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Art work by a student in my 4- to 5-year-old class

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Only in the darkness can you see the stars.” Through my ministry of facilitating art activities with children from low-income families, I have found this to be true.

The children I work with form a constellation that mirrors the face of God each day in the obstacles they must overcome at home, in school, and within Brazilian society. I have worked with children who have been sexually, physically, and emotionally abused so much that they take their anger out on other children within the projects where I collaborate. There are days when I am separating fights more than teaching art, and on these days I feel powerless. I question the work I am doing and the impact it is having on these children’s lives.

I have worked with children with learning disabilities and autism, and on the days they paint the walls, I feel the most unqualified. In truth I am unqualified, but if I was not in the three different organizations where I teach art, no one else would be. No one else would be able to see the amazing artists within each of these children. Some days are harder than others, yet there are moments where the things these children have taught me are so profound that I am brought to tears. The work I do is hard, but I am lucky. Each day I get to witness the stars in the daylight.

A few months ago, at one of the organizations I work with, the children made eggs of gratitude for Easter. They painted two egg holders cut from a recycled egg carton to form an egg when put together. Then they wrote notes to someone they were grateful for and had to explain why. After this, they placed the note in their egg and had to give it to the person they wrote to. It did not go quite as smoothly as this because I first had to explain what gratitude was to children ages 3 to 9. I think they got the general idea from my rough Portuguese.

If anything, it was an exercise to help them learn and practice expressing gratitude to others. I imagined many of the eggs would get lost in the bottoms of their backpacks or used as soccer balls. However, I was surprised last week when one of the children, Alice, told me that she had given her egg to her mom. Many of the parents of these children work strenuous jobs for sometimes 12 to 14 hours a day—if they have employment—and live in a situation of occupation (inhabiting abandoned buildings) in the city center.

Alice said her mother unfolded the note contained within the egg. As her mother began to read it, she began to cry. Alice’s note read, “Mamae eu so grato para voce. Eu te amo.” Momma, I am grateful for you. I love you.” I know this because she showed me the note for a quick spell check before putting it inside the egg.

How powerful are the words, “I am grateful for you” and “I love you”. This was a lesson to me to never forget the power we have to make our loved ones feel valued no matter how simple the message. My hope for myself and for all people is that we may never neglect this because we never know how important it is for those we care about to hear our gratitude for their presence in our lives.

The art program I run directly impacts the children I work with; however, my hope is that it indirectly impacts both the educators and caretakers who witness the expression of these children through their art.

I have many stories I can share like this one that keep me in mission. I became a missioner for the authentic encounter and to be able to accompany those within the margins, to see the stars that are hidden by the pollution of unjust and broken social structures.

Psalm 147:7 says, “He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name.” As humans we are not only called to be among the stars but to help them shine, and to be strengthened by the realization that nothing is impossible as long as you have faith in a loving higher power. I thought developing a sustainable art program benefiting over 200 children was impossible, particularly in a foreign language. Let this be evidence that we all have something to contribute to better the lives of others, but it is up to us to determine how our light inspires and helps others to shine.

Claire Stewart serves as a Maryknoll lay missioner in São Paulo, teaching art to vulnerable children. After completing her first three-and-a-half-year term, she recently renewed her commitment for another two years. 

Claire Stewart
Claire teaches art classes to vulnerable young children in São Paulo, Brazil.