We want the easy cases. The beautiful, innocent little girl who has been exploited. The teenage boy with the winsome smile who just needs a chance. The family of four siblings who long to stay together. Let’s save the kids that look most like us — or at least who try to act like we do. The ones that make us feel good about ourselves, and, perhaps more important, don’t push us beyond our comfort zone.
We do not want the kids who are beyond redemption. The hard-as-nails kid from the streets. The gang-member with the tattoos and the scars. The kid we would never take into our home.
When do we get to quit on a child, to give up? Where do we draw the line that says, “This child is too far gone, beyond redemption”?
Perhaps making that call is not our job. In fact, maybe we don’t get to make that call at all. This is a longer-than-usual story for this blog, but you need the whole thing for context. You need to know about Derci…
The odds have been against Derci. Even now he carries the appearance of a hardened criminal. His right hand is shriveled, the result of an untreated childhood disease. His Mom was an alcoholic who didn’t care about him, and he bounced between precarious government shelters from the time he was six. “She didn’t love me or want me around,” Derci said. His memories are of her collecting food from the garbage and recycling soda cans for money.
Derci grew up in a morro—a slum perched on top of a hill. When he was about six he started being used as an avionzinho, or “little airplane,” delivering drugs for the traffickers in his neighborhood (because children under 12 cannot be charged with crimes in Brazil). He was 11 when he got his first revolver, and the older traffickers started trusting him with more expensive drugs. At 16 he got his first automatic gun. By this time, he was a full-fledged trafficker. He also sold weapons. In one incident, he ended up killing two boys from a rival gang and was sent to prison.
Prison life meant that, basically, he was treated like a sub-human. No toothpaste, no soap. Mattresses, but no sheets, so skin rashes and diseases were common. He often faced the wrath of cruel guards; beatings are a part of prison life. Once a fight broke out between two cell blocks. To punish his block, two innocent boys, who had not been involved, were transferred to Cell Block “D” where all the rapists and hardened criminals were held. “They were from my neighborhood,” remembers Derci, his expression sad, guilty, as if he were personally responsible for not protecting them.
Still a child, but with years of evil and hardness behind him.
Certainly beyond redemption.
Not for our God.
When Derci got out of prison, his life of crime picked up right where it left off. As a trafficker, he moved both weapons and drugs. One day, chased by the police, he dropped his backpack, heavy with cocaine, and ran. Because he didn’t recover the bag, he became heavily indebted to his “bosses.” He had to work for them for free, and went back to live with his alcoholic mom, who barely recognized him.
At about the same time, he ran into a girl walking home from school; an acquaintance he’d known his entire life. She told him God was calling him to change, and wanted his attention. She said, “You don’t believe me, do you? But I feel God telling me that something is going to happen to you before the end of this week that will shock you and get your attention. God will use that to bring you closer to Him.”
Thinking about what she said, Derci went down the hill to the slum below to visit his aunt. When he returned, a friend told him that the bosses were suspicious as to why he had gone down there and suspected he was a traitor. The bosses demanded that he come over. They dragged him into a back room, and took turns beating him so badly that he could hardly lift his head. They told him to never show his face again in his neighborhood or they would kill him.
Derci managed to make it back down the hill to his aunt’s house, bloody and barely alive. An ambulance was called, but it didn’t come. Some policemen were across the street, and in desperation, his aunt called them over, and they took him to a hospital. Derci does not remember how much time he spent in the hospital, but remembers being shirtless, barefoot, and very, very cold for what seemed to be days. While there, one of the policemen who had taken him to the hospital came back to visit him. Derci learned he was a Christian. The policeman said, “You have to change your life. You need to listen to God, or you won’t be around for long.”
When Derci got out of the hospital, he was sent to a temporary government shelter. It was there that he first heard about a place called Hope Mountain. He heard that it was a Christian institution, and that they helped students learn a trade and get jobs. But, to his disappointment, he was sent to another government shelter 45 minutes away. When he got there, someone told him, “This is where the authorities send boys they want to forget about.”
Derci had been dreaming about Hope Mountain ever since he heard about it, thinking about what the girl and policeman had told him. He decided he would need to take drastic measures. Pretending to panic, he ran breathlessly to the shelter coordinators saying that he had seen some of the thugs from his neighborhood, and it was not safe for him to be there. Within the day, they transferred him back to the original holding house. The next day, a van came to pick him up and take him somewhere else. Nobody wants a gang war in their shelter.
For security reasons, the authorities did not tell Derci beforehand where he was going. But on the way to the new location, he learned he was going to Hope Mountain. Overjoyed, he thanked God immediately, and determined to start a new life.
At Hope Mountain, Derci says, four important things have happened. First, he has learned to control his temper. Second, he found out he is smart. Third, he has found his vocation; he wants to come back and serve as a houseparent. And fourth, he found out he can sing.
Sitting next to one of our houseparents during chapel, Uncle Rogerio turned and said, “Man you can sing!” Derci had no idea that he could sing well. Now, a full time volunteer working with Hope in Brazil (who also happens to be a trained professional singer), is coaching him twice a week. Derci sings his way through the day. “Whenever I get upset, nervous, start missing my five brothers and sisters, I sing praise songs. It calms me down.” Derci has learned how to cope.
Derci should have been a lost cause. He was too old to be in our program. He was a hardened criminal. He had too much schooling to make up. We technically did not have time to “recuperate” him. But God had other plans, and His timeline is infinite. And so we watch as God’s plan continues to unfold for Derci — the one who was “beyond redemption” … who has the voice of an angel.