Updated: Dec 8, 2021
When I was 5 I ran away from home; my father was an alcoholic and would have killed me. I spent the next year and a half living on the streets of Brazil.
Ronaldo is Westminster’s most recent MDiv student. An experienced missionary called to serve the church in Newcastle, his life story is at once disturbing and inspiring.
My name is Ronaldo – a common enough name in the land of football. If the British invented the beautiful game, it was the southern hemisphere that taught the world to play it!
Despite the label, and unlike most Brazilian boys, I have two left feet; footballing prowess passed me by! And my life would differ from other boys’ my age in other ways: I was born into a dysfunctional family.
Of seven siblings (born to more than one mother) I was the second oldest, and the only one living with my father. Our father was an alcoholic. A construction worker, he was tall and heavily built; his name Zezinho – ‘little Joseph’ – didn’t fit his masculine frame.
Or his nature. A deeply frustrated man, he may have been good at his job but he was bad at fatherhood. I learned to dread his return from work.
One of my first childhood memories was of my father coming home, pulling me out of bed and throwing me headfirst onto the cement floor. I lost count of the number of times I was beaten so hard that I couldn’t walk. My father would dip my plate in the toilet. “You're a dog; eat this,” he would command. “You're nothing and will always be a nobody in life.”
I was five years old.
Running for my life
In life it is important to know when enough is enough. That day came early for me. My father, as usual, had come home drunk and with blood in his eyes. This time he hit me with electrical wires, forcing my head against the mattress to prevent the neighbours from hearing my cries. I managed to raise my face from the mattress to gasp, “When I’m older, I’ll come back for you. I will kill you one day.” My father would never forget those words.
My chance to escape came just days later. I had recovered sufficiently to go with him to collect some scraps of wood for the fire. (We had no money for fuel.) I waited until he was some distance from me and then I ran. Behind me his angry shouts only fuelled my headlong flight: “Ronaldo, come back or I’m going to kill you!’
If I had hoped to find liberty and independence on the teeming streets of Brazil, my hopes ended abruptly with the 11 mile walk to the town centre. Two policemen stopped me; after interrogating me they took me to a house for delinquent children.
It was a university of crime. At 5 years of age I was valuable to the gangs that worked Brazil’s streets. They helped me escape, and in return I worked for them. Petty theft and house breaking became a way of life; I was introduced to cigarette stubs, alcohol, shoe-glue, marijuana.
Routinely those who saw me on the streets would abuse me, hitting me or throwing insults at me. After a while you don’t feel the pain.
And then one day I met a woman who was different. She gave me clean clothes and something to eat. She invited me to her beautiful home and let me play with her child. She was a Christian.
This woman placed me in a Christian children’s home – my first encounter with care and love. I was to remain in children’s homes until I was 18. And there I would encounter for myself the risen, living, life-changing person of Jesus Christ.
Letting go of hate
God had forgiven me, and I had learnt that if we don’t forgive others then God will not forgive us. I also knew that to forgive is to forget. As I grew from a child into a man I prayed that God would give me the chance to tell my father that I forgave him.
That prayer was answered. In a city of 8 million inhabitants, in the middle of a crowded street, suddenly there was my mother. No words can describe the emotion of that moment. She held me as though I were a baby again.
At my request she took me to my father. He had not forgotten the vengeful threat I had made 11 years before. Looking at me with contempt he placed a knife in my hands and goaded me to kill him.
By the grace of God I was able to look him in the eyes and say to him, “I forgive you!”
To my knowledge, my father died without admitting his sin. But for me there was freedom from that moment. A load of bricks had been lifted from my back.
It took many years of God’s patient love for me to learn to trust him as my heavenly Father. And from that point my greatest dream was to be a father myself – a father who could be trusted.
God has realised my dream. He has given me a wonderful family: Fernanda, to whom I have been married for twenty years, and our three beautiful daughters, Meggie, Emily, and Isabella. Since 1999 we have been serving as missionaries – in South America, Nepal and Romania; now in the UK. My life work is to bring to others the life-changing message of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. His righteousness transformed me, and it can transform other sinners, trapped like me in sin and despair.
What saved me was not the care and love I received in the children’s home, but the love of Christ who went to the cross for my sin. He loved me when I was still his enemy. He loves still, and that love revolutionises lives. My life is testimony that the power of love is greater than the power of hate.