Lost in Translation

We usually get the notification in a WhatsApp group text message the morning of our Saturday visits;  Unfortunately, one more woman at Feminine Prison of Santana (PFS) has committed suicide.  This week it was the fifth suicide within the last two months.

Normally when we arrive after a suicide our team leader, Eliana, explains the few facts that she knows about the situation.  With my limited Portuguese capability I don’t catch all she knows but when I look around at Eliana and at the rest of our Prison Pastoral group, I always see the deep pain in everyone’s heart.  It often brings them to tears as we gather in the courtyard outside of the prison and pray for the women in PFS.  We hold each other’s hands reassuring each other that our work will make a small difference.

It personally jarred me this week when Eliana said the suicide occurred in the one (of six) pavilion where I make my visits.  I thought of the five or six women I normally visit with and selfishly hoped it was not one of them.  Eliana accompanied me and my partner Gianfranco to our pavilion in an effort to meet and talk to the woman inside. I breathed a sigh of relief as we entered the prison yard and accounted for all of “our girls.” They were waiting for us.

We set our small green stools down in a circle under the shade of the tall prison wall and invited the women over to the sit with us.  After our normal abraçoes (hugs) and warm greetings, the woman explained the latest suicide was by a girl named Michelli.  They did not know her very well because she was the kind of woman that kept mostly to herself but everyone knew of the occurrence and were very troubled.  Eliana did a marvelous job of talking them through the event and gently pushing them to help us understand why these woman take their own life.

Their only attempt at explanation was that the suicidal women lose all their hope and will to live while trying to survive in such a dark place.  They are never alone in prison, however they are always isolated; isolated from friends and family, isolated from the real world, and most important isolated from the their children.  Most of the woman we meet with are mothers.

As we talked about suicide and ways the woman can support each other in an effort to stop this epidemic I was reminded of my Air Force Suicide Prevention training and asked one woman, Andrea, if the prison administration helps them through these difficult situations.  She just said “Nao” and looked away.

We finished with our short liturgical celebration and prayed together; standing together in a circle, arm in arm, as we asked for their personal petitions before saying the Our Father and Hail Mary.  The woman were very happy to have the presence of the Prison Pastoral on that day and explained how they viewed us as their family.  One of the woman pulled out the postcard from Munich I had sent her while I was attending our family reunion.  It was a picture of Marienplatz and she said she cried when she received it because even her family does not send her letters.

They walked us to the barred prison door and we exchanged more abraçoes before the guard closed the door behind us after we crossed back through.  As we walked away, three of the girls were still watching and waving to us through the prison bars and I asked God to make it a long time before the next WhatsApp text notification.

Please pray for the women of Santana and especially Michelli

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Treacherous Nights (Noites Traiçoeiras)

The prisons in Brazil have their own culture as well.  For instance, it is very easy to get the men and women of the Brazilian prisons to sing their favorite songs in a large group.  They love to sing their most well-known songs.  One of their favorites is Noites Traiçoeiras.  It has become one of my favorites too.  You can watch and listen to the song on YouTube here: Noites Traiçoeiras

Listening to the melody and words you can understand why they this song means so much to them when we sing it.  It’s amazing when the whole cell of 25-30 men and or women erupts  with the third verse.

Below are the lyrics; first in Portuguese and the second in English.

Enjoy…Tiago

Noites Traiçoeiras

Deus está aqui neste momento
Sua presença é real em meu viver
Entregue sua vida e seus problemas
Fale com Deus, Ele vai ajudar você…

Uôôô… Deus te trouxe aqui
Para aliviar
Os teus sofrimentos…
Uôôô,… É Ele o autor da fé
Do princípio ao fim
De todos os seus momentos

Uô, uô,… e ainda se vier
Noites traiçoeiras
Se a cruz pesada for
Cristo estará contigo
E o mundo pode até fazer você chorar.
Mas Deus te quer sorrindo

Seja qual for o seu problema
Fale com Deus, Ele vai ajudar você…
Após a dor vem a alegria
Deus é amor Ele não te deixará sofrer…

Uôôô… Deus te trouxe aqui
Para aliviar
Os teus sofrimentos…
Uôôô… É Ele o autor da fé
Do princípio ao fim
De todos os seus momentos

