Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Just over a year ago, I hopped in a pick-up truck with three old friends, two bags, a bit of cash and my passport. We drove to a church in Los Angeles where I met up with the original members of the Iris Latin America team. I transferred my luggage from my friend’s truck to the team’s large green SUV, a vehicle that would soon become the closest thing I had to a home.
I said goodbye to my friends and drove off with a group of strangers. When I looked out the window at the streets of California, I still saw home; but when I looked at the people sitting next to me, I felt a million miles away.
Now, a year later, these people have become my family. This September, we celebrated our “team-iversary” of one year on the road. We travel together, minister together, eat together, work out together, and hang out together. We share everything—food, space, tears, money, beds, sickness, and laughter. We’ve grown to around thirty people, and it’s not uncommon to squish all of us into sleeping quarters meant for ten or less. We all know who has the wildest morning hair, who snores the loudest, who takes the longest in the bathroom, and who will be the crankiest without coffee. We love each other through the car breakdowns, the miracles, the adventures, and through the mess.
Originally, we planned to complete our entire journey in eleven months. Now, over a year later, we are just working our way up the coast of Brazil. We still have four more countries to travel within South America, not to mention the islands of the Caribbean. I’d be lying if I said this trip wasn’t a bit more than I had bargained for. Mentally, I had set my mind to invest just a year’s worth of time, energy, travel, finances, physical discomfort, etc. Yet, here I am with many months ahead, at times tired from the past but more determined than ever to finish the trip and to finish it well.
As I reflect upon the past twelve months, it is hard to believe all the craziness I have seen and experienced—both the good and the bad. I have seen deaf ears opened, uneven legs grow even, a woman walking out of a wheelchair, and cancer healed. I have stepped foot on seventeen countries. I have traveled by, car, bus, train, motorhome, ferry, canoe, foot, and taxi. I have slept in cars, on top of cars, on the floor of an old bar, many church floors, the beach, sex motels, tents, a jungle hut, a pop-up camper, an RV, nice hotel beds, disgusting hostel beds, strangers’ homes, and more. I have been to the beach, the jungle, the mountains, the dumps, the slums, and the nicest parts of some of the most amazing cities in the world.
The immense contrast that I experience every day is one of the most mind-blowing facets of this journey. Months ago, one of my team members joked that whether we were told we were sleeping at a five-star hotel or on a cement floor, we would have the same reaction. Neither would surprise us.
Our time in Brazil has been a continuation of striking contrast and constant adjustments. This diverse country is a fascinating mix of buzzing city life, gang-polluted ghettos, fetid dumps, and stunning stretches of nature. We began our time in Brazil in the region of Cabo Frio, a coastal area outside of Rio de Janeiro. Carol (a Brazilian who joined our team in Chile) grew up in Rio state, and her family generously hosted all thirty of us at their Cabo Frio home.
Carol excitedly welcomed us to her city and arranged opportunities for us to bless her church and friends. One afternoon, she brought a group of us to visit a Christian rehabilitation center for men. Each man had a different story, but it seemed as if most had been homeless or addicted to drugs at some point before coming to the center. The residents greeted us with huge smiles and proudly offered us an elaborate meal that included a special type of chicken that is only served on special occasions. Humbled by their generosity, we enjoyed the delicious lunch then went to the center’s chapel to worship with the residents. Most of the men were voraciously hungry for the presence of God. The rehab center was in a pretty isolated location, so the men were very excited to have visitors come who shared their faith. The worship service was open and informal; it didn’t feel like a rehab center but more like a family simply seeking God together.
Several people went up front to share words of encouragement, and we offered to pray for each individual afterwards. One older man sitting in front of us had been a gang leader and murdered many people before coming to the rehab center. He’d ended up in a wheelchair, which I assume was the result of being shot during his gang days. A couple people prayed for him, but he was generally unresponsive. Taylor disregarded his cold demeanor and boldly went in for a hug. As he embraced this man, something changed. I caught a glimpse of both Taylor and the man, arms wrapped around each other. Several minutes later, I saw that they were still hugging, both now weeping as well. I didn’t know what was happening, but I could clearly see that it was something powerful. The old man’s heart was suddenly softening, and he began to cry out to God with desperation. After a while, he let go of Taylor and raised his arms toward heaven, cheering and loudly praising Jesus.
