Outside the doors of the Serviço Franciscano de Solidariedade, a line winds through Rua Riachuelo in the heart of São Paulo. For years, Franciscan monks have partnered with their community to provide simple meals with coffee or tea to ease the burden on the 24,000 homeless across the city. Around 700 people typically rely on this daily service, known locally as Chá do Padre, or Priest’s Tea. But that already high number rapidly rose into the thousands as COVID-19 spread through Brazil.
The monks now work alongside volunteers to meet an ever-growing need, offering food, prayers, and messages of solidarity to those impacted by the medical and economic hardships of the ongoing pandemic. For many, this is the first time they have ever leaned on charity or stood alongside the homeless most often served by the church. For others, this is an opportunity to join in giving back and embrace the diverse needs of their community.
“I am inspired and humbled by the work of the monks,” said Alice Damasceno, who began volunteering with them more than six years ago. “This is what it means to take care of each other and to recognize how fortunate some of us still are—especially during this unprecedented crisis.”
Damasceno joined a small group of friends who donate 700 loaves of bread to the church every day. A small contribution, said Damasceno, but one for which the monks are profoundly grateful, especially as the donations are scheduled and consistent. She and her friends each take responsibility for one day each week to purchase the bread from a generous baker who offers the loaves at cost.
“Every week when Wednesday arrives, I’m so excited that it’s my day to give,” said Damasceno, who leads Lenovo’s philanthropy efforts across Latin America. “We made a commitment to be responsible for the bread for the duration of the lockdown, however long that may be. Even while staying home, it makes me feel that I’m doing a tiny part in this huge effort to help our community.”
A Different Kind of Frontline
Healthcare professionals and scientists are rightly celebrated in the media for their essential roles in saving lives and fighting against the spread of COVID-19. Less celebrated—and perhaps in part because they so often serve society’s most marginalized groups—are non-profits and charities whose operations have adapted to rapid growth in global and local need. These organizations, like the Franciscan monks in São Paulo, depend on volunteers and generous community members if government aid is not available or unequal to the challenge.
Knowing lockdown was imminent, the Franciscans set up large tents on March 17 in the courtyard outside the church, hoping to accommodate larger numbers, respect all sanitary recommendations, and maintain social distancing as much as possible. In the first three weeks of lockdown, as new people joined the ranks of the unemployed every day, the monks provided more than 54,000 meals to people in line while providing personal protective equipment to nearly 150 active volunteers.
“It’s an incredibly sad situation, and the elderly and at-risk monks cannot help with this effort,” Damasceno said. “But young people across the area are volunteering and rising to the challenge. Franciscans are known throughout Brazil, and this is becoming a very beautiful solidarity movement.”
For her part, Damasceno wishes she was still volunteering in person, as she has for years. But like so many others around the world, she must be mindful of those most vulnerable to COVID-19.
“I live next door to my 80-year-old mother, and I’m helping take care of a 92-year-old neighbor,” she said. “I won’t risk their health by exposing myself, but I am fortunate enough to be able to help in other ways.”
Fostering a Sense of Family
One of the monks, Father Diego Melo, has been on the frontlines throughout. During countless interactions with locals on an exhausting, rainy day, he realized the following day was his deceased father’s birthday.
“I think I saw him in several faces today,” he wrote when sharing a photo of an elderly man holding two loaves of bread—his one meal of the day. Melo noted the resonance of daily bread and of the word father in Catholicism, and he grappled with his emotions: “I feel joy because I was able to help so many. And I feel sad for impotence in front of another hungry crowd.”
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O dia termina. Chove em São Paulo. Volto pra casa. O corpo doído e cansado. A alma ferida. Alegria porque pude ajudar tantos. Tristeza pela impotência diante de outra multidão faminta. O pão acabou, quentinha não veio. O senhor da foto. Idoso, abandonado, cuja única refeição foram esses dois pães. Realidade nua e crua. Miséria e riqueza. Fome. Solidão. Algo está muito fora do controle. É preciso repensar. No meio de tudo, uma lembrança. Amanhã seria aniversário do meu Pai. Acho que o vi em vários semblantes no dia de hoje. A saudade bate. A lágrima cai. Lembro de Deus. Ele também é pai. Também é pobre. Também é mendigo. Também é pão. E lá no céu, é dia de festa. E por aqui, eu vou celebrar. Não tenho presente. Só tenho um pedido. Pai, dá-nos o pão de cada dia. Feliz aniversário.
Damasceno recounted the story with tears in her eyes, moved by the personal touch and by the crisis she also feels so acutely. Her father took her and her siblings to volunteer as a child, to increase their sense of community and recognize the diversity of experiences around them.
“I learned to see how people live with different realities,” she said. “My own daughters are now seeing how fortunate we are, and I hope they’re feeling that impulse to give back and share what we have. After this crisis, I truly believe we will feel greater solidarity—here in São Paulo and around the world.”
To contribute to the Franciscan monks or learn more about their efforts in São Paulo and elsewhere, please visit this link.