Our Trip to Brasil: Encounters with Christ
September 11-20, 2015
Before we left, people asked me, “Are you going to Brazil on a mission trip?” I understood that they meant, “Are you going on a church-sponsored trip where you physically build a church or do a medical clinic?” Technically, no. But I responded instead, “Well, yes, we are always on a mission when we walk with Christ, aren’t we? We are going to build the Body of Christ in Brazil. It will be fun to see what he has in store for us.”
From our departure to our return, we found ourselves often in the midst of a mission trip, fully organized by the Lord. We felt ourselves as vessels carrying the Good News to many but in small ways. We tried to spread love and care and to transmit hope; but more than anything, we found Jesus changing our hearts again: molding us gently into more of his likeness. As we walked with him through airports, on beaches, on cobblestone streets, through slums, in churches, in homes and in lots of restaurants, we felt his gentle arm around our shoulders, sweet pressure guiding us to look to the left and to the right, to see where he was already at work and where we were called to water a seed, pull a weed, or simply smile with the warm of his sunshine.
The six of us, Russ and Joyce Brogden, CeeGee and Jeff McCord and Wesley and Joy Eastridge, left busy lives for ten days away. Before leaving, we marveled at all that had to be done so that our places would be filled while we were gone; by the time we returned, we wondered at our worry that we might be irreplaceable! As we packed, prepared, tucked away Portuguese dictionaries, a few extra dollars, valuable passports (appropriately graced with the elusive visas), we hoped that we had thought of everything: bug spray—check; sunscreen—check; hat—check. The lists helped our sense of security when the unknown loomed ahead.
When we got to Salvador, Bahia, our first stop along the way, our driver, Diego, showed us the sites as we traveled along. We saw homes built one on top of the other, precariously perched on muddy hillsides, vying for scarce space in an urban setting and lodging in impossible places, homes with walls but twisted or absent plumbing, electricity or municipal services. Diego went on to tell us that he was an evangelical Christian, an active participant in his church. We connected and rejoiced in the knowledge of our mutual love for Christ.
The highlight of our time in Salvador was meeting up with my childhood friend, Bonnie Troop Costa, and her husband, Alfredo. These dear friends flew up from their town several hundred miles south to spend the week-end with us. Residents of the small town of Buerarema, they regularly take needy children into their home and have raised a couple of dozen kids in addition to their three biological children.
The Pousada Estrela do Mar, sat steps away from the beach and lighthouse, Farrol da Barra. On arrival, we walked the block down to the lighthouse to watch the sunset—a phenomenon made possible by the large bay, Bahia de Todos os Santos. Watching the sun set over the Atlantic waters is an attraction that brings lots of locals and tourists out. There were musicians, food vendors (fried cheese, acaraje, cocada) and everyone clapped when the sun dipped below the horizon, clapping for the Maker of the Sun, free giver of grace and beauty.
Our tour around town the next day was special, taking us to a food market: Mercado Sao Joaquim, where we saw fresh coconut being ground, fruit of all varieties, and people congregating to sell their wares in a crowded pavilion. We stuck out like the tourists that we were but Sunday morning was a good day to go, for the crowds were less and the risk of pickpockets diminished.
We also visited the restored old town, Pelourinho, and looked through the gold-encrusted church of St. Francis (surely not the simple saint’s design!). We had lunch in a water-side restaurant that looked out over opalescent blue water, now steaming hot in the midday sun. We ate the typical food of the state, Bahia, consisting of seafood in tasty broths, accompanied by beans and fluffy white rice. We also got to see Wesley and Russ do their rendition of the local fight-dance Capoeira, a translation from African tribal dances that enabled the slaves to preserve some of the traditional customs and cultural unity. It now perseveres as a semi-martial art and a regional folk dance.
The driver of our taxi van and I talked and he told me he was from Catu, a small town near Alagoinhas, the town we lived in when I was a young girl. I asked him he is went to church and he said he was “afastado,” a word that means “I used to go but I quit.” I encouraged him and asked more questions about his family. He said his mom, now 89, was a member of the Baptist church in Catu. I realized that she probably would remember my dad, Don Turner, former missionary to the area who is now 81. I told him to tell her that he rode in the taxi with Don and Donna’s daughter, and that they sent their greetings. He looked at his arm and said, “I have Holy Spirit chills.” I said, “It is Christ calling you to come back to church!” And further encouraged him to set time apart, in his busy schedule to listen and worship. He responded that he would.
In a city of several million, like Salvador, it is not by chance that we rode in a taxi with a man whose mother knows my parents. I have Holy Spirit chills as I write this and continue to see God’s hand at work in setting up encounters that reveal his hand at work. Every day.
Sunday night we went to church at Igreja Batista da Graca, a church whose origins include several missionaries. As we listened to praise music in Portuguese, we marveled at the Spirit’s ability to cross cultural and language lines and to speak to our hearts in the language of love. I sat amongst the people and thought about the fruit of the harvest that sat in that rooms, fruit of seeds my parents helped to plant many years ago, now coming into fruition.