We later found out that literally the night before, this very man had said he wanted to leave the rehab center and declared that he hated God. He had dealt with aggression all his life and only knew how to fight. However, he didn’t know how to resist love. Instead of coming against his malevolence with aggression, Taylor confronted him with love. His warm hug melted away the anger and hurt, and this once bitter man was radically filled with the love of God.
Later that week, a small group of us drove about two hours outside of Cabo Frio to meet up with members of a new church plant to minister in the red-light district of their city. At one or two in the morning, we walked the streets looking for prostitutes and transvestites. I saw a scantily-clad woman approach a car and lean in to talk to the driver. After conversing for a moment, she lifted up her mini-skirt to prove to the potential customer that she was an authentic woman. The man approved, and she walked around the front of the car, opened the passenger’s seat and drove off. As I watched the car disappear, I wondered how that woman felt and how scary it would be to know you were about to sell your body to a stranger.
Moments later, a group from my team approached a transvestite whose street name was “Sabrina.” All prostitutes are massively disrespected, but the transvestites in this area were met with particular disdain. They were so hated by some of the public that men would often drive through the red-light district and kill the transvestites. While my teammates talked with Sabrina, some men with guns drove by on a motorcycle. The people from the church plant later explained that the men would probably have shot Sabrina if he were alone on the street corner. Because my teammates and the church members were surrounding him, the men with guns backed off. My teammates asked to pray for Sabrina, and he asked that they would use his real name, Junior, when they prayed. “Sabrina” was just a character he played to make money, but he wanted prayer for his true self—the man Junior that was inside of him.
After a beautiful week of ministering in Cabo Frio, we turned up the intensity a bit more and entered the heart of Rio’s slums. Our second favela, or slum, was called Parada de Lucas--a dark area run by drug traffickers and gangsters. Carol got in touch with the director of a YWAM base in the favela and said we were willing to spend three nights at their base. The director explained that this was a bleak place, and no one ever wanted to visit. Carol said our team was called to the darkest places and was fully prepared to come. Days before we arrived in the favela, the director contacted Carol to confirm that we really were coming. He said every group always ended up bailing; they all got afraid and gave up on the favela. His voice cracking, he assured Carol, “I don’t blame you if you guys back out. Everyone does. I understand if you don’t come to visit us; I really do.” But standing firm in what she’d agreed, Carol promised the director that our team would keep our word and visit his base.
Two YWAM staff greeted us at a parking lot in the city and escorted us to the barren YWAM base which would become home for the next few days. At first glance, I wasn’t sure how we would all fit inside. The guys were instructed to sleep in the hallway or on the roof. The girls slept on the floor of a few small bedrooms on the second floor. My room had no electricity and no door. The bottom floor of the building had a tiny kitchen and one toilet that didn’t flush. Thirty people, days without showering, one non-flushing toilet, and tight sleeping quarters…you do the math.
Any time we left the base, we were escorted by locals who had a relationship with the drug lords in order to keep us safe. The streets were filled with the stench of weed and gang members who carried walkie-talkies to communicate with other gangsters and drug lords---the “protectors” of the favelas. Fireworks constantly went off as a signal to warn people of the police’s presence. The locals were accustomed to the fireworks and used them to gauge when to get out of the streets. Clashes between police and gangs often erupted.
One day, our team had the opportunity to speak at two different schools within the favela. We acted out a couple dramas for the kids and spoke at a school assembly for children aged six and up. I talked to them about dreaming big, the constant interruption of fireworks bursting in the distance. Some of the kids laughed when they went off; others didn’t react at all. They were completely desensitized to the gang war going on around them. As I looked at the children, I thought about the drug lords and gangsters I’d seen in the favela and how these kids could grow up to become the same. I imagined the gang leaders as innocent children and wondered when their turning points had been.
