The Heart of the Community
by Ruud Tinga
NOT too long ago, The Salvation Army had no plans to work in Vila dos Pescadores, a shanty town (favela in Portuguese) on the outskirts of Cubato in Brazil. But it seems it was on God's agenda and today The Salvation Army is right in the heart of the community. Some would say it is the heart of the community!
Singing is one of the favourite activities for children at the community centre
It all started with Christina, a Salvationist from Santos Corps (church), who moved into the community about 15 years ago, when she married a man from Vila dos Pescadores (Fisherman's Village). The majority of the inhabitants live in poorly constructed houses built on stilts over a badly polluted swamp. Today it is home to almost 15,000 people and the ramshackle community is growing every day, not only because of new sheds being built but also due to the high number of newborn babies.
The vila has two main roads which could easily fool a visitor as, behind the facades of the houses along these roads, thousands of wooden shelters with corrugated roofs lie hidden from view. The wooden pathways between the shacks are extremely dangerous to walk on because often the wood is rotting or has disappeared completely. Underneath lies the dirty and dank surface of toxic swamp-water, which is a health risk to the people who live and sleep above it.
|Captain Sarah Oliver with Christina, whose move to Vila dos Pescadores began The Salvation Army's links to the community|
|Captain Richard Oliver visits a community member|
|Captain Sarah Oliver speaks with children from the centre|
|Children are helped with their schoolwork|
|A computer room gives children the opportunity to learn skills that will help them get good jobs|
|The Olivers are a familiar sight on the local streets|
It was Christina's testimony and Salvation Army uniform that made her neighbours and others curious. They asked about her links with the Army. Christina told them about the organisation, about its evangelistic work and social activities. It did not take long before they asked what the Army could do for them, the people of Vila dos Pescadores.
It was a question The Salvation Army did not yet know the answer to but it decided to appoint a British officer, Captain Margaret England, to start the work. At the time she was the assistant corps officer (church minister) at Santos. With no building of her own, activities like children's clubs and Sunday school were started in Christina's wooden shed on top of the swamp.
Captain England did not have to think long about a place for The Salvation Army. She bought a piece of land and built the first part of a community centre, comprising a hall and one small room that became her living quarters. Because of the growth of the work, the building was extended four times. Each time another adjacent piece of land was bought and an extension built. Still there is not enough space.
Every morning and afternoon a group of more than 150 children between the ages of six and 17 take part in the project and there is a waiting list of more than 600! It shows how popular the Army's feeding and educational programme is among the young people and how the parents see its importance for the whole community.
Present directors of the community centre, Captains Richard and Sarah Oliver, are thinking again of extending both the building and the work. This British couple are the driving force behind all the activities. From early morning to late evening they can be found in the shanty town, where they have become part of the big family. Although the living circumstances are far from perfect, there seems to be a caring atmosphere among its inhabitants. They are all 'in the same boat' and take responsibility for each other.
The Army as a church, with its social outreach, fits in well. And although the Olivers do not live in the shanty town itself - their home is just across the road that divides Vila from the city of Cubato - they are seen as two locals, 'one of us'. Their work to provide eyecare and glasses for the poorest community members was featured in the April-June 2006 issue of All the World.
'It is such a privilege to work here,' says Sarah. 'We wanted to be missionaries and thought we would end up in a country in Africa. It became Brazil and I had no idea where we would end up, but this is the most rewarding appointment we can have.'
There is never a quiet or dull moment for Richard and Sarah and their co-workers. There is a professional staff - including the work's pioneer, Christina, who coordinates the activities - who train and assist the children in many ways. 'All children have to wear our T-shirt and that makes them behave better,' says Richard. 'We point out that they have to be an example to other children in the streets and it does work. It proves that they belong to a positive group of young people who want to stay away from crime and drugs.'
Twice a day it is very busy in front of the Army centre, where the children gather, eager to come in. The morning group starts with a drink and ends with a meal; for the afternoon group it is the other way round. In between they get support with their school work and learn local cultural music and dance, singing, theatre, arts and crafts.
'What the children make can be sold in our shop and at our stall at the local market in order to raise funds to finance the project,' explains Sarah in the little shop at the front of the centre. It is packed with different articles, not only from the children but also craftwork made by women. 'We make two of every item. One is for the mother, who then can sell it herself and make some money in that way. The other one will be sold by us.' There are wooden trays, curtains, jewellery and dolls. 'Whatever the women want to make, they get the materials from us. Out of every family one woman can join our craft class.'
All people registered in the project have access to the social worker and, when available, they can consult the psychologist. Free immunisations, health and eye checks are given. To show even more that the Army centre is the social heart of Vila dos Pescadores, the local government uses it to distribute free milk to the poorest people.
Part of the outreach work involves making contact with 'girls at risk', warning them about gangs who operate in many favelas in Brazil. The gangs take girls away from their family homes and often force them into prostitution. Teenage pregnancy rates are high and The Salvation Army has a home for teenage mothers in So Paulo, called 'El Rancho do Senhor' (' The Lord's Farm'), where it shelters young girls - and their babies - who want to start a new life.
Captain England's former living room is now the computer room, where the young students learn how to use different programs. On the first floor is the classroom, where all questions about maths and other subjects can be asked. In another extension there is a library which the children can borrow books from to read at home. No other library in Cubato will allow this.
Captains Richard and Sarah Oliver have found a property on their side of the road that would be ideal for projects they want to set up for older children. They would even like to develop programmes for children over 17 but they need more funding. 'It is the same old story wherever you go,' they say. They laugh and in their eyes there is a sparkle of hope. 'We need more funds and we trust that the Lord will answer our prayers.'
The favourite activity is the singing group, where the children learn local and Christian songs. It is heart-warming and moving to hear the boys and girls, all of whom have little in the way of material possessions, sing: 'Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so!'
For these children and also for many parents in this shanty town, this love has become a reality which enlightens their lives and gives them courage to go on, even when the future is overshadowed by problems like unemployment and illness.
On Sunday morning the latest extension at the back of the building - the same room where on weekdays hundreds of children play - becomes a place of worship where God's Word can be heard and his presence can be felt. Some would say his presence can be felt there the rest of the week too. After all, God is present where people are gathered in his name - and that is exactly what happens every day of the week in this building in Vila dos Pescadores.
Text and pictures: Ruud Tinga