In the mid 1990’s Brazil was making international headlines for problems with children living on the street. While the population was exploding, horrific stories of abuse and massacre at the hands of renegade police and private security called attention to the injustice these children were facing. Word Made Flesh began to sense that God was calling them to this place to be an example of hope, peace and God’s justice in the lives of these youth.
Jeff and Carrie Burnett arrived in Rio de Janeiro in August of 2002 to pioneer the WMF community. They were soon followed by Eric and Kelly Angel. These two couples set the foundation for service among those who live in downtown Rio as they began to learn about the city, understand the culture and discover where the different populations of children on the street where staying.
Ben Miller arrived in 2003 and immediately led the first WMFB Servant Team. They focused on connecting with other ministries such as Missionaries of Charity and Projeto Vidinha, a home for at-risk children. It was the beginning of a long partnership with Projeto Vidinha, where the team taught English classes, led field trips, started a sponsorship program and offered educational aid. The Servant Team continued to deepen relationships with children living in the Lapa area, setting a foundation for future outreach.
In January 2004, Rich and Rebecca Nichols arrived and began serving as field directors for the Brazil community. The small community of three began to look around the city and ask where God was calling WMFB. After talking with friends and researching the city the decision was made to move into the adjacent favelas (slum area) of Jacarezinho and Manguinhos at the end of the year.
Nearly a quarter of Rio’s population live in favelas which are often controlled by one of the drug gangs and plagued by violence and poverty. Residents of these communities live under the constant threat of being caught in the middle of police invasions or conflicts between rival gangs. As relationships with neighbors, the local church, and an after-school project called Timonis began to form, we began to have a better understanding for the environment the children who live on the streets grew up in. Ninety-five percent of people on the streets come from favelas and face situations of broken families, alcohol abuse, drug use, and violence associated with gangs. WMFB formed a communal vision around the physically and spiritually broken realities of their friends.
Jenna Pashley joined the community at the end of 2004 and became involved at Projeto Vidinha and street outreach. WMFB continued to pursue relationships with the children on the street, visiting with them 3 or 4 times a week. As they brought snacks, shared Bible stories, played soccer and colored, WMFB experienced a sweet time of learning about and loving their new friends. Together they shared life and were opened to the hardships many of these children faced and the dreams they held for the future. They began to take several of the children to drug rehabilitation centers, and started a program which invited the children to church and went on home visits.
During this time two Brazilian women joined the staff, Esdrianne Cohen, a volunteer at Projeto Vidinha, and Jacqueline Bolonha who lived in Jacarezinho. These two ladies brought a much needed Brazilian voice into the community and their participation in the vision has been invaluable. A couple years later Diego Rocha joined the community and added new life and much-needed energy to the street outreach.
While the majority of children on the street were boys, our eyes began to open to the growing problem of teenage girls and young women appearing on the street. These young women faced the extra challenges of vulnerability, teen pregnancy and little means to support their young families. WMFB witnessed the cycle of mothers living on the street leading to second and third generations of children on the street. In coming to know these women, particularly Glauciette, Monique and Flavia, God began to open up a new vision. WMFB sensed that these women not only needed help in their own lives but needed support, education and assistance in raising their little ones. In 2007, WMFB began to develop a vision for a community center that offered social assistance and Biblical education.
As the vision for the women’s center took form, WMFB continued to explore the city to see what needs were present and where the women were spending their time. One of the ladies opened her apartment to host the WMFB Bible study. Once a week, on the sixth floor of an abandoned building in Lapa, we invited women to come and participate in the community that was forming. It was a slow start but the hearts of WMFB stirred with ideas and hope for the future.
When the study host eventually left the casarao, WMFB moved the study to a public square. By this point they were meeting twice a week and had included art activities in the meetings. Interest continued to grow for the project and they soon realized a need for a space to call home. Problems were numerous. The expense of renting an office in Rio and finding a location close to the ladies with a private entrance proved to be difficult. After 2 years of searching hope was nearly lost, but God remained faithful and WMFB soon came across a “For Rent” sign. The new space met every criteria, though it was in disarray and abandoned. But after 3 months of renovations the center was ready. God provided a building to be a home and the doors to the Esther Project opened on November 18, 2009.
The Esther Project was the realization of years of dreaming. The women entered a place that was clean, vibrant with color, safe from the streets and created just for them. The project began serving meals and provided a place to shower and wash clothes. Continuing with the Bible study and art activities, the center served as a place to deepen their spiritual lives and relationships with God. Over the past 2 years approximately 40 women have come to participate in the Esther Project. God has transformed many lives and continues to work in others. These ladies are embraced by a loving community where the message that they are accepted and valued contradicts the story of rejection faced on the streets.
In 2008, WMFB began the process of officially registering with the government. A board of directors was formed and on July 3, 2009, Palavra Encarnada was officially recognized by the city of Rio de Janerio. Today a staff of three Brazilians and three Americans make up the team as WMFB continues to serve the poor in love, compassion and community.