It’s crazy, because no matter where I’ve gone, I find that kids are kids, even in the craziest of circumstances. After we spoke at the school assembly, Carol asked the children if they wanted to ask us any questions about anything. A brave volunteer raised her hand and asked, “Do you like cake?” Ahh, the beautiful innocence and oblivion that exists in the mind of every six-year-old. Though we’d talked about more serious topics and there was a clear war going on inside her neighborhood, all her little mind wondered at that moment was whether or not we liked cake. I was reminded of the purity and innocence that every child is born with and saddened to know that it was only a matter of time before this little girl would be corrupted by the world outside of her. It seemed impossible for such a naïve child to turn into something so evil. Remembering that the gang leaders and traffickers had once been something so innocent and pure broke my heart for them. They had simply been tainted by a corrupt system and were unable to find an escape. Though they tried to intimidate others with fear, I know fear and manipulation actually marked their lives and had trapped them in a system that the deepest places in their hearts probably didn’t actually want to be a part of.
After a few days of intertwining our lives with this twisted system, our team left the favela, many questions buzzing in our minds. I wished we could have magically stopped gang violence, drug trafficking, and corrupting children in the snap of a finger. I felt overwhelmed by the darkness and hopelessness I’d seen in the favela. But then I remembered the gang leader in the rehab center whom Taylor had embraced until he began to cry out to Jesus and weep tears of repentance and love. There is still so much I don’t understand, but I DO know that no one can resist 100% genuine love.
On our way out of the favela, three people from a local Iris church joined up with our team and brought us to their ministry in Rio before I’d even had a chance to wrap my brain around the past few days. This trio visited garbage dumps in Rio every weekend to play with children, visit families, and often play films in the middle of the dump. The three volunteers said no one ever wanted to come participate in their ministry, and it was a dream come true to have thirty people willing to come with them to the dumps.
They escorted us to a dump about a half hour from the favela. Thirty minutes brought us to an entirely different world. Piles of garbage were surrounded by winding dirt roads and shacks where families lived. No Portuguese needed, I started kicking a soccer ball around with a little boy in the street, and others soon joined in. Moments later, one of the little boys started chasing me down the dusty street with a chicken as I screamed and he giggled uncontrollably.
Later, my teammates and I made house visits with the volunteers leading us. The children from this neighborhood excitedly followed us from house to house, as we greeted different families and prayed for them. Along the way, I found a little boy who’d gotten hurt and stood in the street crying. I grabbed him and held him in my arms until his tears stopped. Whenever I tried to put him down, he lifted his feet and wouldn’t touch the ground. The atmosphere reminded me so much of Africa—kids freely roaming the streets, playing soccer, jumping into the arms of strangers with smiles and trusting hearts. A piece of my heart felt at home in that place.
After a while, one of the girls who’d brought us to the dump said she was taking us to her family’s extra apartment where we could rest for a few days. I wondered what kind of family had the money to have an “extra” apartment for guests and later found out this volunteer was actually a famous Brazilian bikini model. She also happened to be the daughter of Pepeto, one of the most famous soccer players in Brazil who had basically won the World Cup for the Brazilian team in the nineties. Turns out, some famous Brazilian models happen to love Jesus and hang out in the garbage dumps in their free time.
I had to take a moment to reflect on all that had happened in just one day. My morning had started in the gang-infested favela; then I transitioned to an African-style dump. And, oddly enough, the evening ended with a famous bikini model taking my team to her gorgeous apartment in one of the most posh parts of the city. This type of day is an accurate reflection of the strange but beautiful contrast I have experienced throughout the last year. I never know what is coming next; sometimes it’s hard, but it’s all part of the adventure. As my team and I work our way up to the northern region of Brazil, I’m sure many more surprises are in store. Please pray for the endurance and grace to receive every situation well and finish the continent in victory