Brazilian street children are a simple lot. Barbie accessories and computerized, trilingual gadgets are as foreign as a lunar colony; instead, construction-paper kites and empty pop bottles entertain like a Furby. Imagine their excitement upon seeing two tall, blue-eyed missionaries in dark pants and zipper ties! Pop bottles drop every time we pass.
“Tu! Fala inglês!” they yell, headlight eyes full of expectation. “You! Say English!” How exciting to hear another language!
Or there’s the plea of the economically minded children.
“Me dê dez!” they say, tiny hands extended as if to catch snowflakes. “Give me ten centavos!” Tasty hard candies and coconut sweet rolls dance seductively in their heads.
I’ll never forget one street child I met in the rain, a darling little girl with a tattered gray dress and a thousand-dollar smile. I watched at a distance as she tried to rip up a cardboard box with tiny, little-girl arms; soaked, she desperately needed a makeshift umbrella. The tiny creature ran as I approached, not out of fear so much as uncertainty. I tore the box open and demanded she sit with me under the bus stop’s protective concrete canopy. As we sat captive on that dry, deserted-island bus stop, surrounded by an ocean of rain, the little one’s golden soul–a soul that had withstood poverty’s corrosion–enchanted me. She called me “senhor”–“mister”–in her sing-song, northeast-Brazilian accent as if I were a king or a senator.
“You know, if you invested those ten centavos on NASDAQ, you could retire in thirty years.”
Her quizzical smile showed she’d never heard of the stock exchange.
“Thanks, mister. Thanks a lot.”
A little girl giggled as she half walked, half skipped down the street, a cardboard umbrella her only protection from the rain.
The constant “fala inglês/me dê dez” verbal assault irritates some missionaries, especially when the children really want to hear English or really want ten-centavo coconut bread. For me, though, one word ended the fala inglês/me dê dez aggravation: “chique.” “Chique” means “slick” in the sense that a person wearing a leather coat on his Harley is “slick.” It’s a grown-up word most street children don’t understand. I slyly used it to my advantage.
One torrid summer day my companion and I were walking down a certain street for the ten thousandth time. As we passed some little ones, the offending phrase assaulted our ears: “Fala inglês!”
I stopped and stared at the surprised youngsters.
Though cautious at first, they soon decided we were harmless and herded about us, lightning carried on toothpick legs.
“All right. You children clearly need some training. When I pass, you’re all to yell ‘chique, chique!’ Understood?”
The children smiled, guessing “chique” was either my name or some English word.
“All right, let’s practice,” I said, stepping backwards before advancing again. “Look! I’m passing you!”
“Chique, chique! Chique, chique!”
“Elder Red Elk,” I panted as we passed the same spot weeks later, “this sun is going to kill me! I’ve never sweat so much in my whole life!”
My thumbs-up was returned with a smile. The sky continued cloudless, but the sun let up.
“Elder Red Elk, that water we just drank had ants in it, but I downed it anyway because I didn’t want to offend Sister Barbosa. I’m going to ralf!”
The chique cured my stomach ache faster than Peptobismo.
“Elder Red Elk! If another guy says he ‘already has the truth’ I’m going to smack him!”
“Chique, chique! Chique, chique!”
Thus we formed an alliance, a relationship built not on “me dê dez” or “fala inglês” but on chiqueness. The children became our friends and helpers in ways I’d never anticipated.
“Não tem ninguém,” a little voice chirped as we knocked. “Nobody’s home.”
We moved to the next house and repeated the door-knocking ritual for the fifty thousandth time that day.
“Também,” the shirtless child said, jumping to his feet. “Nobody’s there.” Tattered shorts miraculously remained around a toothpick waist.
Our knock on the next door was echoed across the street by littler hands, as if the angel who had pushed the battered saints’ handcarts over Rocky Ridge had now come to give two sunburned missionaries a helpful push. The little boy was knocking doors for us!
“Hi, lady. Is your husband home? Those two white guys over there are looking for him.” His tiny black body was a strange silhouette against the house’s high, whitewashed wall.
“Sorry, bud. He’s working until 6:00.”
“He’s gone over here, guys. Let me check this next one!”
Our little spy continued until the street’s end, knocking and reporting his findings to his new American friends. The FBI could have hoped for no better undercover agent!
“You are one great little boy! Hey, I’ve got some chocolate here in my pocket. It’s a little melted, but probably still good. Are you hungry?”
Just as the tiniest terrestrial cloud blocks the brilliance of the celestial sun, so, too, can the tiniest terrestrial difficulty–often God’s blessing mislabeled–block our celestial happiness. How often does God send us blessings–like little street children who really like to talk–and yet we see only irritating curses? Why does God permit the innocent to be tried? Why does he let criancinhas vex His missionaries with fala inglês and me dê dez? Our “trials” are blessings, blessings like little ones dancing in the streets, to the rhythm of “chique, chique!”