Fight like a woman. That’s what Jorge’s yellow t-shirt says. He stands under the pictures of the women who developed the Luiza Mahin Community School and all its projects.

“They are called the Women of the Loge,” Koho Mello tells me. “You know what loge means?”

“In our theaters loge refers to the top of the theater,” I say.

“Exactly. They were the women who would meet on the roof to discuss how to start a school for the children of this neighborhood. At that time they had nowhere else to meet.”

They are all women of color. Big women, old women, not-so-old women, and most essential, young women. They took the initiative to create a school for the children of this impoverished area of Salvador in Bahia called Uruguay.

Uruguay, and the enclaves around it, was built on what was once wet, muddy ground. The locals on their own dredged the land and built their homes there, and only later the government contributed some concrete. Some were people who’d been enslaved–Brazil didn’t end slavery till 1888, less than 150 years ago–and escaped here.

It’s crowded, with tin-roof shacks and narrow aisles and alleys, half-naked children playing on the dusty pavement and thin dogs panting in whatever shade they can find.

When you come in, you see this sign at the Luisa Mahin School: You are not children of slaves, you are children of free people who were enslaved.

300 children will come back to the school next week after the Carnaval break, studying in shifts, and teachers are already preparing the small, clean classrooms for their arrival. The adjacent lot is vacant and they have plans to obtain and develop it into a child care center for 200 children. How? With what money and resource? Nobody knows yet, but they’ve developed all their programs from nothing so they have faith.

There is art work in the rooms and a library on the second floor, open to the general public, with books and videos.

The librarian, who does bibliotherapy, sits us down in a circle, rings a bell, and reads aloud A Visita, a children’s book about a young girl who’s afraid to leave the house but gets a visit from a young boy who keeps her company and then, when it gets late, finally leaves. The final sentences don’t tell you that she now has the courage to leave the house; rather, the girl is left to reflect on this unusual day.

No easy answers.

I’m asked to say a few words of comfort to two beautiful young women who work there, sisters who just lost both parents in one week.

“How did they die?” I ask.

“The father died of a heart attack. The mother died in an accident when the roof of their house crashed down on her.”

I also have no answers, but I need not worry, no one is looking for any, they’re just bearing witness. Everyone has had such experience.

Later, in the Community Center that is part of Luiza Mahin, I meet a mother and daughter who look alike.

“My mother is a great woman,” the daughter tells me with her arm around her mother (my poor memory can’t catch up with all the names). “My brother was murdered. When my mother confronted his killer, she said: ‘Behind you I see your mother, who suffers like me. How can I hate you?'”

Jamira heads the community center. She introduces us to Lorena, a dancer who does art and dance. “I had a close friend who works with me, but she can’t make it here because she doesn’t have money for the bus,” she explains.

We meet Carlos, who is trying to develop local tourism for Luiza Mahin . He says some words to me in English, proud that he was given a grant to study my language.

Jamira takes us a few blocks down, then onto an alley. There is trash strewn about, three children playing on the ground, and even a smell of urine. In the middle of all that we enter a narrow house which is an interfaith center, with a small room for individual reflection and spiritual nourishment, soft music, and an upstairs room for workshops. On Wednesdays they give out soup to the entire neighborhood.

We make a circle and talk about our understanding of God, of the unknown, of spirituality. The stories we hear!

Jamira tells us that this entire neighborhood will be transformed one day. She can see it, and she helps us see it. Here more schools, there a child care center, a community park in the center, a jobs center up the block, and always, always arts.

“You know,” I tell her, “the Zen Peacemakers started in Riverdale, NY, a wealthy neighborhood. Bernie wanted us to move to southwest Yonkers, a low-income neighborhood with a crack epidemic. We looked at the big projects, the schools with their spiked fences, the pit bulls lunging at us from overgrown yards, and the countless needles on the sidewalks, and our hearts sank.

But that’s not what Bernie saw. He saw a bakery here, new apartments for homeless families there, a computer center a block down, an AIDS center and housing for people with HIV, music and art everywhere. He called Yonkers a Cathedral City.

You remind me of him,” I tell her.

Verena, Jamira, Carlos, Koho and me on way to Interfaith Center