Days in the Life

I left home at freaky dark o’clock on Monday morning, Kiwi time. It’s now midnight Wednesday evening, Brazil time. We leave for Rio and the World Social Forum in Belem on Friday afternoon. I’m mostly on Rio cycle now, but the week which stretched ahead just a day ago has now shrunk and I’m sprinting to keep up.

What does my brother actually do? I’m asked that often and I hesitate to say ‘missionary’ because that means some strange things to a lot of people: pith-helmeted Bible-thumpers in prissy suits planting English roses in Africa and making bemused tribesmen wear tweed pants. That’s not what happens in Brazil: for one thing, the culture is as Christianised as you can get without actually building a huge steeple over the entire continent.

And see, even that’s already been done: Rio has the famous Jesus statue. They’d build a Jesus Space Elevator if the technology existed. One of the biggest Pentecostal churches in the country owns its own television station and ran a Vice-Presidential candidate. This is the kind of country Sarah Palin dreams about. And yet Brazil is drowning in crime and corruption. The Bible-thumpers are certainly here, and they do wear the prissy suits, and they run the country – and the crime, and the corruption. There seem to be more churches than pubs. But is church as usual working? Christian mission here needs to mean something more.

First, you need to Christianise the church.

Sometimes I say ‘pastor’, and that’s also the truth; Paul is an accredited Vineyard Church of New Zealand pastor, runs his own small church that’s affiliated with the American group Iris Ministries through a church in São Paulo, and has a card registering him with the local Nova Friburgo pastors’ council.

Sometimes I say ‘freelance social worker’ or ‘guidance counsellor’ and that’s perhaps closer to the reality. What counts here most of all, as everywhere, is personal relationships. And building those takes hard, slow, gentle work that takes a lifetime.

If I know the person I may use the term ‘incarnational missions’, and toss off names like Viv Grigg or Servants To Asia’s Urban Poor as examples, but though it’s been around since the 70s there aren’t that many people who know what that means.

‘Living among the poor’ is one short definition, but these people are my friends, not phrases, and poverty is a matter of viewpoint.

If I’m feeling wildly hopeful I might say this thing is about planting seeds of a nonviolent social revolution, and really believe it.

But I don’t speak Portuguese and I can’t really read the mood of a country the size and population of the continental United States, as wild at heart as the Amazon. I’m surprised to find that after all I’ve seen I really do love Brazil, but I’m still only an observer, a tourist. If the revolution comes, it will come from within.

Here’s a look at what has happened in the last few days, Rio time.

Monday the 19th:

Paul and a friend travel to a drug rehabilitation house to visit one of the young men he knows who has made the hard choice to get off cocaine and get his life straight. Cost of inter-city bus tickets for two: R$480 (the Brazilian Real is currently stronger than the Kiwi doller at NZ$0.81 but has been bouncing around up or down ten cents in a week – the downturn is causing a lot of exchange rate instability).

That evening, he and two of the guys (Felipe and Diego – we’ve known them since they were in school, they both now have steady non-criminal jobs) make the three-hour drive to Rio airport to meet my plane. The road goes past the notorious Red Line where a favela is right next to the motorway and bandits regularly have shootouts with police. A major oil company has refused to fly its executives in through Rio because their cars get shot at. Not all that many people get caught in the crossfire… but it’s an interesting kind of local colour for a tourist city.

Paul picks me up at the airport at half past midnight, and we drive back to Friburgo, carefully avoiding the potholes and speed traps. It costs R$10 each way for tolls on top of half a tank of petrol (R$80). It’s 3am when we get back; we’re careful about stopping at red lights because people can be carjacked. Paul drops off Felipe and Diego at their houses and we go to his and sleep til noon.

(The house is built over a church that was there when I visited last time and had since shut down; Paul has reconditioned the church and it’s now his own.)

Tuesday the 20th:

I wake up groggily. We go in to town and paul spends half an hour waiting at the post office (you go in, take a ticket from a machine, check the estimated time til service and double it, then wait anyway). He has a cellphone which is faulty and the manufacturer is refusing to accept payment for returning it in a shipping carton; the Post Office clerk refuses to post it without cash. A stalemate.

Life here is a constant struggle over what would seem ridiculously tiny amounts of cash in New Zealand but can be huge when you’re living on donated money. Paul receives around $20K in income annually. He gives a detailed, itemised return to a church back home of everything he spends. He estimates a third of his personal survival fund is spent on others.

We go shopping at ABC.

In the afternoon, Felipe, Matheus, Patrick and Rosemberg drop in to say hi. We microwave popcorn, which Paul always has on hand. It’s a fast, cheap, hot, filling snack and teenagers are always hungry. I give the guys some of the black New Zealand fernleaf shirts (Warehouse, made in China probably in a sweatshop, NZ$20) which I brought.

Matheus, 13, is a worship leader at Paul’s church and speaks some English, a lot more than my few words of Portuguese. Patrick at 24 is the oldest of the group and looks a little like The Rock. Felipe is 23, and I first met him when he was twelve. Rosemberg is 16.

