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An account of how a group of organizers of a side event at the recent Rio+20 Summit will always cherish the Summit.

On Wednesday, June 20, when leaders of more than 100 countries started the high level deliberation of the Rio+20 Summit in their attempt to secure the future of the world in the beautiful Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, a decent Roman Catholic house, some 50 kilometers away from where the leaders assembled, was doing its bit to serve humanity in the way it believes would make a difference. The House was feeding 500 homeless people.

Away from media limelight, the seven people who live at the House and 30 volunteers, under the stewardship of the septuagenarian José Batista Sobrinho, had negotiated their morning sleep and started cooking the dinner meal early in the day. The feeding is an every Wednesday-affair for the House.

This gesture humbled Daniel Maselli of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) who was staying at the House that he immediately volunteered to serve food.

“It immediately provided me with the feeling of not being a nuisance in Rio but maybe of some help,” Daniel Maselli says adding that he couldn’t otherwise help the feeling of being left in an “artificial bulb of the Rio+20 Conference.”

The House, formally called the ACVM (Asociación de Comunidades de Vida Mariana – Association of Marian Life Communities) is a philanthropic group representing an association of the Catholic Church. The House and the land on which it is built belong to the Society of Jesus and are lent to the House on loan.

Each day life begins at the two-storey House with a modest breakfast of fresh Brazilian bread, baked beans, cheese and ham served with tea, coffee and chocolate.  All guests and the seven people who live in the House sit around two rectangular tables laid next to each other and help themselves in humble Portuguese greetings and smiles.

It was what the 20 people from Switzerland, representing SDC and other organizations, the Peru government, CONDESAN (an organization representing the Consortium for Sustainable Development of the Andean Ecorregion) and two journalists from Bhutan and Ecuador was greeted with. All these guests had come to participate at the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development and the House had agreed to accommodate them. 

The 20 odd guests were mostly awed at the hospitality of José Batista Sobrinho and his team. They seemed to have smiles painted on their face and always asked whether the guests were comfortable. If one asked for a glass of water, Sobrinho would go in the kitchen and bring back a bottle of chilled water and insist you to have an orange juice and a cake as well.  Each incident exhibited by the people at the House was Brazilian hospitality at display.

The foreigner guests at the House had got together to organize the Mountain Pavilion at the sidelines of the Rio+20 Summit. As each member of the group started arriving, they were welcomed with the warmth of a relative coming home.

The organizers were soon struck with the reality of logistical difficulties to set up the Mountain Pavilion located at the Athletes Park which is about an hour’s drive from the House with the dreadful traffic of Rio stretching it to double the time. When the organizer’s efforts to hire a truck to take materials to the Athletes Park failed, Sobrinho stepped in to arrange a truck.

When the organizers were on the verge of giving up on their search for an electrician, Sobrinho volunteered again to bring a personal electrician friend of his. Sobrinho became an angel for the organizers when their search to hire some chairs for the Mountain Pavilion proved futile. He gave 85 chairs from the House without any charge. 

The tight schedule took a toll on many organizers like Daniel Maselli who was severely challenged by his broken back. When other team members failed to bring in a physiotherapist, the concerned Sobrinho again runs to the scene and brings along a physiotherapist to attend to him.

The services at the House were modest at best. “While the infrastructure was a kind of a maximum ‘0.5 star hotel’ the human relationship and the care provided by Sobrinho and his team did more than compensated any possible material shortcoming,” says Daniel Maselli.

Staying at the House was a compromise for the organizers in terms of privacy and comfort. All 20 organizers were sleeping in two big rooms where multiple beds have been laid to accommodate them. There was no scope to divide the rooms between the two genders. All of them, together with those living in the House, shared three toilets and bathrooms. It was like a large happy family.

Sobrinho agreed to let the organizers stay at the House for a charge of US$ 15 a night for one person. The service included a free breakfast. This was the only formal arrangement made. But Sobrinho and his team were not really good in keeping to formal agreements. They were all over the place, literally ensuring that all their guests had had their lunch and dinners as well. They did not charge anything extra for it not to mention the extravagant supply of hot coffee, tea and fruit juices throughout the day.

While luxury hotels in Rio de Janeiro charge US$ 5 to 20 a day to provide internet services, Sobrinho believed that such charges were unnecessary and provided internet for free for the organizers round the clock throughout their stay. 

