Joanne Blaney, a Maryknoll lay missioner in Brazil, reflects on how small seeds of compassion sown can bear abundant fruit.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that “the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, one of the smallest of seeds that, once it is sown, springs up and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
This parable reminds me of Andersen, whom I met years ago at a project where I volunteer with a community of people in situations of homelessness. Andersen knows what it is like to be landless and homeless. He grew up in a rural area in the northeast of Brazil and, due to hunger, drought and land-grabbing, he and his family lost their home.
For over a year, they worked their way to the mega-city of São Paulo in search of work and decent conditions of life (they were part of the more than 700,000 people who migrated to the cities at that time). Unfortunately, life was not easy in the city. Andersen lost his mother to illness and went through a downward spiral of unemployment and living on the streets.
In Andersen’s story and the life of so many Brazilians, we see the dimensions of Laudato Si’, in which Pope Francis reminds us that “the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet” (48).
The extreme inequality in Brazil has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. In a country where the six richest people have the same wealth as 50% of the population (100 million people), the effects are devastating for the poorest and most marginalized in urban and rural areas. This, coupled with the seemingly endless destruction of the Amazon region, can lead to feelings of hopelessness. Yet, our Gospel reminds us to trust: “This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a person were to scatter seed on the land...and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, [he/she] knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, [he/she] wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come.”
How to bring about a harvest in the midst of such suffering? Like the seed planted in the ground, the pain of new beginnings brought about eventual growth and transformation for Andersen. The weeds did not choke his desire for life. He received nourishment from those whom we met in the base Christian community and he began working in the project, helping others in situations of homelessness. Today, he is one of the leaders of a collective movement to provide housing and social services to those living on the street, now more than 30,000 in the city of São Paulo, with more arriving due to the complications of the coronavirus pandemic.
Each day, he comes to the Street Network Project where we provide lunch to almost 1,000 people. Andersen’s patience and understanding of the Paschal Mystery where pain and suffering can bring about new life helps him mentor those who are homeless. His lived experience inspires many of the guests and helps them join together to work to bring about small harvests that are new possibilities. He sows seeds of hope and compassion.
According to him, this is in no way easy work, as there are so many obstacles and conflicts. Yet, he is like the mustard seed that springs up and puts forth large branches so that others may rest in the shade for a bit, but then he motivates and challenges them to join in the work for justice and real transformation.
There are so many challenges in our world today, such as economic and racial injustice, divisions, and violence. May each of us do our part to sow seeds and nurture their growth as we work together to respond to the cry of the earth and the cry of poor and marginalized peoples.
Photo: Volunteers preparing food at the center for homeless individuals in São Paulo, Brazil. Courtesy of Joanne Blaney.