“....it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom
of God.” Mathew 19:24
There is much to be thankful for this time of year. Like the reintegration of a kid to his family. It’s supposed to be a happy occasion, but I have mixed emotions. It means saying goodbye, and entrusting the care of this young soul you love to someone else. It is especially hard when reintegration means going back to the place where it did not work out.
But in the end, it was what Luciano wanted. Honestly, it’s what every kid wants—to be with their family. That’s not to say that he didn’t weep when he was making the decision.
At 14, he’s a tall, handsome boy. He’s got short hair, but with long black curls that bobble when he laughs, partly covering his inquisitive dark eyes, always twinkling of mischief. He’s quiet, but full of athletic energy that needs to be burned. There’s a soft side. He’s always finding animals to save (one more mouth for me to feed).
How does a kid like Luciano end up homeless? Growing up, his drug-addicted single mom sent Luciano away to live with his Grandparents, who lived 500 miles away in Brazil’s boondocks. With nothing to do, not even a grocery store for miles, it’s easy for a 12-year old to create his own diversions. He decided it was fun to sleep on the beach with his buddies. Why not?
One day, Luciano snuck into a beach shanty and grabbed a package of noodles—and got caught. The whole neighborhood heard about it. He was branded a thief, receiving the grim warning given to anyone caught stealing from their own neighbors. If he returned, he would be another victim of Brazil’s violent vigilante justice. Until today, his grandmother still cries, “Why would he steal a 99 cent package of noodles when we have them at home?” But fearing for Luciano’s life, they sent him back here to Vitoria, to the only family they could find: the father who had abandoned him years ago. But Luciano quickly learned he wasn’t wanted.
After bouncing around through the homes of a couple distant relatives, feeing intensely rejected, he decided he’d rather be on the street. He finally came to the attention of municipal social workers, who sent the homeless boy to Hope Mountain.
Luciano thrived with us here, excelling at swimming and soccer. But after nearly two years, he summoned the courage to tell us he wanted to return to his Grandparents. Deep down, every kid wants to be part of a “normal” family, like the ones portrayed on TV (often children simply block out how different their own reality was). But enough time had passed for the death threat against him to be forgotten, so with mixed emotions, we helped him place the call to his grandmother. Reaching her, Luciano finally dared to ask her the question, “May I come home?”
I had the privilege of accompanying Luciano on the long, seven-hour journey home in our tired Fiat wagon. Strapped to the roof were two used boogie boards I’d rounded up to give him something to do. Ten hours later, exhausted after twice getting stuck in deep sand, we arrived at the little seaside hamlet Luciano considered home, comprised of a handful of scattered huts. Pulling up to a little house on a sandy beach front, I got to see the prodigal reunited with shouts of joy and open arms.
And now, night has fallen. Luciano has his head in his grandmother’s lap. She’s stroking his curls, smiling, but still lamenting the time lost. “Why would a kid who has so much . . . . a kid who has food in his own kitchen—why?”
Sitting in her little brick home, unpainted and simple but protected from the elements, from her perspective they are rich. They have everything they need. Free from desires of wanting more, they can enjoy what they have, and value each other. Looking at this love filled room, I believe she is right. But as I walk the completed deserted beach with Luciano, hand in hand, preparing to let him go, I think I have found something to ponder on my long ride home. What is poor? Am I, a missionary, rich? Everyone here thinks I am. Sometimes, I wonder how exactly rich I cna be and still squeeze through the eye of that needle.
The next morning, we all get up early. Grandma has hot coffee brewing, and pulls out a tray of steaming cheesebread. We spend some time praying for the little family, and finally climb in out slightly less-crowded car, continuing our tearful goodbyes through rolled-down windows.
Driving away, the trio in my mirror get smaller and smaller, and soon all I see behind me is the sun right over the water.