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Do good or do nothing?

   
 


Valéria Alvarenga’s trip to Canada from Brazil to visit the Vancouver assembly where she presented a seminar titled Reading scripture in a context of poverty and violence was sponsored by Mennonite Church Canada. Michele Schwartzentruber Rizoli of Toronto United Mennonite Church translated from Portugese. Alvarenga will travel across Western Canada to visit partner congregation Zoar Mennonite Church in Saskatchewan, and speak in other churches along the way.

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July 14, 2012
-Dan Dyck

Vancouver, B.C. — For many Christians, life is not so much a battle between doing good or doing evil, but between doing good or doing nothing.

Pastor Valéria Alvarenga says she could stay home and watch television and serve her congregants between Sundays, safely away from risk. Instead she has chosen to confront drug trafficking, violence against women – and a rigid church – as she makes friends with the marginalized and vulnerable people in a surrounding impoverished neighbourhood in Recife, Brazil.

 When the government filled in a small lake and built public housing, they may not have anticipated that a shanty town would emerge in the surrounding hills. With a population density of 1,000 people per hectare, the hill dwellers have no sanitation services, no public or leisure space, live in fear of crime, and regularly lose their homes to landslides during the June-July rainy season. Her own church building was rendered unusable in a 2009 landslide; a protective barrier promised in 2009 remains un-built.

Alvarenga pastors Lagoa Encantada Mennonite Church. Each Tuesday, she treks into the surrounding hill town with her son and his guitar, bearing cake and cola.  She calls it Project Samaria.

When Alvarenga learns from teens that their mothers are being abused by their husbands, she visits the mothers and offers to help them find refuge in a government women’s shelter. When the conditions are right, she speaks with their husbands.
A youth evangelism team carries a banner that asks “What do you thirst for?” They hand out drinking water and engage others in conversation.

A festival that marries catholic saints with certain pagan practices offers dancing to pulsating music, bonfires, and more. Alvarenga counters with a Christian celebration that offers special foods and gospel music to the same beat.

A health care professional has been brought in to educate women on cervical and breast cancer because many husbands won’t allow wives to see a gynecologist under threat of violent beatings. Many women lose their lives to domestic violence, while their sons deal drugs. Alvarenga’s life is regularly at risk.

Her incarnational church is not accepted by the regional mainline churches. Her own congregation was initially less than interested in Project Samaria. Hillside residents whose only experience of church is mainline, say her church is not a ‘serious’ church because it is not rule bound by doctrine. When Alvarenga recently cut her hair shorter, local mainline congregations where she used to be welcome refused to let her speak again.

It’s not been easy but it’s been worth it, she says in measured words. A young man released from prison feels safe enough to share powerful stories of testimony of his own transformation – stories he won’t share with his own family. If she and her son are late to arrive on Tuesdays, Alvarenga receives calls of concern. “Our presence in the hill community makes them feel good,” she says humbly.

Alvarenga draws strength from three scripture texts that are special to her ministry: Matthew 25: 35-36 (“I was hungry and you fed me…”), Luke 19:10, and 1 Corinthians 3:10.

She refuses to gloss over the problems. “People come to us with stories of very difficult lives. I have to learn to love the one who is different from me. That is the gospel of Jesus Christ…. My faith becomes complete when I work with people on the margins.

See complete coverage of Assembly 2012