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Brazilian Dialogue

Grota da Alegria

This year, 2003, has been a "drought year" for fund-raising. So was 1997. I panicked then as I panic now. Requests for help are coming faster than ever. A St. Vincent de Paul group, seconded by their bishop, has asked us to help them rebuild an old folks' shelter that has collapsed.

We know of child abandonment, but abandonment of the aged and infirm exists too. "Slum people in Brazil hate to grow old," says Rev. Don McGillivray, long-time missionary in Alagoas. "Of course, not many of them do grow old, but there are always a few tough ones who survive beyond their capacity to be mobile, and they fear it." It's understandable. The shacks of the poor are miserable, dark places and in rainy season wet as well.

An old person lying on a mat in the farthest dark corner often has little care and almost no company. His family members use the house mainly to sleep. It's so much more pleasant outside in the sun, in the fresh air. Another problem for the bedridden is the foam rubber mat. It's soft and cheap. But it is a terrible irritant on he skin and often when good Samaritans like Vincent de Paul members come to the rescue of a neglected old person, that person is a mess of sores.

Neither of our two NGOs, Change for Children and Rainbow of Hope for Children, has, up to now, adopted a project specifically for the aged. I promised the bishops and his Vincent de Paul group that we would at least visit them and assess the need. Visit them? Yes, in January I plan to visit Brazil once more, along with George Bunz, president of Rainbow of Hope, and a group of some dozen interested Canadians.

Rebuilding this old folks' shelter is only one of six urgent requests for help from communities of the Northeast. A young man has formed a group of helpers to address the problems of the slum Grota da Alegria (Grotto of Joy) in the dormitory town of Benedito Bentes, some 15 - 20 miles outside Maceio, the capital of Alagoas. Benedito Bentes was Maceio's "solution" to the heaping up of the dispossessed on its periphery, much like Nova Iguassu became a slum dormitory (two-and-a-half million) for Rio de Janeiro.

Of course, Benedito Bentes is on a much smaller scale than Nova Iguassu -- Benedito Bentes has only 150,000! Grota da Alegria, a name redolent of City of Joy of novel and film fame, is a community of 10,000 totally without infrastructure. No water, no homes, no schools -- nothing. The group that has chosen Grota da Alegria as a "worst-case scenario" plans to institute health education (nutrition, personal hygiene, AIDS prevention, nature's remedies) and to set up literacy courses and income-generating activities. Such intervention is necessary. And earlier rather than later. As Gabriela Mistral once wrote, "To the child we cannot answer 'tomorrow.' The child's name is 'Today.' "

Now this is our dilemma: we have six such urgent requests for help and we would like to say yes to a goodly number of them, but fund-raising in 2003, as I said, has been slow. As I did in 1997, I appeal again to compassionate folks "out there" for help. No, do not sacrifice your necessities in favour of theirs, but examine them to see if some are perhaps not necessities after all. As our pastor said in his homily last Sunday, "When you come to die, it is only what you gave to the poor that you can take with you."

Al Gerwing