Bulletproof faith in a 12-year-old girl
LAÍS MARIA PEREIRA da Silva, 12, was born and raised in a part of Rio de Janeiro called Complexo da Maré , which comprises one of the biggest sets of favelas—or shanty towns—in this Brazilian mega-city.
Despite her young age, Lais Maria is already too well acquainted with violence, despair, and also death. Her part of town is home to 17 different communities totaling 130,000 inhabitants. In addition to horrible living conditions—such as the kind of poverty where a piece of bread makes up a meal—the people in this area live under a constant threat of violence.
The favelas of Rio are controlled by various criminal factions each running drugs through alleys that make up the neighbourhood infrastructures and serve as highly guarded transportation networks. Complexo da Maré is among the most dangerous areas in the city because it is run by two major criminal organizations, Comando Vermelho (“Red Command”) and Terceiro Comando Puro (“Pure Third Command”), with each dominating opposite sides of the area. They are engaged in a constant battle in an effort to expand their respective territories.
Laĺs lives in a favela called Baixa do Sapateiro, on a street called Divisa Street, which means: border. The street earned its name precisely because it marks the border between the territories controlled by the two rival criminal organizations. “They stay in the alleys, exchanging gun fire. We have to lay down on the floor in our homes because no room is secure. The shots come from the front and from behind,” says Viviane Pereira, another resident of Complexo da Maré.
The violence does not only make Laís’ daily life difficult—it also clouds her outlook on her future. The schools in the area often need to cancel classes for security reasons. When there are no gun fights close to school, but there is shooting going on near her house, her mother, says the girl, “has to call the teachers to warn us that we cannot leave the school; we’re often asked to study for tests another day.” Lais dreams of studying to become a doctor so she can help people. This would also make it possible for her family to move to a safer neighbourhood.
Bullet marks of different sizes in the facades of the houses give evidence to the state of gang warfare residents of Complexo de Maré have to contend with. In an effort to protect themselves, some people board up their windows with bricks to guard against stray bullets, others build underground rooms to shelter their families during shoot-outs. But, no one is really safe. “When the shooting suddenly erupts, we run to the first house we see. Everyone around here knows everyone and understand the fear of these moments,” says Laís, who adds, “I’m afraid to get shot.”
Faith remains in spite of it all
It was precisely at home that Laís’ family lived through one of the most harrowing moments of their lives. It was a typical afternoon except that her cousin Ian, who was 12 at the time, was playing on the home’s small patio; children are rarely allowed to play outside the confines of the home in this part of town. Laĺs remembers: “Suddenly, a shooting started. Before Ian could run inside, he got shot. My aunt, Ian’s mother, ran downstairs and found her son on the ground, with a puddle of blood around his head.”
The bullet had reached the right side of his brain. Family members had to wait for the shootout to end before they were able to take him to the hospital. Thankfully, Ian survived. But his injury required many surgeries. One of which required removing part of Ian’s brain resulting in some of his motor skills becoming impaired and affecting his ability to talk.
“I was very sad, very touched when everything happened to my cousin,” says Laĺs, adding: “today, seven years later, he plays with us, but he cannot run.” Ian is confined to a wheelchair and remembers very little about what happened that day, but his family will never forget. Laís, along with all her friends, live under a shadow of fear of getting hurt themselves, or worse. “I like to play… run with my friends,” Laís continues, although, she adds, “When we are in the streets or alleys near here, I’m afraid of getting hit, or that a shot hurts one of my friends.” In these almost unbearable circumstances, it is faith in God that keeps Laís and her family going. It would be easy to lose hope and give way to despair under the constant threat of violence.”
However, speaking with the purity of a child, Laís teaches those who would hear an important lesson: even amidst the shootings, she says, “It’s possible to keep a bullet-proof faith and to be a sign of hope to the others. I always pray to God to support Ian’s parents, my uncle and aunt, and that nothing bad will happen to my friends.”
The pontifical charity, ACN, supports with different projects the formation of diverse missionary communities, many of which work in the peripheries of Brazil’s big cities. One of them is the community “Mercy Alliance” (“Alianza de la Misericordia”) which, with more than 2,000 volunteers and 337 social workers, brings the mercy of God’s Love to the poorest. They work in the favelas of Brazil and the most abandoned areas of the poor neighbourhoods where the situation reported by LAÍS MARIA PEREIRA da Silva is lived daily.
Over the last ten years, ACN has provided more than two and a half million dollars to support 47 projects so that newly born missionary communities can dedicate themselves to the evangelization of the peripheries and help the youth in these neighbourhoods and all those who live on the margins of society.