Uô, uô,… e ainda se vier
Noites traiçoeiras
Se a cruz pesada for
Cristo estará contigo
E o mundo pode até fazer você chorar.
Mas Deus te quer sorrindo

Treacherous Nights

God is here at this moment
His presence is real in my life
Turn your life and worries over to Him
Talk to God, He’s going to help you

God brought you here
To relieve your suffering
He’s the author of faith
From the beginning to the end
For all of your torment

And even though the treacherous nights come
If the cross is heavy, Christ will be with you
The things in the world can even make you cry
But God wants you to smile

Whatever your problem
Talk to God , he’s going to help you
After the pain happiness comes
Because God is love and won’t let you suffer

God brought you here
To relieve your suffering
He’s the author of Faith
From the beginning to the end
For all of your torment

And even though the treacherous nights come
If the cross is heavy, Christ will be with you
The things in the world can even make you cry
But God wants you to smile

Shared Grief by Angela

(Tiago’s note–This is the fourth (and the second for Angela) in a series of refections by women prisoners in Brazil.  The women have given their permission for this blog post although their names have been changed.  

In this reflection, Angela shares the story of a recent death in the prison and how the women shared the grief in order to help them make sense of it all.  Please think about and pray for the deceased woman, the author “Angela,” and the other women in prisons throughout the world.  Let’s ask Him to provide them with the sense of togetherness that will help get through their own trials.)

A week ago we said, “Goodbye” to one of our country mates from South Africa.  It came as a very big shock to all of us.  Two days before, her cellmate had to carry her to Saúde (Health Clinic) because she suffered from asthma and could not breathe.  From there, she was transferred to the prison hospital where she passed away.

It was a very sad weekend for all of us.  I know that not only for me but for all of us, our thoughts were with our loved ones, thinking that if anything should happen (to us) there are no last goodbyes.  We are all so far away from our families.

On the next Tuesday, we all got together with our consulate to pay our last respects to her.  It was heartbreaking but the unity of everybody present was overwhelming and the togetherness of all the different cultures were all that some needed.

My thoughts and prayers go out to her parents and family who lost a special person in such horrible circumstances.

God bless you!

Angela

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The Brazilian Seminarian pulled me aside and said, “Tiago, please let me explain something to you.”

It was my first trip to a Brazilian men’s prison and I had joined a weeklong visit to different São Paulo prisons by Brazilian seminarians.  As I entered with the group my senses were overwhelmed.  The sights, sounds and smells elicited surprising reactions on my first visit.

Old cinderblock  walls with laundry hanging from makeshift clothes lines, sometimes strung for 20 to 30 yards, overcrowded cells, the smell of cheap tobacco, burning from cigarettes rolled in notebook paper, and the sounds of hundreds of men talking, yelling, playing games, and walking by.  The term eye-opening does not do it justice.  However, once you got past these senses you noticed the most important part; the hospitality and warmth we received from the prisoners as we walked through the cellblocks.

We were going to six different cellblocks over the course of the day; spending about an hour in each one.  The seminarians would lead a simple liturgical celebration with a short reflection and end the visit with singing.  It was an amazing first experience for me and I felt how much the men enjoyed our presence, and us theirs!

I was definitely a rookie in many ways, not the least being my poor command of the Portuguese language.  Also, I was beginning to learn some of the lingo of prison ministry.  As we left each cellblock and the prisoners were extending their handshakes to say goodbye, they would all say, “Vá com Deus, Vá com Deus!”  By the third or fourth cellblock and not really fulling understanding the phrase, I started to echo “Vá com Deus” back to the men who we prayed and sang with.  I had been baptized in prison ministry and my comfort level was growing.

Of course, like all rookies, you can quickly get ahead of your abilities without even knowing it.  That was when the seminarian stepped in and explained to me “Vá com Deus” signifies “Go with God” and was normally said to the person leaving.  Unfortunately, these prisoners were not leaving!  He further explained It was appropriate for the prisoners to say “Vá com Deus” to us but we could not say it to them because they could not go anywhere.  It was more appropriate for us to reply “Fique com Deus” or “Stay with God.”