It is imperative to note here that hotel costs in Rio de Janeiro attracted international headlines just before the Summit when the European Parliament opted not to attend the Summit because of “unaffordable hotels in expensive Rio.” Good hotels suited for delegates of such Summit were prized anywhere between US$ 300 to 1,000 a night.

 Assuming that Mountain Pavilion organizers had stayed in one such hotel costing US$ 350 a night, it would have spent a total of US$ 66,850 for 191 hotel nights it spent in Rio. In contrast, it cost them a comparatively meager sum of US$ 2,865 which is just 4% of what it would have had to spend on the hotel. Sustainability does come at a price.

 Regardless of how negotiations went at the global summit just kilometers away, all the guests loved retiring the day in the company of Sobrinho and his team. All of them had only smiles when they talked about the House.

Luzmila Rosales of CONDESAN says she was humbled to have met this group of people of the House. “They teach you practically to regard and respect every human being,” she gleefully said.

A journalist from Ecuador, Rocio Munoz, said she was “touched and overwhelmed.”

Coming from Switzerland, Clara Ariza says, “I personally learned from their generosity, humbleness and from realizing the reality of the homeless and needy people in Rio. Seeing so many people volunteering and willing to contribute with their time and resources to make a better living for all was very encouraging.”

The ACVM was conceived in 1968 with a common dream shared by a group of young people to help marginalized group of young people. The initiative began by giving leadership courses to young people who wanted to promote evangelism, Sobrinho says.

Young underprivileged people began to crowd the group and they decided to have a physical structure to house the noble movement. In 1992, when the city of Rio de Janeiro was hosting the historic Earth Summit, the house decided to conduct social work for the needy people and four years later the existing House took shape. Since then, Sobrinho and his team have never looked back.  

Despite being a Christian organization, Sobrinho claims “We do not ask about the religion of the people. We help but we strive to be worthy of respect in our society.”  The House is indeed a place that serves humanity.

About two months ago, Sobrinho found a black pregnant girl in the streets of the city. He took her to the hospital for delivery. After a week, the hospital asked the House to provide her shelter and without a second thought, Sobrinho took her to the House where she now lives with her new born son. Similarly, the House had also taken in a young man from the streets. Today, the young mother and the man have decided to spend the rest of their lives together as a couple and the young man has managed to get a job at a local gas station with the House’s support. 

The House is supported by voluntary contributions and donations from supporters. It receives donations both in kind and cash. To supplement for cash income, the House organizes festivals, contests and charity dinners where participants make contributions.

 There are about 25 communities and eight pre-communities including about 330 beneficiaries who benefit from the philanthropic work of the House. About 150 people help in conducting leadership course, retreats and meeting and about 30 volunteers always helps at the House when it is involved in anything.

The face of the movement, José Batista Sobrinho, 73, hails from state of Pernambuco, the city of St. Joseph of Egypt, in northeastern Brazil. He immigrated to Rio de Janeiro on May 27, 1959 because of drought in his homeland and need to support his family.

After the Rio+20 Summit, the Mountain Pavilion organizers, in an act of reciprocation, donated to the House the equipment bought for the Pavilion exhibitions, this included  two television sets, a fridge, a coffee maker among other things. They left with heavy hearts but with a goodwill realization that they had made lifelong friends.

Before coming to Rio, the organizers were consciously looking for alternative places rather than the expensive hotels in Rio to stay during the Summit. “When I received the proposal by CONDESAN (to stay at the House), I immediately supported the idea,” says Daniel Maselli. “It was a multiple win situation even providing the opportunity to donate at the end of the Conference the remaining valid infrastructure to such a place as the homeless people’s house at Rua Bela 795.”

 Overwhelmed with the experience, Daniel Maselli says he will continue to look for such places to stay during future conferences. “Given the very positive experience we shall certainly look for meaningful alternatives when participating in events where regular accommodation exceeds certain moral thresholds since we are spending taxpayers’ money and committed to help the under-privileged people on our planet,” he says.

 The Rio+20 Summit has now been widely reviewed as a failure but the Mountain Pavilion organizers will always cherish the experience at Rio, thanks to a house full of angels.