Window on the World - Brazil

MARY, MARTHA AND LAZARUS AT WORK IN BRAZIL

A model used for mission and evangelism in Brazil is exemplified by one of the best-known families in the New Testament - the family of Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus - according to Nicanor Lopes from the Methodist School of Theology in Sao Paulo. This model I have affectionately called 'Toblerone Evangelism' because visually the model used is a triangle.

The top point of this triangle is Communion; the bottom left point is Service and the bottom right is Testimony – all perfectly illustrated by Mary (Communion), Martha (Service) and Lazarus (Testimony). Our group saw how this model is lived out in many practical ways during the two weeks we spent in Brazil.

We also saw another principle lived out, one that underpins liberation theology in Brazil:

  • See - the situation (in the community)
  • Judge - or evaluate, the situation
  • Act - respond to the need

The first example of this See, Judge and Act principle that we experienced was the Homeless Shelter run in Sao Paulo by the Methodist Church, with support from the local City Council. The Shelter is situated actually inside a viaduct, four lanes of traffic thunder below and two lanes roar overhead! There is no air conditioning yet the main dormitory sleeps 120 men, which means that the windows have to be left open and the noise is deafening. Another smaller dormitory houses women and a few young children. Food, shelter, washing facilities, as well as education classes, sewing classes and Bible study, are all part of the weekly programme. What really impressed us was the total commitment of the Methodist minister who has been in charge of this project for the past eleven years.

Another project we visited was with the Landless Community, called MST. In Brazil, the richest 20% of the population own about 90% of the land, while the poorest 40% own just 1% of the land. MST represents those who have lost their land to big companies and grouped together to campaign for justice. The site we visited had been designated as a rubbish tip, but the people have managed to persuade the local council to allow them to live on it. Their motto is 'No to rubbish, yes to food'.

They explained that the first thing they had done when they arrived at the new site was to dig wells. One well caters for 25 families and 200 families now occupy this site – so you can work out how many wells have been dug. The older children attend the local village school while the women on site teach the younger children.

Neither running water nor electricity are available, yet the families grow an amazing assortment of vegetables. In one corner of the site is a special area, under the watchful eye of the Agricultural Manager, where plants are grown for almost every medicinal need, including one that provides insulin for diabetics.

One couple from the Baptist church, along with their three young children, have committed themselves to live with these people and campaign on their behalf in a fight for justice that certainly impressed us. (More information about MST can be found at www.mstbrazil.org).

We visited a Street Children Project in Sao Paulo, which was almost hidden behind high wooden gates. The young people we met were delighted to give us a demonstration of Capoeira, a combination of kickboxing, agility and self-control (very popular amongst the young blacks we met). Several of the Theology students from the Methodist University are volunteer helpers here. The Director of the Project had himself been a ‘street kid’.

One of our lecturers, Claudio de Oliveira Ribeiro, teaches and lives out his liberation theology. Claudio pastors a church in one of the favellas (shanty towns) in Sao Paulo and several of us had the privilege of joining him on a visit to his local favella. There we met Jose, one of the church members, who was delighted to show us around. We saw mothers sitting on their doorsteps, looking after several young children, who seemed pleased to see our interest. We smiled at an elderly lady, who had so many sheets of corrugated iron on her roof that we wondered how long the fragile walls of her makeshift home would support the weight.

Next, Jose took us across the main street into an adjacent favella. It was obvious that even he was not comfortable about entering this area. Down an alleyway we were led to what can only be described as a revolting, smelly river. As one of our group commented, 'You wouldn’t be surprised to see a dead body come floating down stream'. A ramshackle dwelling was up for sale for the equivalent of £50. We were only allowed to take one photo - as long as we were quick! Then we were beckoned to walk quickly along a narrow ledge serving as the towpath, being very careful not to slip into the river. Our way out of what I have since named 'drug alley' was to be blocked by one last obstacle - a rickety home-made bridge, four steps up and four steps down, with no hand rail and no health and safety officer in sight! What a lesson in trust and faith as Jose took my hand and led me over the bridge.

The Methodist Church, just on the outskirts of the favella, is housed in a bungalow. The rooms are used for meetings and Sunday school, whilst the garage serves as the worship area. Jose took great pride in showing us around, opening every cupboard to show us what they have - or in some cases did not have - in the way of equipment. Once again, the commitment to the people in the community and the need to bring the gospel to the poor shone through.

Finally, we paid a visit to a Catholic ‘base’ community run by Father Felix. He shared with us how he had once been engaged to be married but, sensing God’s calling to work with the poor, had consequently broken off his engagement. Having said that he didn’t seem short of female company as we were introduced to his ‘team’ - comprising almost solely lower and middle class women. They shared with us their vision and hopes for the community. Father Felix told us how one of his regular worshippers had once complained to the Bishop that 'Father Felix could never been found at the church as he was always out in the community'. Thankfully the Bishop’s response was to congratulate the Father on his good work.

As our group was taken on a walk-about through his local favella, it was quite clear that we were only accepted by the community because Father Felix was with us. One particular small dwelling was pointed out and we were told that if we were to spend a night in that place none of us would get any sleep - it was occupied by a mother, her seven children and rats without number!

What have I learnt from my trip to Brazil?

Firstly, I’ve come to appreciate that the 'Toblerone' model (Communion, Service and Testimony) is at work in the UK. Initiatives such as 'On the Move' (barbeques for the community) and Alpha have aspects of this model.

But possibly the most successful model here is Soul Survivor’s initiative Message 2000 (Manchester 2000) and Soul in the City (coming to London in 2004). Communion, that is developing our relationship with God, is done through worship and Bible study each morning amongst the young people taking part in this Soul Survivor initiative. Service takes place each afternoon as the young people undertake social action projects, working alongside local churches. Testimony happens when the young people invite people they have met to join them in the evening celebrations in and around the city.

Secondly, I have learnt that it is possible to reach the poor in our community. So often we feel helpless when we see the enormity of the problems that some people face. With our help and support people can discover a better quality of life, yet I can’t help that feel that we need to learn from the Church in Brazil that:

  • Seeing means looking at the situation with God’s eyes and taking the ‘blinkers’ off occasionally.
  • Judging means not being critical but, alongside active partners in our community such as Social Services, Education Departments, Age Concern, etc., making a valued assessment of each situation.
  • Acting is maybe the hardest point of all because, as I saw in Brazil, this means long-term total commitment without necessarily seeing an end result.

'A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up' (Galatians 6: 7-8).

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