Our trip to Maceio in February seems a lifetime away but since then, our team of 11 from across Ontario has met twice and chatted often via Facebook. There is something permanently binding about spending two weeks with a small group of people in a small house in a country where only a small percentage speak English. That alone is a worthwhile experience as the language barrier serves to bind you closer together.
The majority of our group stayed in a two-bedroom house recently vacated by the previous principal of the Escola Cristã João Calvino. There were no furnishings left, so members of the local church supplied mattresses, and we made ourselves comfortable with 9 people spread out over the three rooms of the house. Jack and Rennie Pieterman stayed off-site at the deGraff’s house and joined us after breakfast each day. Every meal was prepared for us by volunteers who would cook in the church kitchen and serve the food on long trestle tables set up under a canopy outside the church. We would eat first, and then when we were done, the women would make a meal of what we left behind. No amount of asking would persuade them to eat with us, and for the first few days they maintained a respectful distance with us. Perhaps the language barrier intimidated them too, but more likely they were behaving as their understanding of hospitality dictated.
We never were able to convince our hosts to eat with us, but within three days our clumsy attempts at Portuguese and our obvious appreciation for the food gained us access to the kitchen. We were allowed to rinse our own dishes and most of us girls spent a good amount of time asking questions and sharing stories amid a whole lot of laughter. Kate Plug was one of our team leads, and thanks to her translating we were able to have many conversations. Those talks in the kitchen and after church that began with pantomimes and Google Translate are a big part of the ties that bind our hearts to Brazil.
The company gave us pleasure and the food gave us energy for the work to be done. Our primary job for the two weeks was to help convert an old building on the church/school compound into a library. The library will serve the school first and then the neighbourhood. In time, it may also be used as a Reformed Reading Room like the popular one in Recife. In order to do this, the floor needed to be raised up about 8 inches to be above street level, and as a result the roof needed to be raised as well. We spent the first few days in an assembly line, with 4 people on the roof, balancing on 1 inch cross beams and passing clay tiles down to the rest of us below. We learned quickly that the sun burns winter skin fast and Sam Schouten isn’t so good at applying sunscreen to his own back, but he’s got a great sense of balance; that singing makes the work go faster and Robyn Tenhage and Rachel Hofsink have amazing voices; that everyone appreciates another bottle of water and Ryan VanVeen is awesome at muscling the giant water jug to refill the water bottles; that some people love to work and so Bruce Hoeksema was the first to start working and the last to leave the jobsite; that Rennie Pieterman and Marg Nobel are the best at taking nails out of the hardest wood I have ever worked with; that Jack Pieterman can rock a Tilley hat while shoveling huge piles of dirt, and that besides Kate, Dave Timmerman knows the most Portuguese and is the best one to ask if you are trying to work out how to ask someone something.
When we weren’t working on the library or resting at the house, we spent time at the school. One day we read a Robert Munsch book to one of the grades, with Kate translating and a few of us acting out the story. If it was after school, there were always more children anxious to play Frisbee or soccer. At recess time we turned a thick rope for a crowd of skipping kids. Marg and I were doing this one day, and both of us were starting to get blisters from it. So we weren’t sad when a group of little girls ran up chattering and pulling our hands. They led us through the cool shadows of the school to a small back courtyard where they had a few desks set up. We were sat down and given the choice of purple, purple, pink, pink or sparkles for our eyes, cheeks, lips and nails. Sharing in their little world of makeup and glitter was a highlight of our trip. At some point all the women in our group got to have a spa date. And even though playing sometimes took us away from working, this was ok. Because travelling to Brazil with Faithworks isn’t just about building walls, it’s also about building relationships.
Another thing we did several times was take long walks through the surrounding neighbourhood. Sometimes this was to get ourselves some groceries or a coconut or an ice-cream, sometimes to go visit with someone and sometimes just for the sake of exploring. Walking a city on foot is a wonderful way to get the feel of it. Around our home for the week, the roads are made of packed dirt with garbage caught in its layers. Open ditches along the road run with grey water, and stray dogs abound. You are just as likely to see a horse and cart on the street as a motorcycle or refurbished VW Bug. The fountain in the local park is filled with sludge and the pathways with weeds. The corruption in the government is obvious in the lack of maintenance to public areas. However, there are signs everywhere that this area of the city is improving. Homes are surrounded by walls topped with broken glass, but flowers spill over them. We saw decorative tiles on the walls and sidewalks instead of just cracked concrete. We saw people adding second stories to their homes and painting their doors. And everywhere we went, the adults would smile and greet us and the littlest kids would gape. Because how often do you see a group of tall white people walking down your street?
A day spent at the beach and the road trip there gave us a more extensive look at the city and surrounding area. At one point Kate made us roll up our windows as we drove through an area where stop signs are “stoptional” at night. The air smells there, from an open canal filled with sewage. A bridge took us high over a river whose banks are lined top to bottom with stacks of homes accessed by narrow paths. There are no yards or roads there. As we drove we passed whole neighbourhoods of homes made out of tarps and sheets of scrap metal, where horses are tethered under random trees. All that poverty contrasted with the touristy area close to the beach. There, restaurants and hotels are everywhere. Colourful art covers the walls and underpasses by the highways. The wide white beaches are beautiful and bordered with a biking path as well as a walking path. White sails seem to sparkle on the boats anchored off shore. Everywhere, people are enjoying the warm air and each others company and we were glad to be a part of it all.
Sunday was the day we got to experience the fellowship of the communion of saints as we worshipped at Igreja Reformada do Brasil em Maceió. Jack and Rennie Pieterman connected with one or two others in the church who are fluent in Dutch. Over the course of the day we played games with the young people and ate a lot of homemade food. During church we couldn’t understand the sermon, but Kate did a wonderful job of translating it onto paper and passing notes down the bench for us, so we did benefit from the preaching. I think for all of us, the singing during the church services was the most memorable. The solid surfaces all around make for amazing acoustics, but what made it most moving was the passion and emotion and enthusiasm brought to the praise and glory of God. Eating, talking, laughing, playing, working together is all good… but nothing makes you feel connected like singing, especially in honour of the Most High.
There is so much more to say! Ask any one of us about the squished frog in my bed, about climbing palm trees, about the mad soccer skills of those barefoot kids, about lunch at the Barbosa’s or dinner at the deGraff’s, about playing sevens, about power outages in the night or Robyn’s infatuation with every stray animal, about water fights or how they do birthday parties in Brazil, about fried cheese or seal imitations, about giving away dolls and sidewalk chalk and clothes, about body surfing or about food poisoning, about afternoon devotions or hand washing laundry, about delayed luggage or massive shopping malls, about sleeping on planes, about why Dave is also known as Adam, Mark and Steve, and ask about making new friends. There is so much more to say, and I can’t say it all.
Coming back home we all had a greater appreciation for the tangible benefits of a stable government. We all have a favourite fruit juice (mine is Goiba) that will always bring back Brazil. We know there are people on another continent who will open their homes to us in a heartbeat. We know how tiring a language barrier can be and how it can serve to bring a group together. We know the joy of being welcomed despite our differences. And we know that God is not God in my pocket – he is not MY God. He is not Canada’s God. A 14 hour flight teaches you that the world is big and he is God over it all. At this moment, people are praying and praising and serving him in my home, and in my city. And at the same time, people are praying and praising and serving him in Brazil too. Just as it should be. May the day come quickly when we can all be together and praise him with one voice. Maranatha!