“street urchins” 2016

A few weeks ago I told that story again… you know, the one about “Andre” the young guy I met on a street corner in City of God, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It’s a story I’ve told often because it’s a moving demonstration of radical faith. So I shared it again with a group of junior high youth from a suburban church visiting the city for a work project. Their theme for the week was faith, so I decided to talk about Andre.

I met Andre one afternoon while strolling through the community with a young friend who was telling me about life in City of God. We noticed Andre sitting on a crumbling dusty curbside, a young man in his mid-20s smartly outfitted in dress slacks, buttoned shirt and shiny shoes. Gospel music blasted from a nearby oversized portable audio system as he sat there pensive, meditative, holding a huge black bible in his brown hands. We said hello. He introduced himself as a street evangelist saying he devoted his life to traveling the rougher communities of Brazil sharing the gospel of Jesus with homeless youth or “street urchins” as they were sometimes disparagingly called.

Andre told me his story. As a child he was on his own, no parents, shelter, formal education, regular meals, nothing of material or emotional substance, but one day someone told him about Jesus and he took a leap of faith and decided to give his life to Christ. However, something critical had happened before he turned over his life to Jesus. Sixteen years earlier there had been a massacre on July 23, 1993 outside of Our Lady of Candelaría Catholic church in central Rio. Andre was just a kid of nine or ten back then living on the streets, stealing money and food to survive, and sleeping on the ground outside of the Candelaría church each night. The priests at the church fed the kids a meal and told them bible stories before permitting them to sleep on the stone sidewalk outdoors. This night about 60 children slept on cardboard mats outside when two unmarked cars rolled up and six men emerged to question the kids. An argument ensued which ended with the men drawing their guns and shooting several of the children. Eight children were killed that night, shot in their heads. Five boys were killed in front of the church while the others ran away scattering into the streets. Three more were killed a mile away from the church which meant the men ran after the children to continue their shooting spree. The culprits were believed to be rogue and retired police officers. The 1993 Candelaría massacre was not a unique event in Brazil. Millions of children lived on the streets throughout the country and many were executed daily. What was unique about this event was that Andre had been there. He was one of those sleeping children and he managed to get away alive. His life was spared.

Today Andre still roams the city with “street urchins” but now he offers them an alternative, something he passionately believes can change their lives. Great story and perfect testimony of radical faith I thought to myself. But then I paused and gazed at Andre all alone there in his shiny church clothes with his big Bible, tracks, and gospel music, and respectfully thought it wasn’t enough.

Our Lady of Candelaría Catholic Church, Rio

The 2012 Summer Olympics in London are almost over. I’m looking ahead to 2016 when the summer games will be held in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil has been cleaning up its image in order to make the international public feel safe with the idea of traveling there in 2016. But I’m wondering about the street children who remain a prevalent part of the landscape. Where will they be tucked away from view in 2016?


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About Calenthia Dowdy

Calenthia Dowdy (PhD, American University) is a cultural anthropologist and youth ministry educator who focuses on urban youth and culture in the U.S. and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Alongside teaching, speaking and writing on youth, cities, race, gender, and faith, she serves as the director of faith initiatives at a comprehensive community health center that specializes in HIV/AIDS care