Later in the afternoon, a man I think to be in his thirties drops in and spends an hour in earnest chat with Paul. Later Paul tells me his name is Hudson and Paul has known him when he was twelve. He’s 24 now too. He drifted away from the church, found himself in a bad scene, but is now back in another church and wants Paul to preach there. It’s the first time Paul has heard from him in years, but Hudson still remembers the Bible studies Paul did back when he was a kid.

At 9pm Paul goes to a meeting with the other missionaries working with his project, and I take the time to try to start blogging and uploading photos from my growing collection. The computer I’m using is a 2001 model running Windows XP. The keyboard is a cheap Spanish one running through a Portuguese driver. Standard programming symbols like slash, at, apostrophe and angle bracket are in odd places, but it does let you compose the Portuguese accent characters. The printer is a Canon Pixma with a broken tray, mended with parts from a Lexmark. Things get creatively modified here.

The internet connection is 150k broadband, which lets me upload photos and even video clips if I’m careful, but it has a habit of dropping out erratically.

Don’t get me wrong – it might be shoestring budgeted but Paul also has a notebook and an ASUS eeePC as a travel media kit, and runs a cluster of websites which advertise our presence around Brazil. This is both a high-tech and a high-touch operation. It’s frankly amazing what we can do from a slum, now, with 2009’s street-level technology.

This is the fourth time I’ve visited in eleven years, and I’ve watched the technology grow: in 1997 he had no phone line and we begged modem visits for all-important support emails off a neighbour. The house leaked. An Avon lady lived upstairs.

When Paul comes back around half-past ten we have dinner: brown bread sandwiches with sliced onions, tomatoes, Chester, real chicken and cheese.


Wednesday the 21st:

I wake up at 9am. Paul’s already up. Breakfast is muesli and Batavo yoghurt. It’s good.

Paul goes in to town to try (not for the first time) to return a faulty cellphone. Courts and the Procon (consumer rights bureau) are involved. This is how customer service gets done in Brazil: ‘go ahead and sue us’. So you do.

The cellphone in question is a long story: it’s a dual-SIM device which is essential when travelling between states, as Paul does now his Avivamento Já! (Revival Now!) network is bringing him speaking invitations from church groups all across Brazil. Cellular phone service is a maze of competing companies so travel between states means switching providers. You either take two cell phones, fumble around pulling out the chip (not something you want to do on the road) or get a dual-SIM.

This one however flatly just doesn’t work. A firmware upgrade has solved nothing. It’s consumer advocacy time, Brazil style.

He spends an hour waiting in the Procon with no service and eventually gives up. He goes back to the post office to argue with another clerk about returning the faulty cellphone. Eventually they came to a truce – wrap the original box in brown paper and we’ll send it.

(The manufacturer has supposedly agreed to receive the device. They claim that they’ve prepaid the costs of shipping; but the post office claim that the prepay number is invalid. These kind of standoffs between organisations happen all the time. All smiles, yes we’ll help, no you can’t get the help we promised.)

The post office, of course, has no such thing as brown paper. They direct him to buy some from a newsstand outside.

Meanwhile Matheus’ grandfather has died. It wasn’t unexpected – granddad has been in the hospital for weeks – but they were close, and the family is grieving. The funeral is today, very fast as is usual here. Paul drops into the funeral parlour to pay respects.

I work on the blog. Paul comes back around 1pm and fills me in.

We have lunch – chicken and Chester sandwiches again.

Rosemberg drops in afterwards to raid coffee and biscuits.

Then the travel agent phones, unexpectedly. Those return tickets to Belem, for the World Social Forum? Oh by the way the airline has changed the time of the return flight. It’s now an hour later which means you’ll miss the last bus from Rio. Did you know? No, we didn’t.

More phone calls. The airline doesn’t care, doesn’t want to know. Yes, you paid full fare four months ago. Yes, it was a confirmed booking. Yes, you’re stuck without transport. No, we don’t care. No, there are no other flights we can move you to – they’re all booked up. You should have booked back in October. Oh, you did? Sorry, not our problem.

Fortunately the airline has a ‘President’s Complaint Line’ which apparently is the *real* helpdesk.

Yes, they’re very sympathetic. Yes, it’s bad that the flight got changed. Yes, we think we can help you out – an overnight hotel stay in Rio or an earlier flight.

No, we can’t promise anything. But we’ll get back to you in five days. By which time you’ll already be in Belem with no guaranteed means of return. Have a great flight.

It’s all a little like a scene from, well, Brazil.

3pm. It’s pouring with rain outside. The kind of rain that makes favela houses fall down, Paul says. Cool.

A prayer walk around the neighbourhood had been organised for this afternoon but it’s cancelled because of the rain, which is just as well with everything else we need to get done.

Trina Simpson, a missionary from England who has been in Friburgo working with Paul since 2002, drops in to meet me and say hi over coffee. It’s great to meet her – I haven’t seen her in four years but I read her emails home. But we have to leave at 3:30 because Paul has to visit the Court.

Oh yes. Another cellphone story, a different one. Longer story, similar problem, a broken device sold under false advertising which when he tried to return, sent him a R$900 bill for violation of contract. In that case he really did sue with the Procon’s help, last year, and they voided the false charge and awarded him around R$200 damages.

