New Humanity Movement

Social Harmony and Art

santa terezinhaThat strip of land was once called ‘Hell’s Island’. Now, after years of practical social commitment by members of the Focolare Movement in Brazil, it has become a success story; the greatest conquest has been giving back to its people their dignity.

Ed Johnson – Recife (Brazil)

That place, now known as the Island of Santa Terezinha, was once a strip of marshland which was periodically flooded; the drainage system was an open canal and its contents often found their way onto the streets and into the huts. This canal constituted the dividing boundary with the rest of the city.

That island was referred to as ‘Hell’s Island’; it was not far from the center of Recife, the capital of the north-eastern state of Pernambuco in Brazil. However, as regards living conditions, these were light years behind those of the city.

Some four thousand persons, making up six hundred families, lived in that depressed area. There were no clinics, no schools and no jobs. Nothing. The children spent their days roaming the streets, their feet encrusted with evil-smelling mud. Violence and abuse were the order of the day. Living there meant not existing at all: the inhabitants were nobodies.

Back in 1968, heeding the plea of the then Archbishop of Recife, Mons Helder Camara, members of the Focolare Movement went to live there and to share the hardships of the inhabitants.

It was not a project planned on the drawing board. It was a rather slow journey based on making the people aware of their situation, and, together with them, work to find the right solutions. In this way the inhabitants started to feel involved in their advancement; the first enterprises, tailor-made for the needs of the inhabitants, were born.

The island was ‘invaded’ by students and teachers, lawyers and doctors, workers and housewives: they all wanted to share the life of these persons and, together with them, they were yearning to try finding solutions for their pressing problems. They started by taking care of the old persons, the sick and the children. They spoke very little, and listened a lot with great patience. The inhabitants, little by little, started to open up and to welcome this friendship; feeling appreciated, they discovered the resolve and the energy to come out of their dramatic situation. Courses in dress-making, cooking and home economics were among the first initiatives to be set up. Others expressed their wish to learn to read and write. Moreover, due to the grave problem of undernourishment, a day-hospital started offering care for some fifty-five children, some of whom came from other parts.

All this helped the persons living there to gradually become aware of their belonging to a civil society, which entails rights and duties. They decided to set up a body that could discuss their problems directly with the civil and administrative authorities.

One the most urgent needs was to elevate the huts. They all offered whatever they possessed: shovels, wheelbarrows, manpower. Thanks to the funds they received from many parts of the world, they started on the ambitious project of a large-scale land reclamation. A bricks factory and one that produced prefabricated houses were constructed; this has helped in the reconstruction of the huts, and has now become a major industry on the island.

Thus the island underwent a complete transformation, so much so, that the inhabitants felt the need to change even its name: from ‘Hell’s island’ it became the ‘Island of Santa Terezinha’.

Many of the young people involved in this transformation have now become community leaders; one of them is Ed Johnson. The temptation to go away in search of a better life was still there; yet he decided to remain and today he represents the island at the Economic Forum of Recife.

Ed says: “My political experience started the day I realized I could be of help to my neighbors… I could give a glass of water or a piece of bread; however, I could also strive so that every family could have running water in their homes, and jobs…, not just bread and a home”.

However, I realized that I could never achieve this on my own, Therefore, I became part of the Neighborhood Association of the island of Santa Terezinha. Our work went beyond the boundaries of our community; that is why I found myself in the Economic Forum of the city of Recife.

It was then that I started to care even for the neighborhoods close by, and also for the city as a whole: seeking what can be done for the common good. We all know that doing politics is a challenge; since I met this spirit that promotes universal brotherhood, I too try to be conducive towards the peaceful living together of persons having different political convictions. Every conflict could, indeed, be an occasion for dialogue, and to start a new relationship…

Often, while planning a specific project, we become aware that a nearby neighborhood has problems that are much more serious than ours. Therefore we agree to help them; in doing so we all gain. How is that? Because if we were to think egoistically solely about our needs, we end up building barriers, and not bridges…  This, perhaps, is the reason behind the many wars we are still witnessing around us.

In a democracy, the majority wins, and this is right; yet, the minority should not be crushed by the winning majority. As representatives of a segment of society, it is up to us to build relationships of fraternity”.

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