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Christmas at the margins: The power to transform lives is in our hands

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1, 14

Comunidade Haiti - São Paulo, SP

Christmas is here, a time to celebrate both the birth of child Jesus and our lives saved by Him! How will such an event be celebrated by the great amount of people that live on the margin of Sao Paulo City? What will Christmas be like for them?

On the margins of the metropolis of São Paulo, the fourth largest populated city on Earth is a little Favela called Haiti. It began in 2015 when homeless families occupied vacant land on the periphery of the city and built fragile dwellings of salvaged material.

I was invited in 2016 by a Spiritan Missionary to be a presence in the emerging favela. He said, ‘do what you can for the needs are great and there is no one to accompany the people’. I began by visiting families, sharing stories and listening to their concerns.

The two primary requests were for prayers and the health care of their children. The women invited me to visit their barraca (dwelling), say a prayer and give a blessing. There was a great fear of fire; life was precarious as was the electrical wiring.

Homes were haphazard, a few wooden stakes nailed together, tied with plastic and secured together with pieces of timber. A fire could spread quickly in a matter of minutes and destroy their few earthly possessions. The second concern was the health of their children due to the cold and makeshift dwellings.

The visits were and are sacred encounters where women and men share their stories for a better life. They live on the edge where life is precious and living is dangerous. It was in the midst of such vulnerability like in the stable outside Bethlehem that Jesus was born; breaking into the places of no significance, of vulnerability, bringing light, hope and peace.

In 2018 or so, the community received assurance from the authorities that they would not be forced off the vacant land. They were granted permission to stay, albeit, without documents. Nonetheless, this assurance was a tumultuous relief, as up to that moment their situation was very tenuous. Today Haiti has become an established community of 200+ families.

The Basic Christian Community has grown; a small chapel has been built with the help of benefactors from Ireland and with the labor of the local community. Called Nossa Senhora das Graças (Our Lady of Grace), it has become the meeting place for a variety of activities both religious and social. It is where the community gathers to celebrate, plan, organize and attend a variety of workshops. Pastoral da Criança (Childrens’ Pastoral), which is responsible for the care of pregnant women, mothers and children up to the age of six is completing four years of service and is run by local leaders from the community. The leaders visit the families once a month and have a gathering every third Saturday to celebrate Life. The celebration involves welcoming, accompanying, giving input and ends with the sharing of a simple lunch.

The once makeshift homes are being replaced with bricks and solid foundations. Due to a shortage of ground space, each house measuring about four by six meters is built like a miniature high-rise with one room built on top of the other. The width of the becos (street in a favela) measure about a meter and a half. However, some of the basic structures are in need of improvement and reorganization. For example, the community is in the process of organizing the sewerage system for the health and safety of all. Each family is contributing the equivalent of six dollars to buy new PVC pipes, dig trenches and clean up the sewerage system. It will take time, dialogue, consensus, teamwork and trust. Life on the fringe teaches one patience. Most of us were reminded of such a value during the Pandemic, sometimes there maybe instant solutions, but transformation takes time.

Margins are where life happens in its rawest state. The place where nothing is perfect, nothing is finished, where life is both ugly and tender. Margins are where hopes and dreams are forever in the process of becoming, it is a constant evolving. It is where children are born into what appears to be a hopeless place with no security. Where the sick, the addicted, the misfits, the wounded, the unemployed and the hopeful eke out creative ways to live into the next moment. It is in such struggling places of vicissitudes, on the margins of our world that Emmanuel, God with us, is born again and again. Born into the insecure and unpredictable happenings of life. A baby wrapped in second hand clothes, sleeping peacefully radiating hope, peace and joy.

*Written by Sister Ann Griffin, a Missionary Sister of the Holy Rosary with over 30 years of missionary service in Brazil. She is presently accompanying the Community Nossa Senhora das Graças in the favela Haiti, São Paulo.

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