ashes to beauty in Brazil...
The beautiful people I have had the honor of running with during this incredible season in my life have become family to me…and very soon I will have to figure out how to say farewell to them. Seems pretty impossible to have to do that. (Help me, Jesus!!!) We travel together, minister together, eat together, work out together, pray & worship together, and hang out together. We share everything—food, space, tears, money, sickness, and laughter to name a few. 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 differences in opinions, the adventures, and through the mess. Originally, we planned to complete our entire journey in eleven months…now, over a year later, we’ve worked our way up to Guyana! It’s been a heck of a ride.
As I reflect upon the past fourteen 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, a woman walking out of a wheelchair, and cancer healed. I have stepped foot on eighteen countries. I have traveled by car, bus, train, plane, motorhome, ferry, canoe, foot, and taxi. I have missed many things…hot showers, the births of precious twin Irlbeck boys in Denver, comfort food, consistency, watching nieces and nephews grow, a bed, iced mocha biancas from Corridor Coffee…..all-things-home. I have slept on the floor of an old restaurant, many church floors, motels, tents, a pop-up camper, nice hotel beds, disgusting hostel beds, an RV, new friends’ 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 we experience every day is one of the most mind-blowing facets of this journey...
Our time in Brazil was a continuation of striking divergence and constant adjustments. It is a fascinating mix of buzzing city life, gang-polluted ghettos, rancid 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 (the Brazilian gal from my Harvest School 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 to kick our time off there.
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. After eating a special lunch they prepared, we went to the center’s chapel to worship with the residents. Most of the men were very hungry for the presence of God. The worship service was open and informal; it didn’t feel like a rehab center but more like a family simply seeking God together. We really had such a beautiful time 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, the result of being shot during his gang days. A couple people prayed for him, but he was generally unresponsive. One of the guys on our team, 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. We didn’t know what was happening, but 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. Moments like these are forever etched in my mind…
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.
After a great week of ministering in Cabo Frio, we turned up the intensity a bit more and entered the heart of Rio’s slums. The first favela, or slum, was called Rocinha (by the way this is the area featured in the film Fast Five for you movie watchers!). We made contact with a Methodist church there and had an awesome few days with them. The favela never sleeps….there is a constant buzz of activity! So many people in such a small space too – living in some pretty unattractive conditions. Every time we enter a new place I try to imagine what it would be like if I was born in that community…it literally blows my mind so much and makes me so thankful for where I’m from. To bring a little encouragement to a place like that was so so great.
The second favela we visited was called Parada de Lucas. Carol got in touch with the director of a YWAM base there in the favela to spend three nights with them. Two of their staff escorted us to the barren base which would become home for the next few days. Their building offered a few small rooms for us to sleep in and had a tiny kitchen and one toilet that didn’t flush. Thirty people, days without showering, one non-flushing toilet, and super tight sleeping quarters…you do the math!
After a few days of intertwining our lives with this whole other world, our team left the favela with many questions buzzing in our minds. I wished we could have magically stopped gang violence, drug trafficking, and the massive corruption of children in the snap of a finger. I felt so overwhelmed by the hopelessness I’d seen there. 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.
Quick follow up on our time at Parada de Lucas:
Carol got a phone call a week from the YWAM leader which was so encouraging - turns out we made a pretty good impact on the favela. One of the gang leaders had come to him and explained how he had such a change of heart after some of our team had prayed for them– to the point of cancelling a planned attack on another favela. The YWAM leader also said that many people in the favela kept asking where we were and when we’d be back which is apparently unheard of as guests are not usually welcomed or wanted back! He said they’re not used to people coming in with no agenda just to be with them…just show them that someone cares - they just have no grid for it. But that’s the real deal and what we love so much…going to places like that, building relationships and just hanging out with the ones who normally get overlooked or neglected or labeled untouchable or too far gone…as Heidi Baker calls it, “stopping for the one”. We enjoy preaching in church services, praying for the sick, and all the other “typical” ministry you’d think of when you think of mission work…but one of the biggest things I’ve learned on this trip is what it looks like to make ministry a part of my daily life instead of “separating” ministry time out and just loving people. Jesus modeled a life of lovingall people and loving them well...he went wherever God called him and many lives were transformed along the way as he just gave people his time…often times breaking all the rules of what was considered acceptable in society’s eyes. He didn’t have an “on/off button” - hewas love. There was no separation of it from who he was. What an example he gives us, right?! Sadly, so many people don’t know true love as it was meant to be and when they encounter it, don’t know how to receive it or what to even do with it. What an honor and gift to see what my eyes have seen and be part of this mission here. I’m still learning what true love looks like and I pray for Jesus to teach me and show me more about how to not just love but love well, and how to carry it on the rest of my life…because I know God’s heart longs foreveryone on this earth to experience this true love and am determined to take my place in all of it.
Three people from a local Iris church joined up with our team after we left Parada de Lucas and brought us to their ministry in Rio before we’d even had a chance to wrap our brains 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. They 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. So 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, our team just joined in kicking a soccer ball around with little kids in the street, some played tag, and our guys become like human jungle gyms with children hanging off every one of their limbs (it’s hilarious and the kids giggle uncontrollably!). The children excitedly followed us from house to house, as we greeted different families and prayed for them. 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 Brazilian model. She also happened to be the daughter of Bebeto, one of the most famous soccer players in Brazil who had basically won the World Cup for Brazil in the nineties – so crazy! Turns out some Brazilian models happen to love Jesus and hang out in the garbage dumps in their free time! And - so kind to bless us with a nice place to stay for a few days!
I had to take a moment to reflect on all that had happened in just one day. Our morning had started in the gang-infested favela; then we transitioned to an African-style dump. And, oddly enough, the evening ended with a beautiful model taking my team to her family’s empty extra 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 we have experienced throughout the last year. We never know what is coming next; sometimes the unpredictability gets super hectic, but it’s all part of the adventure!
Since I’ve gone a little long on this one, I will write about the rest of our time in Brazil next time!! :)
The majority of my team is currently in Georgetown, Guyana, enjoying some time together before some of us go home for the holidays while the rest go through the last few countries before going home. I plan to be home for a couple months and look forward to some down time...seeing many of you...and lots of other wonderful things about America!! Not sure exactly what life will look like after that yet but for now we're all focusing on finishing this race well! "And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith..." Hebrews 12: 1b-2a
Thanks to all for your continued prayers and support!!! I love my life and believe that being a missionary is what I was created for - or at least a big part of it! - so I truly treasure all the love and support from everyone so much.
All my love,