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