Jesus immediately stretched out his hand and caught him. – Matthew 14:31
Saint Matthew’s words in today’s Gospel invite me to reflect on how Jesus’ hand continues to reach out and catch people who are afraid and struggling. In São Paulo, the fifth-largest city in the world, with an estimated population of over 22 million, many people are either migrants from other parts of Brazil or recently arrived immigrants from other countries.
Despite Brazil’s international image of an emerging economic powerhouse, Brazil is a rich country with many poor people. A sizeable portion of the population subsists on less than $100 a month in the government-named economic class miseráveis, “the miserable ones.” Unfortunately, the daily reality for recent arrivals is harsh as many face employment in sweatshop conditions, endemic urban violence, overcrowded public transportation, and poor public health and education services. Like the disciples in the Gospel, these folks are on a boat, and the conditions are pretty shaky.
I see Jesus’ outstretched hands in the work of Welcome House, a transitional home for women run by the St. Vincent Pallotti Sisters in the center of São Paulo. The house provides food, shelter, and social services for thirty-five women refugees and former prisoners from other countries as they try to rebuild their lives. Previously, foreign prisoners often languished in jail here even after serving their sentences because they did not have a permanent address in Brazil. The Welcome House provides a safe place for those who work to earn money to buy a ticket back to their own country. For other refugees, who often are accompanied by their children, the Welcome House helps them establish their new life in Brazil.
One of the many women welcomed by the sisters is Rebecca. Rebecca was on a shopping trip to Brazil for her business in Angola. On the plane over she met a woman, and they decided to share a hotel room. When the police raided their room, drugs were discovered, and Rebecca and the woman were arrested. According to Rebecca, she did not know that the other woman was in possession of drugs. After a short time in jail, Rebecca received an alternative sentence of community service. The judge did not specify a specific work site or a length of time. Rebecca lives in limbo with the constant possibility of returning to jail if her alternative sentence is revoked.
Rebecca and seven other women from Angola, the Congo, Greece, and South Africa participated in a course that I facilitated on women’s health. Many of the women suffer from menstrual pain, fibroids, back problems, and stress. The course opened up a space for the women to share their stories, learn more about health issues, and seek solutions to their problems. In the process, many of the women reflected that participating in the group has helped them connect on a deeper level with each other at a moment of transition and tension.
During the final evaluation, Rebecca related that the course helped her gain self-confidence. Even though she had lived in the house for over two years, she did not feel that she was close friends with any of the women. The course gave her an opportunity to open up and make friends. Rebecca found the sessions on menstruation helpful because she often experiences debilitating monthly pain. She is trying to put in practice the exercises and diet modifications introduced during the course. After many unsuccessful months of searching for a job, she is excited to begin working as a seamstress.
Through the work of the Pallotti Sisters’ Welcome House, Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Rebecca, Augusta, Cristina, Nifi, Melinda, Yolanda, Marcela, and many others. A strong theme in Catholic social teaching is solidarity. We are one human family independent of our nationality, religious affiliation, or ethnic group. May we all heed the sisters’ example of welcoming the stranger in our midst.
This scripture reflection was previously published by Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns in 2013. Statistics have been updated.
Originally from Battle Creek, Michigan, Kathleen (Kathy) Bond joined the Maryknoll Lay Missioners in 1993. Now based in João Pessoa, in the state of Paraíba, Brazil, she and her husband, Maryknoll Lay Missioner Flávio Rocha, serve in community-based health ministries.
Featured image: Maryknoll Lay Missioner Kathy Bond teaches chair yoga at AFYA Women’s Holistic Center, João Pessoa, Brazil. (Courtesy of Kathy Bond/Maryknoll Lay Missioners).