On Monday, we traveled by plane to Recife, a city 500 miles north, where we were met by Mr. Valdeci, our driver for the week. A big talker with some English knowledge, Mr. Valdeci was a helpful presence through the week; we took turns sitting up front as his constant talking required sharing those seats! But he had a big air-conditioned taxi/van that was very helpful in getting us where we needed to go, safely.
He took us south to Porto de Galinhas (Port of Chickens) where we spent two nights, resting, enjoying the beaches and sampling the local food. He showed us the big Petrobras oil refinery off in the distance —an ecological and financial disaster that is a part of the current economic crash. I kept averting my eyes from the monstrosity, looking instead out to the azure ocean, lapping lazily at the off shore reefs, focusing on the people and the families enjoying some relaxing time at a still beautiful place.
While in Porto, we retreated to the lovely “Pousada Ecoporto,” where we found basic but beautiful rooms that faced the water. From our second floor balconies, we could sit in hammocks and listen to the waves speak loudly the music of the deep meeting the edge of its domain.
We took a dune buggy tour to four different beaches: Praia do Cupe, Praia do Muro Alto, Praia do Maracaibe, and ending back at Porto. Our driver told me about his special needs daughter and how hard it was to find the services that she needs. He also shared about how he lost his vision in one eye as a boy. His family lived near a sugar cane processing plant. The plants were required to put a covering on their smoke stacks to keep the live embers from floating out. But often the plant owners refused. An ember floated out, landed in the seven-year-old’s eye and took his vision, setting up an infection that took his out of school for a prolonged period and changed his childhood dramatically. He claimed his other eye had spectacularly good vision but he was always careful to wear sunglasses to protect it.
Everywhere we went we found live music—some of it very good—and we listened and tried to tip. At one restaurant, the singer had a particularly pleasant voice; when he saw us coming in, he started his rendition of “New York, New York” among other English songs, bringing smiles to our faces. We were surprised at how good and varied the music was.
In Porto we ate at a restaurant that served its food in terra cotta tiles, called “Peixe na Telha.” We had a delicious and enjoyable meal there. The other place we ate was “Bacaxeira” where their specialty was food created around the humble root “macaxeira.” In English it is called yucca root or manioc. It tastes vaguely like potatoes but can be transformed into tapioca, cakes, sauces, a gritty flour that is served with beans, etc. Many times, it is so disguised as to be unrecognizable. By the end of the trip, we were having fun counting the ways it showed up on the table in its various forms.
From Porto, our driver picked us up and took us through the bustling, congested city of Recife north to the old village of Olinda. Olinda was founded in the early 1500’s and looks down over the city, beautiful views that belie the true nature of the behemoth below. In Olinda we stayed at “Hotel 7 Colinas,” a garden haven of quiet with an open air restaurant, a beautiful pool area, fountains, evocative sculptures, and rooms with pleasant balconies. It was a good place to have some respite from the busyness around it.
Mr. Valdeci took us to see the old downtown of Recife. On his rearview mirror he displayed a rosary and a small representation of “Nossa Senhora Aparecida,” a revered symbol of Mary from when she is said to have appeared to some fishermen in the southern part of Bahia. We saw her again when we were in Rio and a Christian music group sang at the top of Cocorvado, the Christ Redeemer statue. They had her image on a stand beside their song books.
While downtown, we told our driver that we needed to exchange some money. He told us he knew just the right place. Heavily connected in the tourism industry, Mr. Valdeci knew a lot! He took us to a building in the Old Town where we found a dark, winding stairwell in a business building and went up to the second floor to an iron-clad heavy door where we knocked and waited. The business owners opened it and we were escorted in to get a better rate that we had at the airport. With the free-fall of the Real (their dollar), we found goods to be inexpensive and accessible, good for us, very bad for Brazil in general.
We went on to Boa Viagem where we had lunch with one of my high school teachers, Ed Fabisak. His memory of me surprised me, and it included the one time I made a “B” in his class. He claimed that I had been a good student—but then we were buying his lunch! Now in his 70’s, Mr. Ed’s beloved wife died a couple of years ago. He loves to go fishing and stays busy with his family and grandchildren. We also drove by Escola Americana do Recife, my high school, that remains hidden behind even higher walls.
After lunch with Mr. Ed, we headed back to Olinda to meet with Pastor Paulo Cesar Peres, a bi-vocational pastor of a church called “Igreja Batista de Bultrins,” near the slum areas of “Esperanca” and “Mina do Alto.” We got in his car and parked in front of a local bakery, then started walking into the slum. As we entered, Paulo Cesar shook hands with everyone and greeted them by name, asking specific questions that revealed his knew them personally. We went into several homes where we had scripture and prayer. One of the ladies had a tiny, tiny home. It was full of children and women who needed a place to stay. In one room was a handicapped young woman who told us she needed a wheelchair so she could go to church. We were moved to tears as we watched Paulo Cesar greet the women by name and hugged them with great love. We were further humbled to see children sitting on the floor carefully scraping the bottom of empty bowls, clearly hungry. We walked to the house at the center of the “favela,” as the slums are called—a house the church purchased and runs as a small community center, providing a free meal once a week for anyone who wants it and hosting Bible studies and a very small clothing “store” where a quarter buys any item.
