Seeds of hope for a drug-free life

November 1, 2014 - 12:00am -- Living City

By Caterina Ruggiu

In Brazil, the word fazenda means “farm.” Da esperança means “of hope.” Around the world there are Farms of Hope managed by young people, who live in small communities and in houses once inhabited by farmers. They share a common story of drug use and marginalization.

Together they want to rebuild a different today and a better tomorrow. It’s hope that grows day after day, thanks to everyone’s contribution.

This kind of community can now be found, not only in 24 of the 27 Brazilian states but in 15 countries around the world — Argentina, Italy, Germany, Guatemala, Mozambique, Mexico, Paraguay, the Philippines, Portugal, Russia, Switzerland and Uruguay. There are more than 100 communities, with some 3,000 young people undergoing the program, and 50 more in the making. Now there are plans for two farms in the U.S. — one in Corpus Christi, Texas, and another one in Miami.

The relapse rate, as studied by Brazilian universities in Porto Alegre and Bragança and a German one in Cologne, is a low 20%, compared to the usual averages of 40–60%.

If on one of these farms you meet a Franciscan with a jovial face, a strong build and a heart as big as his body, and you ask him how he made all these things happen without a penny in his pocket, you get a short answer: “Here there is the hand of divine providence.”

He is Rev. Hans Stapel, but everyone calls him “Frei” Hans, “father” in Portuguese. Born in Paderborn, Germany, he had a difficult and troubled youth following World War II, and as a student searching for meaning in his life, one day he saw the Gospel shine through the lives of some schoolmates who were in contact with the Focolare.

“I had found what I was looking for,” he would later say. “In deepening the spirituality of unity, I discovered St. Francis and my own vocation.”

He was sent to Brazil, and after his ordination in 1979 he started out in the parish in Guaratinguetá in the state of São Paulo. Every day after Mass he invited the youth to reflect and meditate on the daily Gospel and on how they could live the words of Jesus in daily life.

At the start they chose short passages of the Gospel to be lived during the day, like “love your enemies,” “give and you shall receive,” and so on. Then they would share experiences of how they tried to put those words into practice at work or with their friends or families.

The courage to reach out
Nelson Giovanelli, 17 when he joined the group, was very deeply drawn by this experience. On his way back home from work every day, he would pass a street corner where young people used drugs quite openly. Like everybody else, he was afraid of them and tried as much as possible to avoid contact with them.

But one day, after their group had meditated on the word, “I made myself weak, to conquer the weak” (1Cor 9:22), Giovanelli realized that those young people were his brothers too, and that meditation gave him the courage to approach them, not so much to ask them to stop using drugs or to invite them to come to church, but simply to get to know them better.

That first evening he stayed with them for a few hours, just chatting with them and taking an interest in their lives. One of them told him, “This is the first time in my life that I have found a real friend.” Encouraged by this experience, Giovanelli decided to visit his new friends every day after work, and a beautiful relationship of mutual trust was born among them.

Touched by the selfless love that he shared with this group of boys, one of them, Antonio, decided to confide his desire to change. He told Giovanelli, “I can no longer bear seeing my mother cry because of me. I want to stop using drugs, but I cannot do it alone. Please help me!”

Surprised by this, Giovanelli felt that God’s hand was leading him to introduce Antonio to the group meeting in the parish. The new life that Antonio found inspired him to give up using drugs. He, too, discovered the revolutionary effects of the Word of God when put into practice.

The changes happening in the life of Antonio did not go unnoticed by his former friends. Seeing him happy, even without drugs, they too wanted to join the group, one after the other. Eventually a new kind of friendship grew among them, bound together now by a profound experience of living the Gospel. This prompted Stapel to teach them and eventually help them find an apartment where they could live together as a small community.

“We didn’t have anything to offer them but our hospitality and our lifestyle, so different from what they were accustomed to,” he remembers. “Day after day we saw those boys regain his self-esteem and a taste for the simple things in life.”

A new spiritual family
Gradually the priest realized that the experience of living the Gospel, with a heart open to others as brothers and sisters, had therapeutic effects. And although he didn’t know it at the time, this was the beginning of something new: not only a therapeutic community but also a new spiritual family in the church.

