GUARATINGUETÁ, BRAZIL – Twenty-seven years ago, a group of young men hung out day after day on a street corner, using drugs, selling drugs and making a nuisance.
One day, Nelson Giovanelli Rosendo stopped to meet the men – not to share drugs, as they expected, but to talk with them. The newcomer intrigued a desperate Antônio Eleutério Neto.
“On the day I asked Nelson for help, I was returning from a party, a little high,” he said. “I told him, ‘You can take me wherever you want to, but I can’t bare to see my mother suffering any more because of me. I want to get out of this.’”
Giovanelli consulted with Father Hans Stapel at Our Lady of the Glory Church, and they created a community to help those with addictions. Giovanelli and Eleutério and his friends rented a house and launched what evolved into Fazenda da Esperança – Farms of Hope – recognized today as the largest and most successful chemical dependency recuperation program in Brazil.
More than 60 fazendas exist in 10 countries, led by a stoic German-born Franciscan who believes people can rid themselves of drugs and alcohol if they place their faith in God – and in each other.
“Every time when we met, the presence of God was so strong that we could feel the verse where Jesus said, ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be there,’” Stapel said of those early sessions. “The joy among us grew until the moment Nelson said, ‘Can’t we live together forever and have this joy?’”
In 1984, businessman Oswaldo Galvao Cesar gave Stapel a small farm near Guaratinguetá, northeast of São Paulo, and Giovanelli’s group moved there. Eleutério and his friends drifted back to a life of drugs, and Giovanelli went to give Stapel the bad news.
“They all have left,” he said.
“Is God gone?” Stapel asked.
“No,” Giovanelli replied.
“Then we go on,” Stapel said.
And go on they did, building an organization that has served 10,000 people, and today has 2,000 men and women living at any one time on fazendas. They live in houses of up to 14, learning how to quit drugs “and how to become new human beings,” Stapel said.
“They are full of needs and problems – problems with love, family, rejections, hate and all these human things,” he said. “It’s obvious to me that only love can recover this kind of people. Consequently, all our work strategy is an excuse to love – to concretely love.”
The process is lengthy and patience is necessary “in order to free them from selfishness,” Stapel explained. “We need a year. In the first part, we carry them. After that, they walk for themselves. But the most important part is the third one, when they carry others.”
Each day, a fazenda chooses a Bible verse to serve as its theme. “In the same way that you learn a new language, step by step, they learn this lifestyle introduced by Jesus and the word of God,” Stapel said. “This new lifestyle is what makes them substitute happiness and joy for drugs.”
Stapel and Giovanelli are co-founders of the organization along with two women – Luci Rosendo (Giovanelli’s aunt) and Iraci da Silva Leite – who run women’s fazendas. Also present is Eleutério; after leaving in 1984, he returned three years later and today runs a bleach manufacturing plant at the Guaratinguetá fazenda.
“When I came back, Nelson made a feast for me,” he said. “He treated me as a brother, and I felt a great joy for him. Like the prodigal son, I had left and I had made mistakes, but I got back on the right path, and Father Hans and Nelson stood by me.”
Giovanelli remembers that occasion and how it reflects Stapel’s belief that the Bible is not just for meditation but also to be lived. He quotes from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians:
“I become weak with the weak in order to get someone to Christ. These words gave me the inspiration to meet with Antônio – not just to speak about God but to see God in him.”
Stapel is at the center of the experience. Leite believes that in Stapel “we meet Christ as the good shepherd,” and Giovanelli speaks warmly of his mentor’s vision and wisdom “to give people the discovery that ‘I can change my life.’ This charisma is very strong. He’s like a father to us.”
Stapel and Giovanelli take great heart when they see residents such as Rodrigo Souza, who started to take drugs at 11 and spent time in jail at 16. He struggled at the fazenda and was ready to leave after two months. His house leader talked him through the tough stages and last summer Souza led his own house of men, some old enough to be his father.
“I thought it would be really hard because I was under 18,” he said. “I realized that it was not as hard as I thought it would be. I try to tell them that everything they are going through happened to me, too, and not to worry.”
Aline Pinto Reverse felt similar unease last spring when she joined the nearby women’s fazenda. She missed drugs, found it difficult to live with women from other cultures and tired of the gossip.
“It really was an ugly situation,” she said. “I wanted to go away. But then I talked with my leader and she said to me, ‘Remember how much suffering you went through before you came here? You don’t want to go through that again.’”
After they leave fazendas, many become involved in Living in Hope support groups for former residents. Souza could see himself working at a fazenda, and Pinto may want to run a restaurant, thanks to her work at Restaurante Esquina da Esperança – the Corner of Hope Restaurant.
It is at the same Guaratinguetá location where Giovanelli and Eleutério met in 1983. Stapel acquired the property, and the restaurant opened two years ago, staffed by women from the fazenda. On a quiet Wednesday evening in August, Pinto waits on tables – quite a change from her former lifestyle … and quite a change from the corner where Eleutério once did drugs.
Progress like this is what brought Pope Benedict XVI to Guaratinguetá on May 12, 2007. He celebrated Mass at a mountainside fazenda and blessed 2,000 current and former residents from around the world.
“When I said goodbye to the pope, I told him we had enjoyed two hours at the paradise that the Lord had prepared for us,” Stapel said. “And the pope said to me that those two hours provided the Lord a lot of joy and happiness.”
Life quickly returned to normal at the fazenda, with attention again focused on the fundamental task of helping others heal themselves.
“Christ said, ‘As you do unto others, you do unto me.’ Because of this, I believe that God is in each and every creation,” Stapel said. “Sometimes we cannot notice it, but He is. If we love this person, step by step, he also will start to love, and God will grow inside him.”
About the Opus Prize: St. Thomas and the Opus Prize Foundation of Minnetonka, Minn., collaborated to identify the honorees, recognized as unsung heroes who are transforming lives through a commitment to service and social entrepreneurship. They will use the award money from the foundation to further their faithbased humanitarian efforts. Find out more at www.stthomas.edu/opusprize