We continued to the other favela and there walked up a steep hill to find church members awaiting us at the church’s gathering place there. They had baked bread, made fruit salad, cake, coffee and other treats for us. We shared a time of fellowship and Paulo Cesar told us that the church planned to start an orchestra in two weeks. He showed us the empty room downstairs (maybe 20 feet by 15 feet) where the children would learn to play instruments. He said, “We have a volunteer maestro and we have the children. The instruments will come.” We have no doubt.
At the end of the tour he took us to the beautiful sanctuary the community has built at the center of the area. A clean, bright green, with lots of lights and open windows the sanctuary fairly breathed its welcome into the dark evening. As we rode up to the building, we looked out the window of the car and saw a small repair shop still open. Outside, there was a folded up wheelchair. Jeff McCord and I went to look at it and after getting the owner of the shop to oil up the rusted joints, we negotiated a price of less than twenty dollars for the wheelchair which we sent to the girl waiting for a way to get to church.
After our emotional afternoon, we drove to town for a late dinner with Paulo Cesar and his lovely family: wife, Rosineide and four beautiful daughters. His wife is a dermatologist and Paulo Cesar works as an administrator in the justice center. Their daughters are lovely and strategically placed themselves around the table so that they could most easily talk with all of us in English. We had pizza and warm fellowship before returning to our hotel, marveling at the images of Christ we had witnessed that day. My mind went back to the morning when we held hands around the breakfast table and prayed for eyes to see Jesus that day. Our prayers were answered—many times.
After resting and shopping on Friday morning, we headed to a small town twenty miles to the northwest of Recife, the village of Aldeia. There we met with a man Wesley talked with one time on the ham radio. It was an unlikely contact, the result of one call across the airwaves on a friend’s radio. But that call produced much fruit and we met with Dr. Carlos Pereira Costa, a retired professor at the Federal University Medical School in physiology of the heart, and his wife, Maria Luiza, a trained anthropologist. They fixed us a lovely lunch and we walked around their ten-acre orchard, seeing spice trees such as black pepper, cinnamon, and clove; we also explored a large variety of fruit trees. We drank coconut water and ate ice cream made from exotic fruit.
We finished up our days in the Recife area with a visit to Moab Silva’s apartment. A local chef and restaurant consultant, he told us about his work with underprivileged children and we shared a meal around the table. We had the opportunity to briefly meet his family, including a son who is a professor of oceanography at the Federal University, right next door to where we were at the apartment.
On Saturday morning, we got up bright and early (read: left the hotel at 4 a.m.!) to catch an early flight to Rio de Janeiro. Arriving their by 9 a.m., we rented a taxi/van for the day and headed over to the shuttle station for trip up the mountain to the Christ Redeemer statue. After grabbing a quick snack, we all loaded up and went “lickety-split” (the word fits, for sure) up that winding road until we were dropped off at the base of the statue. Holding his arms out over a troubled city, Christ’s presence there among the teeming masses of people was oddly less palpable than in other places. But as we took those last steps up to the base of the statue, we heard music playing and voices singing, “Alleluia, Alleluia!” A praise band kept their music going during our picture-taking tour around The Christ. Getting hot, I told my friends, “I’m going over to stand in the shadow of Christ.” There I found refuge from the glaring sun but also smiled at the symbolic meaning of the sweet relief we all find when standing near the Lord.
After our visit, we made our way to Ipanema to Linda Nacelli’s apartment. Linda lives in Kingsport in Sevier Terrace, so we had fun talking about how unusual it is to find ourselves in Rio at the same time. We ate lunch at a restaurant just by the lobby of her building, called Fazendola. Then we walked down to the beach where we stood out as tourists, fully dressed on a beach that garners part of its fame from the skimpiness of the bathing suits. We survived our visit to touch the sands of Ipanema (much less impressive than the northern beaches, sad to say) and headed for the Floresta da Tijuca, the largest urban forest in the world. It was near closing time [The sun sets promptly at 5:30 p.m. in Brazil and gets back up twelve hours later, with little variation year round. So, when twilight begins, it’s best to take note and get where you want to be when it is dark.]. We took a few pictures by the waterfall and basically rode through a small part of the forest before making our way back to the airport to begin our way home.
We arrived back home after uneventful plane rides but brought back many memories that will take weeks, even months or years to sift through. We find ourselves again experiencing God’s love and grace and realizing our unworthiness. The woman in the slum who opened her home to needy children and their mothers, summed it up when she said, “I don’t have much but I am rich. I am happy. I have God.” My prayer is that my life will reflect that kind of generosity, that openness to the Spirit of God. Jesus said, “For I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” John 10:10