With the children of the João Paulo II Educational Centre in Salvador de Bahia

Brazil: “The hug that reaches your marrow”

A trip to Salvador de Bahia, after listening to the testimony of Paola Cigarini who has been working among the favelados for years. "To understand where the gaze I saw in her comes from."

I took a trip to Brazil to visit the João Paulo II Educational Center of Salvador de Bahia, which operates in the Alagados favela. The center was founded in 1999 thanks to the initiative of Angelo and Fernanda Abbondio, touched by their encounter and friendship with Fr. Luigi Giussani. Through the Umano Progresso Foundation, they created the Center to offer a safe and beautiful place to children, so as not to leave them on the streets after school.

When I left for Brazil I was not thinking about volunteering, but I left because I wanted to understand the origin of the gaze I saw in Paola Cigarini, the director of the Centre. I did not know her, but I heard her testimony at a meeting for Fr. Giussani’s centenary. More than the words themselves, I was struck by her joy in living and her gaze. So I wrote to her. And last March 2 I arrived in Brazil. I set off on this journey with many questions, which were not answered, but were welcomed and embraced by a correspondence and familiarity that I could not have expected. I felt divided and dissatisfied, always overwhelmed by work, my family was far away, my friends scattered across Italy, a sense of loneliness even though surrounded by people. In front of Paola, the question arose: how can she live like this?

I was there with people I did not know, without bringing them anything concrete, but I was immediately welcomed. I was afraid of the language barrier because I do not speak Portuguese, but there was no time to leave room for my thoughts which would overcome my curiosity and the lively gaze of the children at the Centre: the little ones welcomed me by hugging me, the older children by bombarding me with questions. The teachers allowed me to stay in the classrooms with them. After just one day I was surprised: "How much have I received, despite being so inadequate!".

I had the opportunity to learn about the history of the Center and I realized how essential it is to have a place where one can feel at home. The young people are looked at, called by name, valued as future men and women. It is a place that saves them, in an age in which the alternative would be the streets, where the public service treats them as if there were no hope for those born here like them. What struck me most is the educational method, which cannot arise from the initiative or genius of a person, but is a different perspective that already exists, that is present. Educators do not give orders, but accompany them in the effort and give the reasons for everything. I saw other works in Belo Horizonte where there is the same gaze, an attention towards the person, an evident good for the other, which arises from the experience lived oneself, an overabundance, a fullness for oneself that makes it possible to give oneself for the other.

I spent most of my hours with Julivan, the Robotics teacher. He is a physics graduate, who had to reinvent himself to teach this course. He transmits all the theoretical concepts starting from what the kids can understand: reality. He always gives concrete examples and this moved me, because before looking at his background he looks at the children: what do they need?

They are talented kids, but it is not a given that they have a future. Everyone looks at them without hope and to go to university or enroll on advanced training courses they must have a certain economic background. If someone does not have their best interests at heart, they are marked forever. If I had been born here, would I have ever gone to university? In what conditions would I live? I took so much for granted. It is all a matter of gaze: what value we give to what we experience and encounter. The work of the School of Community became concrete at the Centre, among those children: “Little observation and much reasoning lead to error. Much observation and little reasoning lead to the truth.” We need to stick to reality, look at what is there now. In a dialogue with Paola, I learned more about her and the Centre's history. I was struck by her position: she agreed to the proposal to direct the Centre, on the other side of the world, due to an overabundance she experienced herself and this generated inventiveness, imagination, growth. The origin is clear: starting from experience, the educational method has also gradually improved... Because reality responds. It is about betting on reality, because it has everything inside: questions and answers, which is why it dictates a method.

I think of a girl from the Centre, Mirelle, who is 12 years old. Every day she gave me a reason to recognize that I was loved. She would come to me to ask me how I was and tell me about herself, despite the fact that I can only say three words in her language. She told me that for her the Centre is her second family, sometimes even her first. She was abandoned by her father and is cared for by her mother and uncle, who care about her education. She is bright, willing, attentive. On the last day, I wished to thank her for the good she gave me every day, like a hug. She replied that most of the children do not receive love at home, but at the Centre they are educated to give it and receive it.

There is a living humanity that finds expression, and I also saw it in the employees. While I was there, one of them lost her son; he was killed in a fight at the age of 25. She remained attached to the Centre, with all her pain, because of the different gaze there. Justice in such places is difficult to obtain, if not impossible, but what is most urgent for the heart is salvation. She came to the Centre in those days because there her heart is taken seriously, her pain becomes a question and is not hidden, but embraced.

Read also - The possible embrace

Now that I am back home, there is not a single moment when I do not think of the faces I met. I left with my questions, the effort of not feeling united and firm, and I received much more than I could have expected: a familiar place where I can simply be as I am. On the last day of the trip, I went to mass and the Gospel was about the widow of Naim. I was reminded of a quote of Giussani:

“’Woman, do not weep!’ This is the heart with which we are placed before the gaze and the sadness, before the pain of all the people with whom we come into contact, in the street, along our way, in our travels. ‘Woman, do not weep!’ What an unimaginable thing it is that God—'God’—He who is making the whole world at this moment—seeing and listening to man, could say, ‘Man, do not weep!’ ‘You, do not weep!’ ‘Do not weep, because I did not make you for death, but for life! I put you in the world and placed you in a great company of people!’ Man, woman, boy, girl, you, all of you, do not weep! Do not weep! There is a gaze and a heart that penetrates to your very marrow and loves you all the way to your destiny, a gaze and a heart that no one can deflect from His course, no one can render incapable of saying what He thinks and what He feels, no one can render powerless!