It was ‘love at first sight’ when 23 year-old Stephen Dass from Singapore stepped off the bus into the chaos and grit of São Paulo. When Stephen joined international organization Youth With a Mission (YWAM) to travel to Brazil, he started his experience in the Amazon forests. After six months, Stephen realized he missed urban living, and found his way to São Paulo. Six months later, Stephen met Mary, with whom he would later get married and share his discernment experiences, including a program of study at Montreal Diocesan Theological College, eventually developing the street kid ministry they undertake together today.
Stephen graduated from the college’s Reading and Tutorial Program, which he started in Maine, Mary’s home state, and spent his final In Ministry year in Montreal in 2004-05. Stephen and Mary have fond memories of their year in Montreal, including a ‘sandwich ministry’ for the downtown homeless which they developed with classmate and fellow alumnus Lyndon Sayers and Lyndon’s wife Florentine Verhage. The sandwiches, described by the homeless as ‘the best’, were prepared with great care and served in accompaniment to a reading of the gospel every Saturday evening on St. Catherine Street. The ministry later was passed on to the Lutheran church, and then the McGill Chaplaincy (now called the McGill Office for Religious and Spiritual Life), and the Newman Centre. Stephen characterizes this ministry as a relationship rather than an experience, which is the basic feeling and principle that underlies his work in the streets of São Paulo today. “What the homeless and children are asking for is simpler, easier to give than we think.”
Stephen and Mary have been keeping a blog where they regularly share stories and images from their street ministry. Their intention to remain rooted in witness and relationship in contrast to mere programmatic experience is clarified both in our conversation and in the introduction to their blog. “We went to the streets thinking that we will testify about God’s mercy and acceptance to the children. Instead we found Him waiting here for us. We did not bring Him to this place. He was and is always present in the lives of the children and teens. It is through His mercy that we are able to see His presence in our midst. We realized that we did not come here to change this city. We came here to bear witness to the One who is here and active in the lives of those who are forgotten and abandoned.”
Most of the children with whom Stephen and Mary have been building relationships have little to no contact with their families. They have usually made a final, conscious decision to make the street their home due to having suffered various kinds of abuse and neglect. Stephen and Mary try not to assume a lot of things about their background but rather allow them to tell their stories. It is a misconception that material poverty is the primary cause of children living in the streets. In reality, it is trauma that pushes kids to abandon their families and it’s crucial to see them as individuals living situations unique to them.
Even though it may look unusual to many Anglicans, Stephen and Mary consider their ministry analogous to parish ministry. “Like a priest who sits in the office waiting for people to visit, we do the same thing, except we are in the streets.” Every day they sit and wait (in silence) an hour for kids to arrive. This practice allows them to see things beyond what is immediately evident, giving them time and space to pay attention to smells and other sensory stimuli, gaining a spiritual reading of the situation. Some homeless people smell strongly and are very introverted; their smell is in fact their only way of connecting to people. This incarnational aspect, Stephen points out, may not come across so vividly in other ministries.
Stephen and Mary do this work without the assistance of the government, since the government tends not to view people beyond their material needs. This ministry looks at the whole person, especially their spiritual being. They started to bring the bible because the children found a torn up bible in the streets and were reading it. It turned out they were very curious about the bible, and Stephen and Mary let things emerge naturally from this curiosity.
It is this same kind of curiosity that was fostered during Stephen’s time at the college. Feeling he benefited most from relationships he formed during his time at the college, especially supportive relationships with teaching staff, he concludes “the best form of education is done within the context of a relationship.”
To read more about Stephen and Mary Dass’ ministry in São Paulo, visit their blog São Paulo Mercy Ministry at www.spmercyministry.com