Vanessa Fitzgibbon: To be in the world but not of the world

While working as a university professor, I was frequently invited to give lectures across the country about my area of specialization, which included comprehensive research of the Brazilian “favelas” or slums, particularly the Cidade de Deus (City of God), in Rio de Janeiro.

To better prepare myself for my first lecture almost 15 years ago, I desired to see that reality with my own eyes, which I knew only from books and films. After carefully planning for several months, I returned to my native Brazil and arranged a visit to Cidade de Deus.

On my first day there, I was accompanied by some nongovernmental organization officials because the favela’s security code didn’t allow any unaccompanied “foreigners.” I immediately understood I was a “foreigner” in that world, representing an actual threat to the well-being of its residents.

However, from my first step there, I saw and felt something quite different from what I had found in my research. I discovered people of all ages with an unparalleled faith, trying to give a better life to their families

Yes, I found the violence documented in newspapers, books and films. However, examples of faith, hope and perseverance were much more evident and stronger than anything else.

I had the opportunity to return to the community the next day, accompanied by a local bishop. I interviewed some members of the Church, including youth from a ward in the area. As part of my research, I wanted to know and try to understand how the youth saw that world around them, their fears and dreams — and more than anything else, the role of the gospel in a life surrounded by poverty, violence and crime.

Young men and women from a ward in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, February 2007.
Young men and women from a ward in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, February 2007. Credit: Vanessa Fitzgibbon

I talked to the young men and women during an activity in the chapel. Without exception, each had a beautiful, contagious smile and a concrete hope and faith that one day they would be capable of helping their community and other underprivileged communities.

Returning for a third and final day, I had planned to visit families of the youth from the night before. However, the streets were empty, and I could perceive a feeling of fear surrounding me. I then learned that a terrible crime had happened in the neighborhood the night before, preventing the youth from returning to their homes for security reasons.

I asked the father of one of the young men why he kept his family in that “terrible” place and didn’t take them far from all that violence.

His answer was simple. “The Lord works from the inside out,” he said, paraphrasing President Ezra Taft Benson. “The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums.”

He added: “Sister, this is my home where I was born and raised my family. We are in the favela, but the favela isn’t inside us.”

Feeling a little bit ashamed for my assumptions, I noticed in his eyes and words the type of faith and hope in Christ very seldom found in people.

As I left Rio a few days later, I looked one more time at the “Christ the Redeemer” statue, with its arms open to the city, and I did not doubt that Christ was watching over those faithful members.

Sunset on a street in Cidade de Deus in 2007.
Sunset on a street in Cidade de Deus in 2007. Credit: Vanessa Fitzgibbon

That good brother, who had been without a job for more than six months and struggled to put food on the family’s table, shared with me his greatest treasure — his faith in Christ, coming from his pure heart and his testimony of the gospel.

He truly lived the words of the Savior: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal” (Matthew 6:19-20).

During His mortal ministry, Jesus Christ did not seek after kings, palaces or wealth. He was among the humble and pure in heart, teaching that all are children of a Heavenly Father who loves us and “is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34).

His spiritual light, peace, guidance and comfort are available to all, independently of our social status, where we live, or what we are or do. For the Lord has promised to those who search for Him and draw toward His light — “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).

— Vanessa Fitzgibbon is the translation coordinator for the Church News.