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DIVALDO FRANCO: PAYING IT FORWARD

Joaquim Alves was four years old when his mother left him to the care of strangers at the Mansion of the Way in Salvador, Brazil.

Alves never knew his father, who abandoned his wife and children to the desperate poverty that plagues the city's favela, or shantytowns, and though he met his mother again at age 19, when he thinks of home, Alves thinks of "Uncle Divaldo" and the "aunts" of the mansion.

"My true family was and is the people at the Mansion of the Way," said Alves. "The mansion has been very important in my life. It has helped me to discover and accept myself, and given a sense of meaning to my life. They are the only family that counts."

Alves, now 49, works long hours as a taxi driver in Salvador, Brazil's fourth largest city, and he has four children of his own. But he spends much of his time volunteering at the Mansion, helping out at the place that a new generation of poverty's youngest victims call home.

"The Mansion of the Way is located in one of the poorest neighborhoods of my city, in an area of some of the highest percentage of violence, and it has served as a point of sustenance for all the families that live around it," he said.

DIVALDO FRANCO: PAYING IT FORWARD

"These are families who are the forgotten ones: forgotten by the government, forgotten by the parties, forgotten by everyone."

Everyone but Divaldo Franco. Fifty-two years after its gates first swung open, Franco's mission helps more children and families than ever. Between feeding and clothing the homeless, providing daycare and a bed for whoever needs one, medical and dental treatment and educational and vocational training, the Mansion serves about 5,000 of Salvador's poorest every day, for free.

Over the past decade, more than 300,000 have found sanctuary there from the squalor of the streets, where an estimated third of Salvador's 3 million residents are unemployed, many of them illiterate.

And the organization that started as a dream for Franco has grown from its humble beginnings, now boasting 44 buildings on 85,000 square meters, including three elementary schools, a high school, 12 vocational schools, and a medical center and dental clinic to serve the surrounding community.

Each day, 250 volunteers -- most of them former residents -- and 60 or so paid employees help more than 3,000 children with everything from hot meals and medicine to a warm bath and decent clothes. They also care for about 150 seriously ill patients suffering from AIDS, tuberculosis and other ailments in nearby neighborhoods.

"The path of happiness is the path of service," said Franco, whose humanitarian efforts began after his acceptance of the Christian Spiritist faith, when he began volunteering his time in the city's worst slums, teaching the poorest of the poor to read and write.

Franco, then a social worker, saw in a vision that his life's work would be serving the less fortunate.

"On a train trip, I had a vision in which I saw a large number of children playing in a greenish area surrounding an older man," Franco said.

"I saw myself approaching that man, and when he turned to me, I realized it was myself at a very old age. And then I heard a voice that said, 'This is what you will do with your life.'"

Christian Spiritism, which emphasizes the spiritual benefits of helping others, is Franco's guiding force in his work. The religion, founded in the mid-19th Century by Frenchman H. Leon Denizard Rivail, who later changed his name to Allan Kardec, has nearly 30 million followers in Brazil, and 4 million outside Brazil.

Christian Spiritists hold Jesus Christ as the ultimate model for their actions, and view good works as the path toward spiritual evolution. In contrast to other Christian denominations, however, reincarnation and communication with the spirit world are cornerstones of the Spiritist faith.

Franco is advised almost daily by a spirit named Joanna, who has told him that in past lives she was a Portuguese nun who lived in the state of Bahia, where Salvador is located, and where she was murdered by the Portuguese army for defending the rights of natives. Earlier, she has told Franco, she was an 18th Century Mexican nun, and a contemporary of Jesus Christ.

"When she shows herself to me, I see her as 60 years old, dressed in white, with a bluish head covering," Franco said.

"She is very pretty, with a gentle voice, and she shows always a broad knowledge. I'm always very touched by her compassion, her tenderness for the plight of human beings on earth."

Joanna and other spirit guides lead Franco through his work, two-thirds of which consists of writing and lecturing internationally. Franco has authored more than 160 books through automatic writing, a "partnership with the spirits," or channeling of their words through him. All profits from his books and speaking engagements go back to the Mansion of the Way, where bills run about $45,000 - $50,000 a month.

Despite Franco and other's religious convictions, however, participation in Spiritist worship is purely voluntary at the Mansion of the Way.

"The essential thing in our program is the dignification of the human being," Franco said.

"We don't make our belief or our sharing of our belief a condition for anything. It is for this reason that all the religious services are on the far side of the institution, so that people go because they want to go, not because they are obligated."

