Brazil: Making a Difference amid Abject Poverty

Brazil: Making a Difference amid Abject Poverty

    The Pastoral da Criança (the Children’s Ministry)
    is a social program
    of the Catholic Church in
    Brazil. The foundress of the ministry,
    Dr. Zilda Arns, has been nominated twice to receive the
    Nobel Peace
    Prize. This year marks the 20th anniversary of this service to
    poor of Brazil. A leader of the movement describes her experience.



    Gustavo is five years old and he grunts when you ask him a
    question. Last year, one of his brothers set fire to their
    house and Gustavo was trapped
    inside. Luckily, he was rescued and survived the fire, but the
    trauma caused him to lose his ability to speak.

    Sylvia, 6 years old, had awful abdominal pains one day and her
    mother brought her to the health post.
    The medical personnel spent about five minutes with Sylvia and diagnosed her case as simply a
    bad stomachache. They recommended an over
    the counter antacid to settle her
    stomach. The pains persisted and by evening Sylvia was
    fainting. Her mother carried her on
    the bus to the nearest hospital where it was
    discovered that she had appendicitis. She was rushed into surgery.

    Henrique, now 3 years old, could barely walk a year ago because he
    was so severely malnourished, weighing only
    six kilos. His mother had
    abandoned him and a neighbor "adopted"
    him. Over the year, she helped to bring
    him back to health and today he is still a little unsure on his feet,
    but weighs close to 12 kilos.

    Rosa, 25 years old, was pregnant with her fourth child and due in
    a month. Her husband had just been arrested for
    drug trafficking and left her and three kids in a cardboard shack built over the
    sewer. She had absolutely no income and was
    desperately trying to maintain her
    sanity. She later put her newborn up for adoption for fear of
    not being able to feed yet another mouth.

    These are all people who are accompanied by leaders of the Pastoral
    da Criança (The Children’s Ministry). The
    Pastoral da Criança, a ministry
    of the Catholic Church now celebrating 20 years of service,
    accompanies children from 0 to 6 years old and pregnant women who are at risk
    of malnutrition. It involves regular visits to the
    families, monthly weight checks
    to follow the development of the children, distribution
    of multimistura (a nutritional
    supplement), health care advocacy and
    pastoral counseling. In the parish where I work, the Pastoral da Criança
    is present in three favelas (shantytowns) and
    accompanies over 300 children and a handful of pregnant
    women. The parish team is made up of
    25 volunteer leaders.

    The core of the Pastoral’s work is visiting
    families. Part of my job as coordinator is to accompany the leaders on
    these visits. It is in these visits that my eyes have been opened and my heart touched
    deeply. When you enter into the home of
    a family, you are entering into their most
    intimate space.

    Most often a family will live in one or two rooms, so a
    visitor can see their living room, bedroom, kitchen and
    bathroom in one quick glance. Once you get into their homes they usually
    can’t hide the pain and instability of their
    lives. I’ve met mothers who literally
    can’t feed their children. Others who, under the stress of unemployment and
    an absent partner/spouse, get
    drunk and abuse their children.

    I’ve met children who are malnourished, play barefoot in the sewer, have infestations of
    lice in their hair and scabies on their
    bodies. I’ve seen babies with unknown
    causes of fever and suspicious coughs. And, I’ve encountered kids
    who can’t walk or talk because they’ve suffered from trauma or
    persistent abuse or malnutrition.

    The leaders are really the heart of the
    Pastoral. The amazing part is
    that they are all volunteers. Some work a 9-5 job
    during the week and dedicate their weekends and free time to the
    Pastoral. Through their
    initiative, we’ve started several
    "mothers’ clubs," where mothers
    of children in the Pastoral can go to learn handiwork and meet with
    other mothers.

    The leaders have helped to find psychological
    counseling for mothers and their
    kids, have accompanied families through
    the bureaucracy of the public health
    system, sought help for women suffering
    domestic abuse, offered mothers orientation on how to care for their
    newborn babies and have listened many, many,
    many hours to mothers
    (mostly…because the fathers are often absent) needing to
    "desabafar," which is
    Portuguese for "blow off steam."

    If it weren’t for the hope and enthusiasm with which the leaders
    do their work, I think I would have given up a long
    while back. The health situation can seem so hopeless and dire because of the depth of
    the problems. The leaders’ faith and
    their example have given me the courage
    to carry on. Many of them are as economically poor as the
    families there are visiting and
    accompanying. I often think they are truly
    giving from their sustenance and not their surplus.


    Angelica Mortel is a Catholic missionary working in the city of
    São Paulo. You can contact her sending an email to

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