Volunteer in Mission to Brazil

28 August 2006

I'll fly away

Suddenly as people here realize that I'll be flying to the U.S. in a couple of days, the requests are beginning to pour in for things to bring back to Brazil for them, from deoderant to electronics. The other times that I've visited Brazil, I only knew one Brazilian couple well enough to bring stuff from the U.S. for them. Now, I have quite a few colleagues here that are hoping to be able to take advantage of the cheaper prices and greater availability of certain items in the U.S.

I'll be mostly visiting family and my home church in North Carolina, in addition to giving talks in other churches. Most of the journey will be with my parents in their motorhome, which will be a new experience for me. After seeing Brazilian urban traffic on a daily basis, seeing U.S. traffic should be relaxing (even if my dad, a.k.a. Mario Andretti, will be driving...:).

Two of the pastors that were on the recent Volunteers in Mission work team from the Virginia conference talked to me about the possibility of attending seminary. I explained that I'd tossed around the idea before, but that the idea of more formal schooling, particularly in the area of theology, is not particularly appealing to me. But, I added, I would think about it. Living in North Carolina was also not particularly appealing to me when I interviewed for the job there almost five years ago, but it was where I needed to be. So now I'm adding the seminary possibility to my previous option of applying to become an actual missionary.

It was good to interact with the Virginia conference team during their stay here. I was particularly impressed by their lack of complaining, even when they had good reason. For example, the water got shut off in that part of the city for a whole day, so they were able to only take limited showers, etc. until the city restored the water late that night. (It was the first time I'd ever heard the phrase, "If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down.") That is why everybody seems to have "water boxes" on top of their houses. They are not cisterns to catch rainwater as I originally thought, but they receive water pumped in by the city so that whenever the city water goes out, you have some reserves. One thing I've noticed is that the water has gone out twice in the São Gabriel neighborhood since I've been here because of a major construction project, but never in my nearby middle class neighborhood, which is currently experiencing the same construction. Coincidence? I think not...

The team also showed remarkable spirit when they spent several days painting a mural in the cafeteria, only to accidentally cover it with a non-transparent sealant early on their last work day. Once the mistake was realized, everybody pitched in and started all over again, finishing in one day what had previously taken several days to complete.

This was the first time that a team was hosted in the community center itself, so this was the most interaction that the Brazilian staff at São Gabriel had ever had with a work team, and they really enjoyed getting to know the various team members. When people were sitting around at lunch today, they were remembering the team and remarking how much they missed having them here.

My big accomplishment for the day was obtaining a Brazilian social security number (CPF). I want to buy a health plan here, which is much cheaper than the health insurance I purchased last year in the U.S., but you need to have a CPF. You also need a CPF if you want to buy: real estate, a cell phone, an airticket online, etc. I only found out on Friday that I would need one to get the health plan, so I immediately went into panic-mode trying to figure out how I could get one. In some of my online research, it looked like you'd need to present your birth certificate or other original document with your parents' names on it, and I realized that the birth certificate that I have in my possession does not list my parents' names. Then I realized that my parents probably still have the original with their names on it, but they are currently on the road in their motorhome. After much prayer and a few phone calls, it seemed that I might not need the birth certificate and that I needed to start the process at a Bank of Brazil branch, so I went to the one in our neighborhood. Once I went to stand in line, I saw the sign that said they only do CPF stuff on Tuesday through Thursday, and, of course, it happened to be Friday. Thankfully, like many rules in Brazil, it was not strictly enforced, so after waiting in line a little bit and asking the guy who just went on break, I was able to go to the inner offices, help the guy fill out the computer form, and go upstairs to pay the fee (a little more than US$2). That was the first step, and you can only complete the second step on the next business day. This afternoon, I went to the Finance Ministry office and stood in a surprisingly short/quick line to get the number and code to wait for the actual person who could help me, and that went surprisingly fast, too. As a matter of fact, the woman spent more time slyly eyeing her colleagues and text-messaging on her cell phone than actually helping me, but it's all water under the bridge when I was able to leave there in less than 45 minutes with the prized CPF number. Record timing for any Brazilian bureaucratic procedure!

The kids are back at the projects after a short recess marking the end of the folklore festival. We were discussing today what to do with the English classes, and the newest volunteer, David, opted not to teach them by himself while I am away, so the classes will resume when I return in September. The other volunteer, Chris, is about to take off to do his originally planned travel through Brazil.

When I was talking to the educational coordinator at São Gabriel today, she mentioned that the program always has to keep a few slots open for children who are placed by a government program for kids who were working illegally (when they were too young). I asked if any of the kids were currently from that program and was given a few examples. I was imagining that the kids might be forced to be street vendors, but the teachers said a few of them had actually been doing very difficult jobs (e.g. mason's apprentice). Apparently this is a significant problem here in Brazil because there was also a rally at the Sunday street market downtown against child labor.

