The smell of polluted gutters hits our noses as we step out onto the streets. The darkness of the night blankets us. As we approach the plaza, we are warmed by the soft street lights that circle the perimeter. With the sounds of screeching bus brakes in the background and catching an occasional glimpse of the rats running through the dried-up fountain, at this moment, there is no place I would rather be.
On any given night, Praca Dezesette in Old Recife is a popular location. It is here where the homeless and lower income families convene waiting for various groups to show up to hand out food.
Tonight, we arrived with a soccer ball and guitar in hand along with paper and colored pencils for drawing. The mission is simple: to just show up and do life with one another; demonstrate love and kindness to those around us. To model leadership. Today, those around us consisted of individuals whose lives have been met with one blow after another. People who have grown accustomed to being overlooked and abused with no safe haven.
As we rolled out the papers and colored pencils, the 5 and 6-year-olds flocked to them. They grabbed their desired color and sat on the ground to begin their masterpieces. It did not take long until one particular boy stood out to me. Not because he was much older than the other kids participating in the craft or because he was sniffing glue to get high (a common practice of street kids to numb hunger pangs and to mentally and emotionally escape the brutality of the life they find themselves in), but because, despite all of this, he was hunched over intently pouring his heart into his own drawing. With the plastic bottle filled with potent chemicals in one hand and a green pencil in the other. I couldn’t help but notice that he was a fellow lefty. Upon closer glance I observed that on that same hand, a third of his index finger was cut off. I wondered about the story behind that.
As I sat and watched him mentally escape into his colorful drawing, I knew I was looking at an individual with immense talent, potential, and calling on his life that was being eroded. I saw a boy taking pride in his work and determined to create on paper the clear vision he had in his mind. When I shared with him how amazing I found his drawing to be and how talented he is as an artist, the boy hunched down further, making his skinny malnourished body look even more frail, and he said: “it [the drawing] is not finished yet.” “Well I can’t wait to see it when it’s done”, I replied as I returned to where I was sitting several feet away. I was not able to sit closer for any length of time since the glue fumes being emitted from his bottle were too strong.
When the boy finished his drawing, a local leader named Daniel and I went over to see the final product. The boy signed his name, Adam (name altered for privacy) and wrote his age, 15 years old, on the drawing. We struck up a conversation with the boy. Asking Adam if he had any dreams for his life, Adam answered in between glue sniffs: “Yes. Some good and some bad.” He thought we were referring to the dreams he had when he sleeps. It is common for many of these kids to not give a thought to their future, nevertheless have any idea that they could do, have, or accomplish much with their life. After all, they have not seen such a thing modeled. The environment they have been raised in does not support dreams. They have never been given the permission to hope for a better future when their present consists of fighting to survive, hustling to eat, and searching for a safe place to sleep.
As an attempt to encourage Adam on the right path, I told him that it is important that he continue going to school in order to have a good life here. He responded to me saying “I don’t need to go to school anymore.” The conversation continued and he revealed that the reason he can no longer go to school is because he killed one of his classmates with a pen. As he described how he did the killing with accompanying hand illustrations, all I could see was a boy living in a state of shock. I had all reason to believe that he was telling the truth about the murder. Real-life stories like this are not uncommon.
“He can no longer go to school is because he killed one of his classmates with a pen”
In Adam’s eyes I saw torment and desperation. Seeing past his initial hard appearance on the surface it was clear that Adam has been living in non-stop trauma, probably since day one of his life. His act of violence is repeatedly modeled in his daily life. Beyond a murderer is a fatherless son starving for affirmation and searching for identity.
Daniel then asked Adam if he had sought forgiveness for the murder he committed. He explained that in doing so, Adam may find a new freedom from the inner torment he currently live in. Adam replied “I’ll do it later”, as a way to evade the moment. But as he said this, there was a visible sadness and heaviness in his tone and body language as though he so desperately wanted forgiveness but couldn’t get himself to believe the offer was truly attainable to him. He couldn’t forgive himself. While Adam will need to live with the consequences of his actions, there remains an undeniable purpose and calling on his life.
Set before Adam is either a path of continued destruction marked by cycles of traumatization or a path of healing and freedom to make the most of his remaining life. We cannot under estimate the power of presence. For leaders to show up and demonstrates what it looks like to walk out this latter path; a path of healthy self-leadership marked by character, discipline, respect and love. To believe in Adam and value his inherent worth as a person can be all it takes to change his life and thus change the life every person he will come across. While not an easy or quick “fix”, simply showing up and modeling leadership is the start to a mind-blowing compounded transformation.
We stayed with Adam for the remainder of the evening. Daniel gently asked Adam how he would like it if someone treated him the way he treated others. He asked Adam if he would like it someone killed him the way he killed others. He answered: “no”. Daniel went on to explain to him that we are to treat others the way we would want to be treated. Adam was soaking up the guidance, mentoring, love and attention.
Tonight, at Praca Dezesette was a night where desperate and discouraged people found a moment’s rest, tasted hope, and experienced acceptance and unconditional love from the local leaders who consistently show up. Their mission is to bring light into a dark and hurting place.
There is a power in simply showing up. How often in your life have you had someone believe in you? In those moments of self-doubt, they believed in your potential and saw greatness in you. All it takes is that one person to put us on track and change our entire life’s course. It is in those moments that we gain the courage to step out and pursue our dreams in the face of uncertainty. It is there where we discover that we are capable of so much more. We each, as leaders, are to be that person for others. As we pursue personal growth and wholeness and connect with others, we gain a glimpse of what is possible: a higher vision for our own lives and the world around us. And it starts with simply showing up. It is about the power of presence. This week, let us show up; first for ourselves and then for others.
“The power of presence”
Executive Director, DreamRoot Leadership Institute