When people ask me “What is Maryknoll all about?”, I often describe friendship and formation as the two pillars of being a Maryknoll lay missioner. I find that forming friendships with people who are different from me has broadened my perspective in profound ways. Maryknoll has led me into countless opportunities to connect with people who have backgrounds and life experiences different from my own.
Nearly two years ago, I met Dayana and Lourdes, two women who work with the nongovernmental organization Bem Me Quer. Bem Me Quer provides HIV and AIDS prevention, advocacy and direct services to individuals living with HIV/AIDS in São Paulo’s northern zone. My first encounter with Dayana felt like a bizarre job interview, where I could only understand about 60 percent of what people were saying and could only state about half of what I wanted to say. Fortunately there is more to communicating than just words, and they got the message that I was happy to collaborate with Bem Me Quer and provide whatever help I was able to.
From that first meeting onward, Dayana has been my friend, co-worker and ever a source of inspiration.
Soon after my first serendipitous meeting with Dayana and Lourdes, I started working as a volunteer/partner with Bem Me Quer in Perus on São Paulo’s northern periphery. Initially my skills were best suited to assisting with home visits to patients living with HIV and AIDS, so for the first nine months I accompanied Sueli, another volunteer, on home visits.
Sueli and I would set out with the name of a patient and their address, often taking a bus and then walking anywhere from a few hundred yards to more than a mile to see people in their homes. Often we ended up in neighborhoods where the streets had no names (at least not written on any visible signs), and Sueli would start asking folks on the street if they knew this person. She would go clapping outside gates as is the tradition here in Brazil (in lieu of knocking), and we managed to find the patient nearly every time—even if it was down a street with no name and then up three staircases, veer right, then up a fourth staircase, second door in. Construction is literally a maze in some neighborhoods of São Paulo.
Regardless of their living situation, patients welcomed us into their homes with broad smiles and big hugs and we’d sit down and have a long conversation about life. The nature of our visits with patients illuminated for me the meaning of holistic health. We talked with people about their children, their work, their struggles, their hopes, as well as their diet, their meds and their upcoming doctor’s appointments. While listening to folks talk about their grandchildren, their relationship with their neighbor, their gratitude to God with as much emphasis as they put on their physical symptoms, I came to perceive more vividly the state of a person’s health as the intersection of so many physical, mental, social and spiritual variables.
During the year that I spent assisting with home visits, I bonded with Sueli as we journeyed together in conversation to visit so many individuals. I learned all about Sueli’s family, her work and her perspectives on life. I admired her ability to show patience and warmth while simultaneously being firm and scrupulous, especially with patients in more complicated situations. Sueli showed me the value of connecting with individuals who live on the very furthest margins of society—in poverty, enduring prejudice—and of meeting them in their space, listening to their story, sometimes solving a concrete problem, but always creating a more compassionate world.
Sueli and I would wearily wend our way back to Bem Me Quer and arrive for the tail end of the afternoon coffee break. Customarily everyone at the NGO pauses for a 4:30 pm coffee break, which lasts until around 5. Much conversation and laughter is enjoyed over very strong coffee, bread and cheese or tuna or whatever Lourdes throws together. Communal eating is a hallmark of Brazilian culture. In many workplaces where I’ve collaborated, everyone sits down together for morning coffee break, lunch and an afternoon coffee break. These moments of breaking bread together offer great opportunities for conversation and companionship.
Dayana’s focus is primary prevention of HIV and AIDS, which she provides to youth in schools and youth centers around Perus. Dayana also practices acupuncture, has studied floral therapy and knows a great deal about homeopathic medicine.
Our conversations during those afternoon coffee breaks centered on health issues, often with Dayana telling me about her knowledge of alternative medicine and me telling her my perspective from the vantage point of western medicine. We both benefited from taking in each other’s knowledge. I was interested in helping Dayana with her work in prevention among youth, and fortunately early last year, the opportunity came up for me to help her provide school and youth-center-based prevention.
During 2018 we worked with children ages 8 to 18, using activities to generate reflection and conversations on holistic health and disease prevention. With groups of younger children we would do dynamics that encouraged the children to think about how their lifestyle—day to day activities and choices—influence their health. Sometimes we would have the children divide a piece of paper into 4 quadrants and label the quadrants ‘Do and Enjoy,’ ‘Do and Don’t Enjoy,’ ‘Don’t Do but would Enjoy,’ and ‘Don’t Do and Don’t Enjoy.’ The distribution of activities that children listed, their feelings toward their life activities, and their perceived access to resources shed light on their overall wellness and structural issues in society that impact the wellness and level of opportunity for many children.
Seeing ‘smoking’ and ‘doing drugs’ in the ‘Don’t Do and Don’t Enjoy’ category was always a relief. Seeing ‘reading books’ and ‘play sports’ in one 6th grade girls’ ‘Don’t Do but would Enjoy’ category brought tears to my eyes. I asked her why she doesn’t read books she explained that she lives nowhere near a library, and has access to very few books at her school. That was not surprising—some of the schools we worked in were stark in their lack of materials and teachers, with surplus of students sharing a single classroom.
Other activities Dayana and I did with the children aimed at demonstrating how communicable disease spreads through a population or focused on helping children conceptualize how our lifestyle and relationships influence all forms of health—physical, mental, social and spiritual. We tried to help children understand the many dimensions of human health and to help them internalize the power they have to take ownership over their health through day-to-day habits and choices. The first two photos below show children in action learning about communicable disease by swapping pieces of paper (only a couple of students begin with the colored paper that resembles ‘disease,’ but many end up with a piece of colored paper at the end).
Another time we had the children draw a large outline of themselves and then design or write down ways they promote their internal feeling of good health and how they promote their external feeling of physical health. Their enthusiasm and focus on friendship, family, hugs, conversation, fruit, prayer, and, of course, soccer, reflected their culture and upbringing.
Working alongside Dayana I learned a great deal from her approach. While I would come with various activities and illustrations related to disease prevention, Dayana would focus more on generating conversation and simply listening to the children’s perspectives. Listening and allowing the conversation to flow enabled us to better understand where the children stood with their knowledge and mentality, which in turn allowed us to mold the activities and conversation to respond to their interests and needs. When talking with older children about concepts like gender diversity, we sometimes found that they had a good understanding of gender and sexual diversity and were able to broaden each other’s knowledge base through simple conversation. Ultimately our hope was that children would gain more confidence, more acceptance and a broader knowledge base through opportunities to share their perspectives.
I will forever be grateful for the way my perspective, values and approach to situations have been influenced by Sueli, Dayana and all the adults and kiddos with whom we have worked.
Kathleen Maynard serves as a Maryknoll lay missioner in São Paulo together with her husband, Marcelo Maiorano, and their three daughters, Cecilia, Maëlle and Lucia.
This post is adapted from a blog entry on Kathleen’s blog, “Say Yes! Our Family’s Adventures in Faith and Solidarity in Brasil.”