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Father Ed & Rio's Favelas: Hope From Within For 2007

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Brazil had its share of problems in 2006. Criminal gangs unleashed waves of urban terrorism in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, firebombing buses and assaulting police stations. Crime at all levels took another double-digit increase and is holding the country hostage, in part because the legal system is utterly ineffective. Exorbitant taxes and dishonest bureaucrats continue to stifle productivity. Corruption scandals arrived, one after another, yet the politicians involved have largely escaped prosecution since their parties control Congress.

Brazilian politicians are mainly interested in helping themselves, not the poor. Since a huge chunk of Brazil's taxes goes towards the salaries, pensions and embezzled funds of its politicians and bureaucrats, the lower class has never received much help. President Lula's "Bolsa Familia" conditional aid program was a recent improvement, but little progress was made overall during his first term regarding Brazil's widespread poverty.

Literally and figuratively, many poor communities are "off the map." Rio city guides often show the favelas (slums) in the hills as green areas with no streets, although much of the population lives there. Yet the favelas have always been home to hard-working and resourceful people, despite being under the sway of drug lords in recent decades. Much of the working class resides there. So do the desperately poor, with no jobs, no prospects and terrible living conditions. Clearly, the impoverished need long-term solutions, and they won't come from the government.

But hope can come from within when inspired by a remarkable man like Father Edmund Leising, a Catholic priest who espouses the formula of community + self-sufficiency, and has reached across religious lines to unite and empower poor Brazilians.

Father Leising is an 86-year-old dynamo with boundless energy and irrepressible good humor. He is an American who came to Brazil sixty years ago and has lived here ever since. Arriving in the 1940s, he started working for Catholic charity efforts. In 1963 "Father Ed" was named director of Brazil's Catholic Relief Services arm. He undertook large-scale philanthropic projects and guided many future NGO leaders. In 1976 he founded CEAR, the Ecumenical Center for Action and Reflection, in Rio de Janeiro.

CEAR's purpose is to bring together Christians and non-Christians, religious groups of various denominations, and NGOs to work on development projects in poor neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro state and across Brazil. A "community agency" is created, typically involving 15 different local churches and groups, and given technical, administrative and financial assistance by CEAR for three years. At the end of that period, CEAR leaves and the new agency runs itself autonomously.

The agencies have initiated day-care centers, literacy programs, health centers, agricultural training, handicraft workshops, cooking classes, theater workshops, computer training, and recreational programs. Cooperatives are formed to sell goods made. Needy children are assisted with their schoolwork, and given skills to succeed in life. "The Fraternal Union" is a success story in the notorious Cidade de Deus ("City of God") neighborhood in Rio, and involves 14 different churches and organizations. Another agency, "United Communities of CUPIEP," shows how CEAR has crossed religious lines; it includes a Catholic church, a Baptist church, a Pentecostal church, a spiritism center, and the local Lion's Club among its participating groups.

The focus is to teach the needy how to fish, not just to give them fish. To Father Ed, "handouts create beggars" and are not the solution. He shows the poor how to interrelate and organize themselves, and helps them achieve self-sufficiency. He is a social progressive whose ideas appeal to the left and the right, Catholic and evangelical, Christian and non-Christian.

Bryan Kennedy, a college professor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, visited the Cidade de Deus center and wrote this in a testimonial letter to Father Leising, "You are an inspiration to others with your selflessness and the true application of Christ's teachings. It seems that so many religious people in the United Stats are incredibly judgmental of those less fortunate. Instead of applying Christ's words about charity and brotherly kindness, they instead condemn the poor and cast them out...Thank you for living what you teach and believe. What a pity that other struggling areas do not have a Father Leising to assist them! You are truly an example of the motto: 'Think globally and act locally.' "

Father Leising's efforts have helped thousands of Brazilians. His bridge-building between different religions and groups should be a lesson to all of us. He can be reached via CEAR at: fase_cear@terra.com.br or (21) 2221-9748 in Rio de Janeiro. CEAR has a website in Portuguese at: www.cear.org.br.