As I stood there feeling low and wondering how many men I had already offended, the seminarian patted me on the back and said with a smile, “Welcome to prison ministry.”

I learned so much in that first visit but it was those two phrases and the lesson from the seminarian that have stood out for me ever since.

Vá com Deus or Fique com Deus, whatever your situation is.

Tiago

P.S.  The picture is from another prison and another day but is representative of the conditions we experience when we visit.

Pink…and Green by Winona

(Tiago’s note–This is the third in a series of refections by women prisoners in Brazil.  The women have given their permission for this blog post although their names have been changed.  

In this reflection, Winona tells a little bit about her experience and what keeps her strong. Please think about and pray for Winona and the other women who write these reflections.  Let’s ask God to provide them with the strength needed to finish this painful and lonely Passeio.)

Hello, my name is Winona.  I am a middle-aged woman from the Netherlands.  I was arrested last year together with my boyfriend.  We have been together for almost 3 years now!  We were arrested for drug-trafficking, so we are both now in prison.  To be here is not easy and can be very hard but I’ll have to keep strong!

I miss my boyfriend a lot, same as my family and his parents!  But luckily I’ve got four good friends here from South Africa.  Also the letters from my boyfriend keep me strong and the letters from our families too.  And of course my faith in God and my prayers helps me to get through this!

From Monday till Friday I work, but its hard work, but it keeps me busy, and every Saturday I look forward to see the missioners and Pastoral Carcerária members (who visit us) to talk with them and this also keeps me strong!

We hope and pray that our sentence will not be that long so that we can go back home soon and see our families again!

But I know God is with us.

Kind Regards,

Winona

Three Little Birds by Dawn

(Tiago’s note–This is the second in a series of refections by women prisoners in Brazil.  The women have given their permission for this blog post although their names have been changed.  

In this reflection, Dawn from Canada, provides us with a short poem.   Please think about and pray for Dawn and the other women who write these poems and reflections.  Let’s ask Him to provide them with the inner peace and silence they need to stay strong while incarcerated.)

Three Little Birds–A poem by “Dawn”  (Title by Bob Marley)

Is it all for a reason?

The human experience is painful

The world is small and beautiful, big and scary

Full of complex organisms and coincidences

time, love, hurt, memories, Thoughts

How to turn ones head off?

Peace, silence-attainable?

Simply be…

waiting

The Feel of a Little Freedom

Probably like you, its harder for me to see when its dark.  That is when I knew the rain was coming. The usually bright blue sky overhead the open prison courtyard at PFC was turning dark gray and it was getting harder for me to see across to the other side.  However, the women outside sitting in the courtyard were not worried.  They would have loved to remain in the courtyard, to feel the rain drops on their face.  But they knew it was just a matter of time before the prison guards would call them inside.  No fun allowed here.

As I looked up at the sky again, the guards made their call and we were ushered inside to the large open, cold, concrete interior concrete room where the girls stay when the weather is bad.  It is as gray inside that room as the sky was outside that afternoon, grayer even.

It started pouring down hard while we were in that room and I continued to talk with the girls;  Wendy, Dina, Anelda, Madeline, Petra, Kristy-Lee, Nenita.  The lightning lit and thunder clapped and it rained like I’ve never seen it rain before in São Paulo.  It was raining so hard, drops came swirling in from the high open windows of the gray room.  It was very misty in the room and it felt like being on a ship when the ocean spray hits while you stand on the deck.

It was then that I noticed Miroslava standing on the concrete bench next to the open window.  The bench was just high enough for her to stand on and allow her to look outside and watch the thunderstorm.  She stood there just watching, and smiling.  Feeling the rain mist on her, gettting wetter but not caring.  For Miroslava, I imagined it felt a little like the freedom that is denied to her and the other women. Never free to play in the rain.  No guard to tell you to come inside, like our Moms did when we were young.  Maybe she felt like a child again, playing in the rain, getting wet, getting dirty; not caring, forgetting everything else for just a couple of minutes.

So, next time you feel the cold mist of a hard rain on your face, say a little prayer for the girls in PFC.  Please ask God to give back the women of PFC the choice of playing in the rain if they want.