A Brazilian priest got a chance to truly see what young people are up against. That was the beginning of his call.
Father Gilson Sobreiro was just a young priest when his vocation was turned on its head. He had a meet-up with a group of young people with complicated lives. He thought he had answered God’s call by becoming a priest, but it turned out he was being called to start a whole new religious community dedicated to the poor and addicted around the world.
Fr. Sobreiro was a 30-year-old priest with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Brazil, and a Ph.D. student, when he was invited to accompany a group of young people on a weekend retreat. Many of these young people had issues with drugs.
He accepted the invitation but asked organizers not to tell anyone he was a priest until it was time for the closing Mass. The organizers agreed.
So Fr. Sobreiro went on the retreat, incognito. Thinking he was one of them, the youth talked freely about stuff in their lives, including sex, drugs, the Holy Spirit, and wanting to get clean.
The young priest heard some things that made him blush, but he also heard about the young men’s thirst for God and their hopes for the future. Fr. Sobreiro realized he had been oblivious to what young people were up against.
Worse still, he realized local Church leaders had no clue how to really help these young men and women.
After the retreat Fr. Sobreiro and some friends – all laypeople- rented a small house in a poor area of Sao Paolo. Their plan was simple: make friends with those in need, offer them a place to live, and let them experience living with people who care about them. They never asked anyone to get sober but were there to help when someone wanted to get clean.
Eventually Fr. Sobreiro’s bishop assigned him to a parish in another poor area in Sao Paolo notorious for its drug problems. The first week he was there five young people were killed by drug dealers.
Fr. Sobreiro decided the solution was to take the church out into the streets, literally. He organized processions through the neighborhood on feast days and held a weekly charismatic healing Mass outdoors. Slowly, people in the neighborhood started taking part in these events and young people who used drugs told Fr. Sobreiro they tried to stay clean on the day of the healing Mass so they could participate.
Meanwhile, the lay friends who had rented that little house with Fr. Sobreiro announced they wanted to dedicate themselves to helping young addicts full time. Floored by their decision, he went on another retreat. This time he came back knowing he was called to start a new religious community.
Thus was born the Fraternity of the Poor Jesus.
Today the fraternity is made up of friars and sisters liviging in 80 houses in 12 different countries. There are three houses in the US and one in Canada. All members take the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience plus a vow of total availability to the poor. They focus primarily on the homeless and addicted but also work with inmates and people caught in the sex trade.
For the last seven months, Friar Benjamin of The Holy Trinity has been setting up the fraternity’s newest home in Los Angeles. Three friars and four sisters live in the L.A. community.
On Saturdays the friars and sisters walk around L.A.’s “Skid Row” with volunteers handing out sandwiches to the homeless in order to get to know them and build friendships.
“We’re not giving food out, we’re serving Jesus,” Friar Benjamin told Aleteia.
On Monday evenings the fraternity goes out to visit families dealing with addiction. “We pray the rosary [together] and then we pray over the family,” Friar Benjamin said. Eventually the community hopes to offer their full Stay Sober ministry in Los Angeles, which includes offering addicts a home and services to help them rebuild a sober, healthy life.
Friar Benjamin said the Fraternity focuses on those living in the worst areas in a given city, the “areas avoided by society, because Jesus did.”
“Helping people is not that difficult. We just need to meet them where they are,” said Friar Benjamin. Over the years he said he and the other members of the fraternity learned that, “without God’s grace there is a big chance I can end up [on the streets].”
He said no one ever dreams of living on the streets, but often they suffer a major loss – of a spouse, a child, a job – and don’t have the balance or resources to deal with it. From there things get worse step by step. “Everything happens one step at a time, both ways,” said Friar Benjamin.
The friars and sisters of the fraternity do seemingly simple things to try to help people begin walking back in the right direction.
“This is not Fr. Gilson’s project, this is Jesus’ project,” said Friar Benjamin.