Kim played amid tree roots laced with lily of the valley, mosses blanketing rocks and mixed among grasses along the Keuka Lake shoreline which boasted deep purple vineyards whose aroma hinted of the fine wine they would produce. Immersed in this world of plant and animal life both real and imaginary, she sensed life, spirituality and mystery in nature even as a small child, while always and continuing to seek the inner source: What is one’s motive? Where is true meaning? Who are we on this journey before birth from the unknown to rebirth into the undisclosed?
Once reaching high up a ladder on tippy toes to hand her dad an icy beverage on a hot summer day, his broad smile received her gift without hinting that beer is never served on the rocks! As a teen Kim reflected, “If we give presents so that we feel good inside, then is that really giving or ultimately a selfish act?” Years later she would question her former husband, “If we are who we say we are and believe what we say we believe, then how can we spend thousands of dollars on window treatments and decorating, when persons are born into families and places, barely able to survive?” Which of us chose to be born into privilege or into poverty?
Seeking answers has led her into a journey of geographical, as well as spiritual exploration and education which has broadened her worldview, tested her resilience and led her to respect the unanswered questions along this paradoxical adventure of life and love.
Kim hopes that her writing will provoke thought, and perhaps a chuckle at satirical humor sometimes tucked away in dark places, but especially questions about who and why we are, as we contemplate the uniqueness of our individual beauty which enhances a combined consciousness and physical being.
Simona lay upon her bed, a piece of foam atop a scrap wood frame. Ducking head-first into the dirt floor shack, I resisted the fear she might be lying dead with no one aware, no one who really cared. A parade of small black ants kept vigil like tiny soldiers, marching up and down a table leg by her bed as if to overstate the insignificance of her life and irrelevance of her impending death.
Vogue might describe her as petite, but her clothes were far from fashionable. Her square jaw and almond eyes never made the cover of Cosmopolitan. She was not famous enough for People and Newsweek would never feature her tragic story. Although anything but famed outside the Brazilian favela called, “Our Lady of Victory,” Simona was well-known as the town drunk. Any local could tell you she had been saved plenty of times for she attended every church in town, chasing each hallelujah with a shot of rum, until desperately swapping her one room shack for a bottle while leaving two children alone in the street.
Meanwhile, inspired by gospel guidelines to, “go and make disciples,” the church’s primary mission seemed intent upon sending anyone willing to anywhere possible in pursuit of this goal. Equipped with twelve step guides to salvation—complete with proof texts and prayers—enthusiastic missionaries dashed out hell-bent to win souls for Jesus! Such short term mission teams passed through the favela trying not to notice the stench of open sewers peppered with mangy dogs fervently scratching hairless patches. These zealous soul-savers stopped long enough to ask those twelve easy questions, waiting expectantly for a mere yes or no, in response. Nod your head twelve times, repeat a prayer and you are saved. This is salvation? (Does it include the dogs?) Why bother?
Simona had been prayed over and saved countless times by such zealous missionaries and local church members, yet she lay dying, alone—except for the ants. How many of those who prayed over her ever lingered alongside her? Did they know she never took a drink before her newborn babies died—first one, a few hours later, his brother? Had Simona not been alone to mourn her loss, would she have stepped inside that little bar for the first time to drown her pain until her own death?
A photograph of Simona’s two daughters sits framed upon my desk. Estrela, the eldest with creamy light brown skin and curly red hair hugs her little sister of fourteen whose skin and hair are deep black like her father’s. Guia is pregnant, but living alone in the same little shack in which their mother died. Estrela never knew her father, just as her baby sister’s unborn child will not know hers. Estrela was ten when left to care for her little brother in the streets, begging and stealing for food before turning to prostitution in order to survive. Her brother was adopted by a family who referred to him as a difficult child—the child of an alcoholic mother. Estrela stands next to me in a second photo with her tiny daughter balanced upon my hip. As a domestic worker, Estrela has managed to leave the worst part of the slums to dwell where the not-quite-so-poor reside. She is married to Guia’s father, but continually measures whether being called a whore and beaten in a drunken rage is worth having fled the open sewers, drugs, rape and murder of her former home. Why bother?
As I grew to know the people living in the favela, I learned to dread the arrival of evangelism teams traversing muddy streets with prayers of salvation and promises of abundant life. I knew they would leave as abruptly as they had arrived, as if the favela were merely a pit stop in the race to reach more unsaved souls. The tragic lives of Simona, Estrela and Guia are commonplace to the favelado. I wondered if Guia’s children and their children were destined to re-live the tragedy of their progenitors. Were we as Christians resigned to sigh, shake our heads and write them off as “inheritors of their fathers’ sins?” Perhaps their needs were too profound for the average first world missionary novice to grasp. Indeed, to still oneself long enough from missionary business, to take in the sights, sounds and smells—much less the perspective of the poor—is perhaps to invite numerous unexpected questions about God’s presence in the favela or the meaning of good news. In other words, life among the Brazilian poor tested my faith, while in the pit of my stomach the same question kept churning: If salvation is simply about saving souls for tomorrow with nothing to offer today, then: Why bother?