I was able to see my first films in Brazil this weekend, thanks the free independent film festival. I actually got to see "Born into Brothels," which I'd been wanting to see since it was released in the U.S. I really enjoyed it, and it was especially interesting to be watching it with a Brazilian audience, who reacted audibly to a few things familiar to them--kids flying kites, waiting in bureaucratic lines, etc. I could completely relate to the narrator's attempts to equip the prostitutes' children with the tools and opportunities to be able to improve their lives and escape poverty, because it's a hope we experience everyday for the children in the Shade and Fresh Water programs.

21 August 2006


I'm pretty tired, so I'll just post some photos of the past week's activities with the work team from Virginia.

Group photo

Painting at São Gabriel

A music class at the Saturday Bible school the team hosted for the children of both the São Gabriel and Liberdade projects

The team took a day trip to the local colonial town of Ouro Preto

Another shot of Ouro Preto

A group of teenagers giving an impromptu singing/dancing show in the main plaza in Ouro Preto

14 August 2006

He who is able to keep me from falling

It's funny how that particular phrase (based on Jude verse 24) is running through my head as I'm walking along through the hills, valleys and potholes (even the sidewalks can be quite hazardous) of Belo Horizonte. As those who know me well are aware, I am particularly prone to sprained ankles, and I find it absolutely a blessing that I have not yet seriously sprained an ankle. The most serious ankle injury I've sustained to date was absolutely fine within 2-3 days. I wonder if the training of walking up and down steep inclines helped my ankle to heal faster. Whatever the case, I am extremely thankful. I was also excited that my legs were in good enough shape that they didn't hurt after taking a trial two-hour flamenco class last Saturday.

My dad likes to describe the opportunities I've had to earn money to support my stay in Brazil as my "tentmaking," in reference to Paul in the Bible making tents along the way to support his ministry. It looks like it's time for some more tentmaking, to be able to support my living expenses for the next several months. I will try to see if I can offer services at the local federal university to translate some scientific abstracts. Another option is to teach private English lessons, but this requires a lot more time and preparation and might take away from the time I am able to spend at the projects.

The work team from Virginia arrived today at lunchtime. The people are from different churches and cities in Virginia and haven't met each other before. They start painting and light construction at the São Gabriel community center tomorrow. I will be going to the airport tomorrow to pick up the final couple from the team that's arriving in the morning.

It turned out I was able to do a few things to help prepare for the team's arrival such as cutting out bedspreads to send to the seamstress over the weekend. It's really amazing how the whole network of program alumni is mobilized to provide services for these teams. For example, the guy that has his own mini-bus company used to be a kid in the project many years ago, and several of the masons, plumbers and handymen were also in the project as kids. I want at some point to record the history of some of these "success stories."

Even though I'm not working directly with the children this week, it still warms my heart when they greet me by name and come over for a hug. I particularly enjoyed having a relatively long conversation today (more than 5 minutes) with one of the more "active" boys who has some relational and disciplinary issues. He was asking lots of questions about the group that was arriving. It's cool that these kids who would not normally have contact with foreigners along the course of their lives get to expand their horizons a bit, if only by trying to greet somebody in another language and ask questions about the place where they live.

I've been trying to get out and take "expedition" walks of about one hour to get to different destinations on the weekends, both for the exercise and also to see various neighborhoods. Yesterday, I walked over to a mega-church, Lagoinha Baptist Church, that offers an English-language service on Sunday evenings. I'm not really sure why they do that since there are not that many foreigners here in Belo Horizonte (in fact, almost all of the people at the service were Brazilians, except for me and maybe one other person besides the missionary pastor, out of about 30). Before I set out from the apartment, I checked my route out with my roommate, who indicated that I needed to take two buses to come back since it would be dark and not so great to be walking through certain neighborhoods at that time. She also double-checked with me if I was prepared to walk up and down the many hills between here and there. I assured her that I was looking forward to the exercise. After about the 3rd major (San Francisco-style) hill, I was laughing at myself and wondering how many more hills there would be before I reached the church.

