SÃO PAULO – Brazil is mourning the death of Father Gilson Frank dos Reis, a recovered addict who dedicated his life to helping drug users and homeless people in Sao Paulo.
The priest died on Aug. 21 after getting COVID-19 during a mission on the street about a month ago.
Dos Reis was one of the first members of Mission Bethlehem, a religious community founded in Sao Paulo by the Italian-born Father Gianpietro Carraro in 2005 with the goal of taking drug addicts off the streets through evangelization.
Carraro said that a month ago dos Reis was visiting the homeless in the central part of the city, where there is a large concentration of drug addicts. Mission Bethlehem’s methodology includes such visits, which sometimes can take several days.
During the visits, the priests and missionaries sleep on the street, talk to dozens of homeless people, pray with them, and celebrate Masses. They also try to persuade addicts to abandon the streets and live at the Mission’s houses.
“He told me that during a celebration a homeless man gave him hugs and spent all the time around him. That man looked very sick. He told me: ‘Father, I know how I caught that disease’,” Carrano said.
According to missionary Michael Ortiz Danuello, dos Reis never showed any anger with the way he was infected. “He only lamented that he wasn’t able to take that man out of the streets,” he told Crux.
Dos Reis was known for his charismatic personality and his gift to establishing ties with the homeless. An article on his death published by the Archdiocese of Sao Paulo’s newspaper received dozens of comments from former addicts helped by the priest.
“When he arrived in Crackland [an area where hundreds of addicts spend day and night smoking crack in Sao Paulo], people would just stop using drugs for a while and come to talk to him. Everybody was happy when he was there,” Danuello said.
The priest himself was a former drug user. At 11, dos Reis began smoking cigarettes. He spent his adolescence and youth smoking crack and even lived in Crackland for some time.
“One day, after spending the whole night smoking crack, a woman looked into his eyes and said that Jesus loved him. He was suddenly touched by that message and decided to call his mother for help. After nine months at a rehabilitation center, he was sober again,” Carraro explained.
Dos Reis always shared his story with the people on the street, said Danuello, who is also a recovered addict.
“He was like us. He came from the same hell where we lived. And he became a priest. So, why couldn’t we do the same?”
After his recovery, dos Reis began working and got engaged to a woman. He also founded a small community in order to welcome and evangelize addicts. In 2005, he met Carraro, who had established Mission Bethlehem only a few months before. Dos Reis decided to leave everything behind and join Carraro, soon becoming one of the most active missionaries of the new community. In 2016, he was ordained a priest.
“We were then a small group of only five people. Now we have 2,200 beds to welcome the homeless and 240 missionaries,” Carraro said.
Dos Reis was a great inspiration for many of those living on the streets.
“I had recently arrived at the Mission after years of addiction. I saw how happy he was when he was evangelizing the people and playing his guitar, and was captivated by him,” said José Antônio Cardoso, 38, a former drug addict currently in charge of one of Mission Bethlehem’s houses.
He described dos Reis’s approach to the homeless as a “talk between equals.”
“Many times, missionaries and priests talk to the homeless with a certain distance. They’re afraid of getting their clothes dirty. Dos Reis was not like that. He would approach anyone, no matter their condition,” he told Crux.
Cardoso wished to work like dos Reis and decided to join the Mission for good.
“I’ve been in the community for 15 years. Dos Reis was my spiritual director and accompanied all of my life since then. He even celebrated my marriage,” he said.
Danuello emphasized dos Reis’ strong convictions and faith as some of the most important of his attributes as a role model.
“When I met him in 2012, I had been sober for only 30 days. At that point, I had already failed rehabilitation 62 times. When I was feeling weak and thinking about leaving the community, I would see that man’s unbeatable conviction and feel inspired by him,” Danuello recalled.
During missions in Crackland with dos Reis, he saw how the priest would give his own jacket to somebody who was feeling cold and his shoes to someone in need. “He always came back to the community barefoot,” Danuello said.
Mission Bethlehem had to intensify its activities after the pandemic started, since the resulting economic crisis led to more people living on the streets. Special measures had to be taken to protect the sick and elderly.
“Fortunately, up to this point, only three among 700 people with fragile health conditions died. Healthcare experts had forecasted that we could lose as many as 140 people,” Carraro said.
He said that dos Reis had high blood pressure and other health problems. “Spiritual conversion happens, but nature is inescapable. He used drugs for many years and his body surely suffered the consequences,” Carraro said.
Danuello said dos Reis’s example will never be forgotten in Mission Bethlehem.
“He taught us that we’re all equal, and we should never forget that when we see somebody on the street. I lost a dear friend, but I gained an intercessor in Heaven,” he said.