Awarded damages, but they haven’t yet been credited to his account. He needs the R$200 for Belem. We visit the Forum (court),
which closes at 4pm, scraping in just under the clock after trying to find parking on Friburgo’s informally road-rule respecting streets.

The attractive Forum clerk is helpful and attentive, looks our case up in the computer, shrugs and says the files can’t be located and can we come back in ten days. They said that last time, before Christmas.

On the way back we stop in at a local school. The boy who’s in drug rehab – just a teenager, still in high school, addicted to cocaine – needs his records transferred to a new school. The school Director is very sympathetic and agrees. She’s heard of Paul’s work and thinks highly of him, also saying she knows of several other boys in her school who have drug problems and can Paul assist with counselling?

Paul agrees, but knows that they’ll need rehab too and the church doesn’t have the money to pay for it.

What is the price of a life? In these cases, about R$2000 each. It’s a literal life and death thing, but just another day in Brazil.

On the way back from school we drop into a hardware store to buy a new electrical shower head for two Brazilian girls and an American who are visiting for a couple of weeks from churches out of state to help with the project.

(Brazilian shower heads – two mains 220V wires emerging from the top – look like something from a death camp, but are made of plastic and actually are perfectly safe, and efficient in a country where nobody has enough water or power to afford hot water cylinders. So I’m told. I’m still a little nervous of the thing.)

We buy some sugar from a roadside grocery and then go to a health food store for more muesli. It’s a very nice little store, with hand-packed organic grains that wouldn’t be out of place in New Zealand, and seems serious about the quality of its produce. A shelf sells evangelical Christian paraphenalia: Bibles, worship CDs, theological training manuals.

We drive back to the car park and watch local kids flying kites under the omnipresent power lines. Surprisingly, few manage to electrocute themselves, though they’ve knocked the power out to the neighbourhood on occasion, doing this.

It’s 5:30 pm. Paul has a sermon to prepare for mid-week church service tonight at 7:30. He’ll be preaching on what’s running through his mind right now: what price would you pay to actually, really save a life? Because that’s what’s at stake.

7pm. We go down to open up the church. We didn’t get time to have dinner.

The church runs along standard Evangelical-Pentecostal-Charismatic lines – though less dressy than most of the other Pentecostals on the hill, which means jeans and T-shirt and jandals or sneakers, which everyone here wears, are fine. It also means we have a worship band and sound system: drums, electric guitar, microphone for the singer.

The sound system’s dead. It was left accidentally plugged in during worship practice and a favela power spike got in, somehow bypassing the three surge filters plugged in the line. Fortunately it looks like the fuse blew, so we can replace it. But not tonight. It looks like worship will be ‘MTV Unplugged’.

But quick-thinking Rosemberg remembers that we can plug a microphone directly into one of the guitar amps, which produces some skull-tearing feedback howls, but eventually works.

The church fills. I count nineteen adults, eight of whom are workers (two Brazilians, three Americans, Paul and Trina and I), the rest Cordoeira locals, the fanbase. The place seats twenty-seven; it’s a good crowd for a small church. We sing Charismatic worship songs in Portuguese and then Trina introduces and Paul preaches.

We finish around nine, delayed by the rain – nobody particularly wants to walk home up the hill in the downpour. But it’s still raining, so after chat and prayer for various people with personal requests we dismiss.

One of the boys requests money for food because his family has run out of cooking gas. Paul looks in the offering box and finds some notes but not the envelope that was deposited earlier in the week. And the lock appears to be broken. Were we robbed? It’s happened before. But the lock is fragile, and it’s also possible the envelope was mislaid by one of the workers.

It seems more practical to think the best. Paul glues the lock back with wood glue.

It’s still raining but we head up to Matheus’ family house further up the hill to pray with them after grandfather’s death.

The house is about the same size as Paul’s single floor but divided with walls into smaller rooms. It’s a party of about ten people. They offer us coffee – sweet, black, and served in jam jars, muddy and delicious – and Paul and Trina pray. Matheus’ mother lends us an umbrella.

We walk home with Trina and pop into her apartment, just a block down from us but in the ‘legal’ zone so it’s a full-fledged rental. Like everyone’s, the floors are tile for easy cleaning, but she has a doubly locked gate with per-apartment car parking.

She feeds us cheesecake, all that’s left in her fridge. It’s coming up on shopping day again. Her excitable little dog Max jumps literally for joy to see us.

It’s eleven pm, early afternoon in New Zealand. I try for a Skype connection to friends back home on Trina’s computer, but nobody’s online there. It’s time to go home and sleep (or in my case, write); tomorrow may be another long day, and then will come the Forum.

And that’s how an incarnational missionary’s life is spent: one hour at a time, one person at a time. Returning cellphones. Battling consumer affairs agencies. Buying popcorn. Driving. Coding HTML. Sharing coffee. Praying.

What does it cost to save a life? Everything you’ve got. Every day.

But you might never know, or at least for a long while, just how many lives you’ve touched.


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