By Fr. Maurizio Bhezzi, PIME
I have been in Cameroon since 1987. I spent the first four years in the northern-most part of the country and then went to Yaoundè in 1991. Yaoundè, Cameroon’s capital, is home to about two million people. From the beginning I have been working with street youngsters, young people hardened by time done in prison and by drug-related problems. These youngsters come from all parts of the country and from all social and religious strata. For some ten years I ministered also to inmates in Yaoundè, giving particular attention and care to minors. I continued the efforts of a charitable organization started in 1975 by Fr. Yves of the Little Brothers of the Gospel. The two of us worked side by side for about ten months (in 1991 and 1992). After that, he was reassigned to work in the north of the country where he was assassinated on July 29, 2002 by a former street youth. My routine consisted of walking the streets in the early hours of the night accompanied by some counselors to meet wayward youngsters or going to police stations to visit prison cells in which minors and adults were detained for days, and sometimes weeks, on end. Two years ago we were asked to stop our visit to these cells at the police stations.
An educational project of the “Edimar” Social Center started in 2002.
The name Edimar is significant since it is the name of a Brazilian street youngster who turned his life around thanks to his encounter with friendly people who welcomed and loved him as he was. This is his remarkable story.
Moved by the care of these loving persons, Edimar acquired gradually a new self-awareness that led him to a lasting change. Then, at a party, by chance, he ran into his former gang leader who ordered him to kill a member of a rival gang. Edimar reacted by affirming that his life had undergone a complete makeover and, thus, he could not live any longer by the code of violence of his former gang. Edimar’s refusal prompted the gang leader to kill him on the spot.
From its inception, the Edimar Center showed the characteristics of an educational program rather than the one of a charitable assistance center. Instead of food and shelter, we offer true friendship in concrete forms. We provide schooling, recreation, opportunities for group and individual sharing, manual labor and cultural activities. Above all this, what is crucial for the success of our efforts is the personal contact with these boys’ families. Our efforts are geared towards making these youngsters rediscover their personal dignity which was, invariably, marred by violence. In some cases they experienced this in their homes and then were further brutalized by the time they spent in the streets and in prison.
What is simply astonishing is seeing in these youngsters sincere longing for more genuine and more human rapport; witnessing this longing triggers in us adults the need to verify the authenticity of our life choices and behavior.
In the course of these years we have realized, beyond a shadow of a doubt, how ineffective (and inhuman) it would be to focus mainly on rules of conduct, on the letter of the law and similar methods without showing to these young people the inner-beauty that blooms and grows from the type of friendship which takes one as he is. We are convinced that this inner-beauty, which seemed, often, lifeless because it was so wounded and distrustful for lack of love, can flower again.
In this context of true friendship one dares to take a second look at his past and all the bad things he has done and say: “I must truly seek the forgiveness of the woman that brought me into this world.”
Behind bars, seeing the tears flowing freely from his Mom’s eyes, a boy realizes the size of his mistakes. So often we come across parents who are anguished and despairing on account of their wayward sons.
A few months ago, we witnessed what to us seemed like a miracle. We saw a father asking his son to forgive him for the harsh ways in which he had treated him. He begged his son to come home.
Yet an even more lasting change of heart occurred when one of our boys noticed a large sum of money stashed under the mat of the car he was washing and was tempted to steal it. He overcame the temptation by reflecting on the new friendship he had begun with us. He continued to wash the car, much to the surprise of its owner.
We attribute these radical changes to the mysterious presence of the Lord among us. They spur us on.
After so many years in this unique apostolate I have learned a lot because I face a type of humanity that challenges me from the first encounter with it, and that has nothing to hide because it has already exposed the evil of which the human heart is capable. I deal with people who thirst, like everyone else, often perhaps unconsciously, for what is good, truthful and just. I have learned to be truer to my principles. And, undoubtedly, I have also learned to be a better shepherd, so I hope, according to the heart of Jesus.
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