Compassion sponsored kids in Brazil at a waterpark.

Trying to imagine what an incredible heavenly day of fun and joy that must have been, I was inspired to do something similar (on a smaller scale) when I visited my ten kids in Fortaleza in September 2012. I took all ten kids plus as many relatives as were able to come, to a special park which had a swimming pool, soccer oval, animals, horse rides. After stepping into their lives and seeing a glimpse of the challenges they face every day, it really was a profound experience to give them a day of just being able to be kids, even for a short time.

When I went back one year later, I decided to repeat the dose. I hired a jumping castle, trampoline and cotton candy machine and had a big party at Project BR-329. It was a day of deep glorious joy, fun and excitement.

I wanted to do the same thing for this trip but was unable to have it at a Project, so it was arranged to take the kids, parents and Project workers to a place called Velas do Cumbuco Restaurant. Similar set-up: right on the beach, playground, swimming pool etc.

My main concern in the morning was whether Cristina was going to be there. Yes I was obsessing, but I just really wanted to see her since I wasn’t sure when I would be coming back to Brazil. I had many people praying and God came through with the goods, as she turned up with her mother and sister right at the start of the day. I asked her how she was feeling and she was honest and gave the little universal shrug that means ‘so-so’ or ‘meh.’ This was understandable given the circumstances of the past few days.

The little ones from BR-417 arrived nice and early and were keen to get into the pool straight away. The biggest challenge on a day like this is making sure you try to spend time with everyone. I started off in the pool, throwing a ball around with Jasmiel and Christian.

In 2012 I had made the mistake of not wearing a hat, and my head was a nice shade of pink within a couple of hours. I did not allow history to repeat itself on this day. After a while I got the footy out and played with Jessica and Cristina from BR458, as well as Cristina’s younger (but taller) sister.

Soon after I sat down with Cristina and her sister, showed them some photos and had a chat. On my previous two visits she had hardly said a word, so I was really hoping she’d open up a bit more. Thankfully she did, responding well to my questions and asking questions of her own, particularly when I got out the page of pictures I call the “Sharon page” (my girlfriend). She soon relaxed, and laughing and smiling came easily to her. It was so good to see her enjoying herself.

Lunchtime came around quickly and we all gathered together under the shade and enjoyed a delicious meal.

There was a little playground with bridges, trampolines and ladders which cost extra, but I could see the younger ones were itching to have a go, so I agreed to give them a ticket each to have a turn.  

Next up I got back in the pool, joined by a few of the kids. I had brought some tennis balls as well as the little red Australian football, and they flew back and forth as we splashed and played and just had a great time. The little ones hovered around the outside of the pool, holding on to the edges. They’d swim as far as they could toward me and my translator Davi before flailing around and waiting for us to catch them. It was a good trust exercise, and they showed they trusted us completely.

One highlight from this day was Cristina’s mum. 24 hours earlier I had sat with her in her house, trying to engage in meaningful conversation and talking about her daughter’s potentially serious health issues. Today she was a different woman, and the transformation was incredible! She was the only parent to get in the pool, and the joy that emanated from her as we played and threw a ball around was amazing to experience.  

After I had exhausted my nearly-35-year-old energy I got out and dried off. Pretty soon we were being summoned for cake and farewells, which came much too quickly. I had thought long and hard about what I wanted to say, since I couldn’t take it for granted that I would ever see them again. I made sure I included both kids and parents in my speech. I thanked them for coming and for having me in their homes. I made sure they knew why I was there – that I was motivated purely by the love of God. It wasn’t because I was a good person or I was doing a nice thing. It was so much more than that; it was about giving them a taste of the love of God – relentless, extravagant and life transforming.

A couple of the groups had to rush off, including Cristina’s, so I didn’t get the time with her at the end that I had hoped for. Her sponsor Cathy had sent along some gifts, including a beautiful necklace and earrings.

Being able to pray with her in person was a holy and profound experience. This girl had already been through so much with her health and family situation. I had watched on helplessly much of the time, but today I was able to lift her up to the only One who is able to do anything to change her circumstances. I prayed with confidence for healing, protection, strength and comfort.

I gave out some gifts, took some last photos and all of a sudden the whirlwind week was over. I had received such extravagant love, generosity and kindness from these people. Honest and hard questions were answered graciously. My heart had been pushed, pulled, stretched, broken and filled up again in such a short space of time, but God was always with me, strengthening and protecting.

Having stepped into poverty in twelve countries with Compassion in recent years, I have developed a tendency to let the hard stuff overwhelm me; I take life very seriously and I often have trouble relaxing and enjoying myself. I made a conscious decision on this trip to embrace the joyous moments (and there were plenty!). I didn’t ignore or shut myself off from the hard realities but I just didn’t let it overwhelm me.  

Everything that happened this week was because of, and for, Jesus. He is the source of all the Love, Joy, Life and Hope that was experienced. He is the only One who can transform lives and turn the hard stuff that I saw into something good.

Thank you Compassion. Thank You Jesus.