More important to his and other's upbringing at the Mansion of the Way was Franco's leadership by example, Alves said.

"Often we see parents who want to teach things to their children, but they don't know how to present it, to live the examples and models for the children to follow, and Divaldo was very particular in this regard, and gave very much attention to this aspect of raising the children," he said.

"What really mattered was not the denomination we ended up embracing in our lives, but that we lived in a right way, that we were good human beings."

Children raised at the Mansion have gone on to become doctors, lawyers and military members, all of them productive members of society saved from a life of poverty and despair, Franco says proudly.

In addition to "Uncle" Divaldo, who legally adopted Alves at an early age, the "aunts" of the Mansion, female volunteers each in charge of eight or nine children, helped make every child feel wanted, Alves said.

"We were always raised with the impression that we had a home, like anybody else outside," he said.

Alves returns to his former home regularly, to lead children from the Mansion in cleanup and small construction work every Saturday morning, and also helps maintain the Mansion's vehicles.

"I feel great joy in being able to do this, and also I can tell you that it is very hard for me to stay away, because of the ties that have developed. It's kind of an extension of myself," Alves said.

On the night of his 49th birthday, Alves got a reminder of the help that the Mansion gave him, when he came home to find a houseful of streamers and signs hung by his wife and children, congratulating him on being a great father. If not for the Mansion, he said, this would likely never have happened.

"Even living in a slum, it is very important that the family stays together," he said.

"If the family stays together, and has Christian values, they will find a way tomorrow, but if they don't have a structure and stay together, it's almost impossible to break the cycle."

That cycle has forced many Brazilians into swampy shantytowns, where they get food from garbage dumpsters if at all, and from which escape is practically impossible, Franco said. Many are blacks or mixed-race people still feeling the sting of slavery, which Brazil was the last Western nation to outlaw, in 1888. Many come from rural areas in the north and elsewhere, and due to illiteracy and the crushing pressure of pre-existing poverty, set up in favela on the outskirts of cities.

Whatever their backgrounds, their stories usually end the same: a lifetime of poverty, with subsequent problems including alcoholism, abuse and addiction, all guaranteeing the repetition of the cycle. But despite his country's economic and social ills, these problems are by no means limited to Brazil, Franco says.

The United States and other countries also have pressing social and economic problems that his ethic of helping others can help ease.

"Although I recognize the United States as a great country which is a role model to the world, it has troubles in the area of social violence, and differences in the area of moral and spiritual living," Franco said.

The Allan Kardec Educational Society (AKES), started in Philadelphia in 1984, is one of the over 40 centers and Spiritist organizations across the nation, and counts a few thousand members among its ranks. It's not much, but the numbers are growing, and the faithful are committed to helping ease socio-economic problems in the U.S., just as they have done in Brazil and are doing elsewhere in South America.

"The person who loves is never sick," Franco, a small, trim man who looks far younger than his 76 years, said at a recent lecture in Phoenix, Ariz.

"Truly, we are psychic people. Think on good and good will happen in your life. Think on bad and bad will happen in your life. Therefore, the true path to happiness is through service."

Dr. John Zerio, president of AKES, said that, while Christian Spiritism has no hierarchy, Franco is probably the most highly respected member of the faith, because of his humanitarian efforts and his gifts as a "sensitive" who readily communicates with the spirit world.

Franco's work is helping not only the poor in Brazil, but also the unfortunate worldwide, through his dissemination of the Spiritist ideals of charity and helping one's fellow man.

"I think we are improving the quality of life in America and anywhere in the world," Zerio said.

The Rev. Bernard Baker, a Christian Spiritualist pastor in Sunflower, Ariz., said that despite any minor theological differences between their denominations, he admires the hands-on, humanitarian works of Franco.

"I think we need him in this country, too, to help the at-risk youth," Baker said. "His work is just blessed. I know God is just watching him at every step."

As for Franco, he says that he is overwhelmed by the attention he has gotten for doing what comes naturally.

And there's still plenty of work to be done, in every country, he adds.

"The world will only be a world of happiness when every human being has fulfilled his or her own happiness, and this is the kind of happiness that material possessions can never give," he said.

One can help, Franco said, "by planting a tree, by extending a word of kindness, helping to decrease the violence that we have inside ourselves, and seeking to become a useful person in their social grouping."

"In this way, every person can become a multiplying agent, because every person who does an act of goodness will be motivated to extend the chain of goodness forward."

By Gregor McGavin

(Click here to learn more about The Mansion - in Portuguese)

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