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SÃO PAULO – Amid widespread poverty and an enduring financial crisis in Brazil, Christmas charity campaigns have assumed a somber tone.
Several parishes and Church organizations are not only appealing to donors with the usual message of “securing a Christmas dinner to a family that cannot afford to have one,” but are also denouncing the country’s abysmal inequality and social injustice, at times using unusually stark political terminology.
The Franciscan Service of Solidarity (SEFRAS) has mentioned on its campaign’s website that its goal is to give hope to “people tortured by hunger and extreme poverty.”
A social media post connected to the campaign said that “the inequality that exists in our society forbids Christmas to be a moment of celebration for many families.”
“It is not only about not having supper, but not knowing if there will be any food during the day. We struggle every day to secure meals for vulnerable families, beyond promoting their autonomy to be [socially] included,” the post said.
SEFRAS is one of the most active Catholic organizations assisting the homeless and people in extreme poverty in large cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. With the pandemic, it had to increase its services. It distributes around 4,300 hot meals every day and 2,000 food kits per month.
According to Father José Francisco dos Santos, SEFRAS director, the organization had to be tactful with the wording of its campaign’s contents.
“We cannot reduce such a precious moment of celebration to a political act. But we also cannot pretend that most problems that we are facing do not have a political nature,” dos Santos told Crux.
The problem is that the political polarization in the South American country, deepened since President Jair Bolsonaro took office, has made the debate of social problems acerbic.
While the opposition says Bolsonaro mismanaged the COVID-19 crisis and failed to guarantee economic recovery, further intensifying poverty, many of his supporters prefer not to recognize the escalation of the nation’s financial problems or to blame the opposition for the catastrophe – especially governors and mayors who imposed social distancing and other measures to combat the pandemic: Which Bolsonaro has never done.
Unemployment has grown by 8.5 percent among the poor and the average income has dropped 9.4 percent since the pandemic began. Across the country, social workers report that the number of homeless people has perceptibly increased.
“We think that COVID-19 has been poorly handled by the government. Hunger is not something natural, it has political causes,” dos Santos said. “But we cannot further ignite the political battle in Brazil, so we have been very careful.”
For SEFRAS, one of the ways of trying to touch the hearts of donors, and at the same time playing a prophetic role by denouncing injustices, is to demonstrate that the statistics really correspond to the worsening living conditions of many, and that those people are suffering.
“We notice that misery is growing every day. So, we try to concretely show it to the people without pointing fingers at anybody,” dos Santos said.
A similar approach has been adopted in the city of João Monlevade, in Minas Gerais State. A Christmas donation campaign that has been organized since 2016 had to be adapted due to the current crisis.
All previous drives had the goal of collecting funds to help the Church on Marajó Island, in the Amazon. The Diocese of Itabira-Coronel Fabriciano and the Prelature of Marajó are twin churches.
This year, the local Our Lady of Immaculate Conception parish decided to collect funds for the city’s own poor families.
“Social vulnerability has grown in João Monlevade. Many families are now facing hardships. The number of homeless people has also grown,” Father Marco José de Almeida told Crux.
The parish’s campaign is called “Christmas without Hunger – Who is hungry is in a hurry,” a motto created by late sociologist Herbert de Souza for an annual Christmas donation drive in the 1990s, when the country suffered a hyperinflation crisis.
“I feel that we are back to the 1990s; we are back to starvation. So many social accomplishments that we had conquered over the past years with much struggle are now lost,” de Almeida said.
The long document that presents the campaign’s plan includes a critical analysis of the current financial and social situation in Brazil and in João Monlevade. It mentions that Brazil is one of the ten most unequal countries in the world and that the pandemic has worsened that statistic.
“Giving legitimacy to unfair forms of life in society is to despise the Kingdom of God. So how can we make that Kingdom a reality and how can we expand it, particularly in an era of sabotaged rights? […] Only the one who coexists in solidary ways will take part in His Kingdom,” the text read.
The document pointed out that 800 families of João Monlevade now need monthly food kits distributed by the government and by civic organizations, including the Church.
The harsh assessment of the country’s social reality does not include accusations against particular politicians, which will hopefully keep if from becoming an object of political controversy. Instead, it urges churchgoers to make donations to the campaign. The goal is to collect $20,000. So far, they have collected around half of that amount.
“We had to establish a reasonable goal, lower than in previous years. We know that donors are also facing difficulties,” de Almeida said.
In the city of Juiz de Fora, also in Minas Gerais State, the text that presents Our Lady of Glory Social Service’s Christmas campaign mentions that “the economic crisis, aggravated by the pandemic, provoked a considerable growth in the poverty levels throughout the country.”
The 67-year-old center serves as a primary healthcare clinic, a community center, and also distributes food kits. It has been increasing the volume of donations in order to meet the needs of the growing number of families who ask for help.
“We have always been in touch with inequality and social exclusion in our daily work. The pandemic intensified all that,” coordinator Sandra Hansen told Crux.
She said that different social segments began to look for help during the pandemic. “Taxi drivers, street vendors, and other workers now need donations. We are not dealing only with the extremely poor anymore,” she said.
Initially the center helped 60 families with monthly food kits. The number was doubled after the COVID-19 outbreak, and later reached 200 families. Now, the Christmas drive has the goal of helping 300 families.
“People are more sympathetic this time of the year. Launching a donation campaign is also an opportunity to denounce inequality and the hardships that many have to face,” she said.