Our daughter in Memphis sent a text message Monday night. What a surprise. “I just received a Facebook message from Mateus. Yes, that Mateus, ‘Chuta’ Mateus.” “Sou Mateus.” “I am Mateus,” he wrote. He wondered if we remember him.
Of course, we remember Mateus (pictured above on the left), and I have been messaging with him all week. In July, 2002, Mateus was one of the favela kids, hundreds of them, who streamed down the hill to Vacation Bible School at Igreja Presbiteriana where we were part of a mission team doing our best to help our Brazilian partners. But Mateus was not just one of the hundreds. He was one of those nine-year olds whose smile and mischievousness melts your heart and tries your patience. You meet them in North American Sunday School classes, North Philadelphia schools, Guatemalan villages, and, like Mateus, at the VBS of Igreja Presbiteriana no Jardim America, where every July hundreds of kids come down from Favela da Ventosa for a week of joy and love and hearing the stories of Jesus.
Chuta means kick in Portuguese, and Mateus loved coming up behind you, kicking you on the backside, and then running away before you could catch him. I returned the favor, and “chuta, chuta” became our game.
Mateus was with us for three summers and we loved him. He came early and stayed late, always joining us for a game of futebol Americano in street outside the church after most of the kids had returned home from the afternoon of VBS. But after the summer of 2004, we never saw him again and no one seemed to know what had happened to him. We would talk of him from time to time, assuming his life to be a tragic example of the tempting power of the darkness of the favela with its drugs and violence and hopelessness. When we wondered what had become of Mateus, we could not imagine much good.
Before he disappeared from the church and from his friends there, we knew about the great sadness of his life. His older brother had been murdered in some kind of gang dispute and it was a heavy sorrow in Mateus’ life. Beneath his smile and his mischief was overwhelming sadness.
This past week, Mateus, who we never forgot, told us some of what has happened during the past dozen years.
Before his twelfth birthday, Mateus had found a new group of friends, “not from the church or people you could call good companions. During this time I had some horrible experiences, experiences I would not wish on anyone…I got involved in drugs and this is where it all began.”
Mateus tells how at one point he turned back to God and found a church. “I put my life into the care of God…By the grace of God and the prayers of my mother, I was rescued from the ways of the world.”
But he continues, “Sadly, this time did not last long. I left the ways of the Lord and became involved once more in the ways of the world. I was the prodigal son! I met new people; different from the ones I had known before. I was involved not only in drugs, but in trafficking. I thought, ‘Now I have everything I want, and especially, I want revenge on those who took my brother’s life.’”
But even as he plotted the murder of those who had murdered his brother, God’s word haunted him. “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:20)
“I began to think a lot about the family of the young man who took the life of my brother…So even though I was so involved in the evil of the world, I did not have the strength to do what I planned, but neither did I have the strength to return to the embrace of God. I knew that if returning to God depended on me I would die in that very place. But God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
Five years ago, 18-year old Mateus, a prodigal, returned to the embrace of God – by the grace of God. By a strength not his own, he returned to church – not Igreja Presbiteriana, but a different church in a different neighborhood – and to Christ. He has not left Christ or his church since.
Two weeks from today, Becky and I, Brian and Eva Jennings, and Cathy Reese, will land in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, for a weeklong celebration of the Twentieth Anniversary of Igreja Presbiteriana no Jardim America, IPJA. We are calling it a mission of encouragement for our brothers and sisters there, and of “sharing the life of Jesus” – what LPC does. We will be looking and listening for ways that LPC might be used by God in the things God continues to do in and through IPJA.
We will spend some time with Mateus while we are there. He lives in another neighborhood now, but we’ll figure out how we’re going to get together.
In that first message Mateus sent our daughter he wrote, “I remember well my friend Pastor Bill. I miss you all, but especially my great friend Pastor Bill. If he does not remember me, tell him ‘chuta, chuta’ and he will remember.” Yes, Mateus, I remember.
Mateus wrote Becky last week, as well. Speaking of those weeks of VBS during three summers a long time ago, he said, “You all were a great example not only to me, but to many people…Thank you for being a channel of blessing in my life. At first I did not understand very much, but with the passing of time, I understand that you were sent by God like angels.”
We showed a little love to Mateus as our Brazilian partners lovingly told him the stories of Jesus.
Mateus has been through horrible times that he would not wish on anyone. He has seen evil face to face. My guess is that God is still working his renewing and healing grace in Mateus’ life. Maybe some how and some way LPC will be a part of the renewing and healing even as Mateus tells others his story of being called out of darkness into God’s marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)
Pray for us.
See you Sunday.
(Mateus’ story is told and his words are used with his permission. He is pictured today below)