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Brazilian Dialogue

Joining the Street people

When we (St. Peter's Press and I) first published Henrique's book of letters to the world translated into English under the title Joining the Street People, we had high hopes that this manifestation of St. Francis' spirit in our time would ignite and spread like wildfire. To this end, we sent more than 800 free copies to all English-speaking bishops, to Catholic colleges and universities, Catholic publications, etc. Alas, only a few ordered copies. And yet, those who actually read Henrique's story are, practically without exception, so moved they feel the need to spread it to their friends and neighbours.

I'm mentioning this in this column as Christmas approaches to alert readers again to the great gift Henrique's book is to the world. Four poignant stories tell about Henrique celebrating Christmas over a period of several years with the street children of Salvador da Bahia. The children make a "house" for the baby Jesus to be born in (cardboard box, wild flowers for decoration). The next year they go one better: Jailza, 12 years old, has given birth on the street and the children decide no more dolls out of the garbage dump. Jailza and her baby will be Mary and Jesus, and the house will be made bigger "so we can come to visit them."

The police break down their improvised "houses" but the children always rebuild, and always they find new wrinkles to their Nativity celebration, a "birthday cake" for Jesus, made of soil and water, pronounced "delicious" by all who "tried" it, "napkins" from discarded newspapers, the singing of Happy Birthday.

Henrique compares the children's "Jesus house" with the elaborate Nativity scene the university has built on the other side of the square: expensive, equipped with sumptuous costumes, electric lights, imported items. But locked away -- separated by a grating. Look at Jesus through steel bars! And all the while people go in and out of the children's "Jesus house," the house built by the shirtless and shoeless. Henrique comments, "In this opening of hearts, it seemed to me that I had never celebrated Christmas before, and that little children were evangelizing me."

On Christmas Eve, carloads of rich folk drive through the square throwing out their children's toys from last year to make room for this year's batch. They laugh as the poor scramble, fighting to get "their share." But when a local padre brings the children a tray of sweets as a Christmas present, they wait till all their group (30) is assembled. They pass the tray around and when it gets to number 30, there's the same amount left as number one took! Here is a modern version of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.

Unfortunately, we subscribe to the university and the automobile manner of celebrating Christmas. St. Francis, who initiated the Nativity (stable and crib) celebration 800 years ago, would without hesitation choose Henrique's and the children's celebration. See the ad on this page. You may want to join Henrique and his street friends in spirit this Christmas.

Al Gerwing