I'd already been told about this kind of church that is very focused on financial contributions and "vertical theology," as one of my coordinators likes to call it, talking mostly about you and God and not a whole lot about your neighbors, and that was what I found. This was the first time in Brazil I'd seen paid security guards at a church (and only the second time in my life). The service was held in one of their auxiliary buildings in a very nice, air-conditioned (very rare here) auditorium. It was lead by a Welsh missionary. They had more than 30 minutes of standing and singing "praise music" from the U.S., which is currently very popular here in many of the churches. After such an arduous walk, I was ready to (and did) sit down after about 20 minutes. I admire that the Brazilian musician team is willing and able to learn songs in English (and the praise team leader was even evangelizing in English between songs). Then they had the offering, followed by introduction of first-time visitors. Then the kids left for Sunday school, and then a Brazilian woman got up to read the Bible and preach a sermon. One part I did not like was insisting that each person would be looking at a Bible when she read the scripture and actually trying to orchestrate who was sitting where and asking me specifically if I had a Bible. As my parents pointed out during our conversation tonight, at least that service gave me more of an appreciation for the Brazilian Methodist church services that I have already experienced.

It's interesting that one idea that I, too, had about the causes of poverty here turns out to be incorrect. The general idea in the U.S. (and perhaps other parts of the "developed" world) is that poverty in Latin America is caused largely by overpopulation, particularly because of lack of birth control due to the influence of the Catholic church. In reality, overpopulation is not the issue--the problem is severe inequality in distribution of and access to resources. Brazil is only slightly smaller in size than the U.S. and has a population of about 200 million, compared to the 300 million population of the U.S. And it's not about a lack of resources--Brazil is a country rich in natural resources.The very few percent who are in control of the vast majority of resources in this country are quite adept at maintaining and increasing their advantage. We have the same problem in the U.S., but here it's a little more extreme.

There are several people here who need your prayers for physical healing, marital problems and financial difficulties, so please continue to lift up this community in prayer. Time to call it a night because I'm going to need all the rest I can get this week.

07 August 2006

They're back...

Today was the kids' first day back at both of the projects, and it was a long day for me in São Gabriel. It's amazing how much more energy it takes just to be around the kids, and I wasn't even responsible for teaching anything today. It was nice that another volunteer, Chris, made a CD of the pictures we took at the country bumpkin festival last month and had them printed up at the mall so we could display them on the bulletin boards. The kids really enjoyed seeing the pictures of themselves.

I'm helping two of the kids write to American penpals, so that means translating the letters and helping them sit down and write letters that I basically translate into English and e-mail. I was also able to take pictures to send digitally to their penpals. It's such a funny contrast to the days of old when I got a penpal from the "Big Blue Marble" television program and sent correspondence through the postal mail.

For the month of August, both projects are having special activities revolving around folklore because there's a national Folklore Day on August 22nd. Brazil is a country rich in folklore, with all kinds of legends, dances, music, crafts, etc. One of the most popular folklore characters is an Afro-Brazilian, one-legged smurf with a red hat and a pipe called Saci-Pererê. According to a couple of sites I found, he lost his leg in a capoeira (Afro-Brazilian martial arts) match.

The kids at São Gabriel have been divided into teams, and each team has been assigned a specific region of the country. Today they were supposed to construct their team flag for their particular region. If they finished that in time (which nobody did), they were then supposed to work on their team song/chant. The teams will then be researching their respective regions and the folklore of those regions to teach the rest of the group. From what I've seen of the group dynamics thus far, it should be "very interesting."

One side note--it's striking how obsessed the kids are with using rulers (even when the results are not that perfect) and copying/tracing things. At least amongst the kids in the projects, individual creativity has not yet been nourished to fruition. It could also be more of a cultural thing, but I don't have enough data yet to say.

Preparations are in full-swing for a work team (17 people!) from Virginia that is slated to arrive next week. I feel bad because if this were the U.S., I could be much more helpful with the planning, but here, there's not a whole lot I can do other than help translate and work with them once there are here.

I finally took a couple of concrete steps this weekend towards getting a social life. On Saturday, I took the bus to the other side of town to one of the dance studios that offers flamenco lessons. I signed up to take a free trial class next weekend. It was good to be back in the dance environment, so if I can find a way to afford to take lessons on Saturdays, that will be cool. One weird thing was that you have to buzz to get let into the dance studio property and get buzzed out as well because the gate is always locked (like most things here). It was funny and typically Brazilian that the classes that I saw on Saturday seem to stop in the middle for a coffee break.

I walked back across town from the flamenco place to try to get the monthly schedule of events from the cultural center, but they were closed. I did manage, however, to find out about a free concert in one of the nice plazas downtown and went to that yesterday evening. It was billed as Brazilian guitar music, but was actually jazz performed by two guitars and a trumpet, which was fine. I was surprised that they appeared to have started on time (I got there about five minutes late). Getting there was easy (I could catch a bus at my regular bus stop close to the apartment and it was still light) but I have to work on the getting home part because the place I walked to in order to catch the bus home was less-than-optimum, especially in the dark. It's funny that I often plan for hours before an actual outing to figure out what bus to take to get there, where to get off the bus, how to walk from the bus stop to the destination, what bus to take to get home, what bus stop to walk to in order to get home, etc. While that is a lot of work, at this point I definitely prefer taking the bus to the idea of trying to drive here (and those of you who've ridden with me know that I'm no pansy behind the wheel).