Someone offered them an abandoned farm, located in the picturesque mountain region of the Serra da Mantiqueira, not too far away from the parish.

“We had neither physicians nor medicines, since it was not easy to obtain them,” he remembers. “So I employed the only means available to us: the spirituality of communion. We tried first of all to reawaken in these young people the dynamism of Christian love.”

In the Brazilian fazendas an average of 120–150 people, men and women, live in separate groups, coming together on many occasions. In other countries, such as Germany and Italy, around 15–20 people live in a single house. Despite their different and painful pasts, they are united by the struggle to rebuild a new life. Many succeed, though not without the help of those around them.

Some of those in charge of the centers were former drug addicts themselves who were able to overcome their habits, naturally with training and continuous supervision.

Each one of the young people has his own story to tell, his own “way of the cross,” often marked by the humiliating experience of feeling rejected by society. “We have our ‘three pillars,’ as we call them: the spirituality, work and being a family,” says Stapel. And it works in every culture, though there are different ways of expressing it, “because, in the end, everyone wants to be loved and love. We are made for love.”

The young people work in the fields, in the small workshops and businesses of the fazenda. When they experience success from a well-finished piece of furniture or because the land starts yielding fruits, they regain self-respect and self-esteem. Each group supports itself with its own work. This is important, because so many of them have lost the habit of working regular hours or have never had a job before. They work together, and this helps everyone become responsible.

This way of living together, giving and receiving, forgiving and being forgiven, can touch the hardest souls. In time a style of family-life blooms in an atmosphere where — even if they are not aware of it — Jesus himself is present in the midst of them, according to the evangelical promise, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (cf. Mt 18:20). This is perhaps the true secret of its success: today, as it was yesterday, Jesus, present among his own, heals the poor in body and in spirit.

In the evening many of the fazenda’s inhabitants attend Mass, which they love to call the “sinners’ supper.”
“Most of them had lost all contact with Christianity,” explains Stapel. In discovering God, they are able to discover themselves as persons again and to find meaning in their life. “I remember one Muslim who at a certain point always sat in the first row at Mass. Afterwards he showed me that he discovered the same values in the Quran.”

During their stay, many develop a new sense of Christian practices, and those who come from outside to attend are surprised to find a deep atmosphere of recollection. This is also what touches the hearts of those who are beginning therapy.

Personal discoveries
When asked what makes this program different from other rehab facilities, Roland Muhlig, who is in charge of the fazenda in the Philippines, responds: “We try not to underline their history of drugs and addiction and the darkness that needs to be left behind, because that would not give a new direction to their lives and would serve only to make them aware of what should be avoided. Rather we try to help them discover a new life, leading them to a personal discovery of God, who is Love, as their source of light and happiness, a source that we firmly believe will bring true fulfillment. Abstinence from drugs comes about as a natural consequence.”

He adds: “When he visited the original community in Brazil, Pope Benedict called them ‘ambassadors of hope.’ To have stopped using drugs is but a small achievement, since they discover a totally new way of life based on love and unity, which they can bring to their homes and workplaces after leaving the farm. Through their testimony they can also encourage others to make the same experience as they did. The various groups that have now been formed in different communities, composed of graduates, are like ‘living cells’ that can generate new life in the places where they find themselves. They are truly signs of hope.”                       

— With Susanne Janssen

Based on Focolare spirituality

Founded in 1983, “Family of Hope” is a work recognized by the Catholic Church that grew from simple beginnings in Guaratinguetá, Brazil. In May 2010, Pope Benedict XVI approved it as a lay congregation serving the Farms of Hope, which are recognized as NGOs in each country.
Most of the community’s spirituality and central pillars, such as the Word of Life, are based on the spirituality of unity of the Focolare. The daily work and love for the poor have their roots in the tradition of St. Francis. Though there are still a lot of contacts with the Focolare and the Franciscans, Rev. Hans Stapel understood that the Farms of Hope were a work on their own. There are now 17 priests and 600 members of the Family of Hope, both consecrated members and volunteers.
Traveling to Brazil in April 2014, then Focolare co-president Giancarlo Faletti recognized the Farms of Hope as “a charism which is the fruit of the charism of unity. This shows God’s life in action, his presence in our history!”