Dirty Faith is several things: 1) a history of Hope Unlimited for Children in Brazil; a call to action; and a Jeremiad against the sins of indifference, the ills of hoarding wealth and the oppression and neglect of children in Brazil and around the world. People in missions, churches focused on foreign missions and even Liberation Theology advocates will enjoy the book. Agnostics may be challenged and atheists and some humanists will likely question the need to shroud sound policy in religious rhetoric.
When I moved from Brazil in 1990, I met Jack Smith, the founder of Hope here in California. He wanted to pick my brain about Brazil, Brazilian culture and the status of orphans and street children in Brazil. Calloused as I was with street crime and chasing “pivetes” (Brazilian street children), I was glad to talk to Jack. But I think I provided very little clarity or good information on the topics except to confirm that yeah, there were a bunch of street kids in Brazil and the problem seemed to be getting worse as poverty, inequality and inflation continued to rage even as Brazil emerged from the shadows of the military dictatorship. The Candelaria killings in Rio de Janeiro, the death squads supported by merchants and gradual rise of drug gang domination in the favelas were all in the news.
Whatever the effect of my conversation on Jack, as a driven Christian missionary he would not be deterred and certainly his efforts and those of his son, Philip as well as those who came to support Hope have been successful. More than two decades after its founding in Brazil, Hope has a story to tell and Nowell, who became President of Hope, makes an important contribution while at the same time promoting his bigger goal of motivating Christians to put into practice their professed faith.
The “improvement business” requires framing the problem and Nowell starts out with all the dire statistics and heart touching stories. He gives the big picture of billions of children in poverty worldwide and the individual stories of Brazilian children prostituting and drugging themselves well before reaching puberty. Jack – having worked long years with orphans in Ethiopia – had the experience, the contacts and the calling. Philip inherited the same heart and was able to pick up his father’s mantle and assume the leadership role in Brazil.
Setting up the problem with statistics and examples, Nowell then appeals to the scriptures and his emphasis on how the Word should be understood. His emphasis is on love and equality and how the Bible requires believers to dedicate themselves to the “least of these”, in particular the orphans, the widows and imprisoned. In Brazil, the work of Hope has been to take kids off the streets and give them shelter, safety, food, education and a family setting all with a strong emphasis on Christian conversion. Hope has been based on faith and the material has followed from the moral. Hope Unlimited has worked through the application of a rigorous “tough” love policy. In this, what will irritate some about Nowell’s work is his insistence on Christ-centered doctrine and the belief that only Christ can change lives.
Because of Nowell’s focus, most of the book points out failures and sins of the wealthy US churches rather than the successes of Hope Unlimited in Brazil. Part of this flows from what I believe is the author’s sincere perception of complacency amongst US Christians. But another part is perhaps his desire to transform US Christianity so as to better share the wealth. According to Nowell, the professional Christians and the churches need to get back to the example of first century converts and how they formed a sharing, caring but also rule-based community. He cites the statistics that churches fail to live up to a biblical standard and that outreach in both financial and personal terms of most churches falls well short of expectation. Thus, he challenges the Christian church to change. The church needs to get out of its shell and understand Christianity as not only belief but also action and action means addressing the needs of the poor. He points out that Hope has done this with street children and more recently with imprisoned children, citing specifically the abject situation of the Cariacica prison for minors in the Brazilian state of Espirito Santo.
While Nowell often argues from a theological and institutional position, he also rightly emphasizes the individual in Christian missions. Thus he names the children at Hope and he gives specific examples where there have been successes. I also find it heartening that, unlike many fundraisers, Nowell is also willing to admit failures both at an institutional and individual level. Hope is not perfect as an institution. Nor does it have a track record anywhere near 100% in actually transforming street kids. Some run away, some are lost, some return to drugs, some go back to prostitution. Institutionally, Hope struggles with how much it should be “pure” in its doctrine and how much it must cede to the world as part of its outreach and participation in the larger Brazilian community.
Aside from its “parochial” focus, I find a couple of other aspects of Dirty Faith bothersome. As an outsider and the President of an entity at work in Brazil, Nowell seeks to interpret the country and understand especially his target clientele (street children, delinquents, young prostituted girls). These kids and their families come typically from a situation of dire poverty and inequality. I believe he tends to blame Brazil and Brazilian culture as a whole for the situation and as such might benefit from a broader historical perspective. It is wrong to assume that certain evils may be inherent to Brazil. This focus is typical of US evangelicals who often arrive with airs of cultural superiority. True, Nowell is aware of this posture, but even so I think he finds it difficult to escape.
Second, the book, because it is directed mainly at evangelicals, will fail to reach a larger audience with the message that only a mix of the material and the moral can provide a more lasting remedy to individuals, specifically the kids that are taken off the streets. I don’t think that Nowell believes Hope and the Christ-centered formula is the only that will work in mending the lives on Earth of the children affected. Jewish caritas, Islamic care and Buddhist meditation might work just as well if correctly adapted to the context. Nowell advocates for Christianity. Those who are not of the same persuasion may discard his discourse out of hand.
Third, the socio-economic environment in Brazil is slowly (too slowly for most of us) changing. Inequality is being reduced. Street kids are not as prevalent as they were a decade or two ago. Education is expanding and Bolsa Familia has had a positive impact. Still, I have to agree that Hope has another 100 years or so of work in Brazil.
Overall, Nowell’s Dirty Faith is a challenging read. It will make some Christians sit up. But I fear, like most prodding, it will only be as effective as its direct application. Fortunately, Hope Unlimited for Children in Campinas and Espirito Santo is doing the dirty work, based on faith and love, with greater effect than most similar entities. FEBEM and other Brazilian official and unofficial entities can learn much from Hope’s successes and fall downs. In addition, concerned persons, Christians or not, can get a grasp of the need that exists to take care of the least wherever they may be. An enormous problem but one that can only be addressed by first recognizing that it exists.