I had an interesting discussion with my roommate yesterday because I heard another person say that Brazil's biggest problem was teenage pregnancy, and I asked her opinion. My roommate thinks, and I agree, that Brazil's biggest problem is the distribution of resources and the huge economic inequality that seems to largely affect those of African descent (among others). It's interesting that things that would be racial stereotypes in the U.S. are more class stereotypes here.

And since I've already written more than anyone other than my parents will read, I'll call it quits for now... :)

01 August 2006

The never-ending festival

I'm a little late with this posting because of traveling to visit my friends followed by a full schedule of celebrations for the family of my roommate when I returned to Belo Horizonte.

Here's a family portrait of my friends in São Carlos:

It was interesting because this visit was the first time we've communicated mostly in Portuguese. I'm slowly becoming more used to the long (6-12 hour) bus rides to get to other regions. I'm still not able to get a lot of sleep on the buses, but at least I don't feel like I need to "be productive" and read or knit while I'm not sleeping.

As far as the never-ending family festival, my roommate comes from a large family (originally 10 children), most of whom live in this area. Her oldest brother was turning 70, so folks gathered from near and far (a sizeable contingent even took the bus from Brasilia, the nation's capital) to celebrate his birthday in addition to the 40th wedding anniversary of one of her sisters and some other birthdays. As someone who grew up without much of an extended family, and especially not in the same town, it blows my mind that in the total of five months that I've lived here, I've already met all eight of my roommate's surviving siblings in addition to a multitude of nephews, nieces, cousins, etc.

Another cool thing is that many of the people who have gotten divorced are still on friendly terms with their ex-spouses, and the ex-spouses still participate in the family events. What that means for me is trying to learn the names of a bazillion people, but with a family that is so open and welcoming (they've invited me to every one of their gatherings since I've lived here), it's a nice problem to have. It's amazing to me how intergenerational their gatherings are and how close people are. For example, can you imagine an American adolescent male willingly going to a family gathering rather than hanging out with his friends? And then on top of that, walking around and hugging people, talking to everybody, and volunteering to play games with the "fun" aunt? I couldn't believe how many of the kids immediately came up to me, hugging me and talking to me.

So far, they had activities on Friday (when I was traveling back from São Carlos), all day Saturday, all day Sunday, lunch and dinner yesterday (Monday), and some folks are coming to our house tonight for dinner. I also went to my first serenade when a small, intergenerational group of the family went to one young woman's apartment at midnight to sing songs to her for her birthday. I noticed that everybody already knew where this particular family lived and nobody needed to ask for directions, etc. Maybe people in the U.S. that have large families and have lived in the same place for decades experience the same thing, but this is definitely new for me.

Many members of this family are amateur musicians, so their gatherings are filled with guitar-accompanied sing-alongs. Even though I'm pretty familiar with Brazilian Popular Music (MPB), I was hearing a lot of songs I'd never heard because this state is known for its fondness of country-style music. They even have a country version of the birthday song. Normally, Brazilians use the same "Happy Birthday to You" tune that we use with Portuguese words, but this tune was more Brazilian. It's funny that that last night when we were waiting for the pizza to arrive for dinner, it felt empty to me with just 10-12 people there.

And now for more of my gratuitous observations about Brazilian society...

One thing different here is that most phone numbers are eight digits long instead of seven. I wonder if we'll need to go to that soon in the U.S. Even though most everybody has cell phones (irrespective of age or income), hardly anybody uses answering machines, call waiting, etc.

I'm not sure when it was, but at some point, there was a very effective dental hygiene campaign here because people (again, of all ages and income levels) are fanatical about brushing and flossing their teeth. I even remember seeing the dental hygiene station for the children at one of the day care centers in a local slum. Now if the same people who did that campaign could do something to combat littering, that would be great.

I'm constantly amazed at what people accomplish here with the most rudimentary of tools. I suppose that I'm spoiled by the resources that we have in the U.S. such as a specific tool for everything, but it's really odd for me to see people cleaning leaves and spent flowers off of grassy areas with brooms rather than rakes. Another place where I notice a different level of tools being used is in the major road construction project in our neighborhood. I can't believe how quickly they are building a ramp, new sidewalks, etc. with the most basic (mostly non-power) tools. I can't imagine what they could accomplish if they had the same equipment that a typical construction crew in the U.S. is using.

That's enough for now. Time to double-check the Methodist Foundation's web site, which I finally finished updating. See http://www.fundacaometodista.org.br for more information about the Foundation and its projects.