Memories of Mission Trips Pasts

In 1998, I was given the chance to go on a mission trip with the United Methodist Church to visit Rio De Janiero, Brazil. It was a world wind of effort of many people’s parts for me to go on that trip. I remember my parents expediting a passport for me and a myriad of shots (Thanks, mom!) for anything and everything I could be exposed to in South America. Aside: Cold muscle shots hurt! I remember several weekend trips to meet the other youth going on the mission trip and the pastor and youth worker who would be chaperoning us.

Getting to Brazil took over 12 hours, and required multiple connecting flights. At this point, I don’t remember if this was my first flight, but it was definitely my first international flight. My first impression of Brazil was that it was a very different place. We were still transiting through customs when the airport suffered a brown-out. I later learned that brown outs were common in Rio at that time due to the load on the electrical grid in part caused by electricity theft from the Favelas (slums). While theft might not impress you, the ability to free climb a power pole with a wire, hook in a safely and then wire your own home should.

Our mission group stayed in Central, a Methodist mission surrounded by a favela in the heart of Rio. The mission seemed to surround a set of soccer courts where all the kids in the community played. At the entrance to the mission was a little church with a living area behind it where we stayed. Behind the soccer court (cement by the way), the favela loomed up the hill. To the left of the courts was a communal kitchen and a school.

While staying in Central, we met Mr. Marion. He was a United Methodist Church missionary from the US who came to Brazil. After serving in the country, he decided to stay and raise his family there. He dedicated his life to the Central community. One of the first lessons he taught us about Central was that it acted as a natural wind block for the children going to the school. The soccer courts and the surrounding buildings actually kept the exhaust pollution that plagued the area at bay. During our tour of Central, any time we walked to the outer side of the building all the Americans started suffering from hay fever and coughing from the diesel fumes.

Our first night in Central, we attended a local church service. The local pastor was away, so they asked the minister who was chaperoning us to pray and preach. One of the Brazilians who was fluent translated for the small group attending that midweek service. For both the minister and the translator, it was an out of their comfort zone experience: the minister had to come up with an impromptu homily for a community half a world away from where he lived and his experiences, and his translator (an 18 year old who had learned English) had to understand, translate and convey that message. They worked together to give that homily and they following prayer. It was one of many experiences we all had that moved us from our places of comfort and certainty into places of growth and realization.

The first mission work we actually did in Central was painting a fence. It wasn’t very glamorous, and in some ways it was very frustrating. It was the little decorative fence in front of the church. That fence must have been 50 years old, and the wood was so dry as to be petrified. I think it was a peeling blue color, and we were trying to paint it yellow. Every coat of paint we put on the fence seemed to be absorbed by it. It wasn’t until the second or third coat that it seemed to make any difference at all. Recalling the effort, the paint on our clothes, the laughter and jokes among our group, I wonder how many other mission groups at Central started their work painting a fence. How many gave a little time, doing something small, almost inconsequential, to make the community there a little bit better while learning that even the smallest job, done to carry out God’s will is following his will?

I learned many lessons within the walls of Central. I saw the joy of children and families who had far fewer material goods than I did. I learned that kids are crazy where ever you go. The best example of this I can remember was a kid doing a bicycle kick on a cement soccer court. First, ouch. Second, a 10 year old could outplay me at soccer when I was 18. Most importantly I learned a society with vast wealth inequality is not a happy or stable society. Mr. Marion taught this lesson in the kitchen of Central. We were about to sit for lunch one day, and there was bread. There were two missions groups in the room with about 15 people total. He divided the room into a group of 2, 8 and 5. To the group of two, he gave 80% of the food. To the group of 8, he gave us 2 loaves of bread to share. To the group of 5, he gave a handful of beans. Do you know what it feels like to stand in a room with two people holding enough food for 10 when your hungry? It was the most effective lesson on wealth inequality I have ever been taught.

I learned and saw many things outside the walls of Central too. We did some site seeing while we were in Rio. The views of and from Christ the Redeemer were brilliant. Visiting a real Brazilian steak house (Churrascarias) and having dinner is a wonderful experience. We spent time at the beaches of Buzios basking in the sun and playing in the water on a boat. The greatest cultural activity we took part in was watching Rio close as everyone decided to go home and watch Brazil’s team play in World Cup soccer. The country effectively shut down while Brazil was playing.

We also saw the powerful missions and needs of Brazil. We visited an orphanage run my the Methodist church in Brazil and played with the children there. We visited a Methodist retirement home and visited with the residents. From the porch of that retirement home, we looked onto the shanty town across the street. The land of the shanty town had been donated to the church, but so many people lived on it illegally that the church made the decision to work with the residents to form a council and work to keep drugs and crime out. We visited and spent several days at a camp in the hills of Brazil. The bus ride there took us through windy hill top roads with steep inclines. During the camp, we put on a program for the community children and shared meals with them. Most of all, we worshiped in so many churches all over Rio. We worshiped with children. We worshiped with youth. We worshiped with lively little church communities wherever we went.

My experience did not end when I left Rio. Several weeks after my visit, a group of Brazilian Methodists came to the US to learn about our country, worship and culture. We spent time with them at events while they were in the US. My parents even opened our home to two of their group to stay while they toured South Carolina. We broke bread with them, and I got to share what growing up with a small town in South Carolina was like with them. I remember showing them my parents house, and my father showing them his garden.

The good we might do through missions is eclipsed by the good that is done to us. We recognize it is not a them and us situation. It’s an us situation where part of us lives in a different place with a different culture and sometimes a different language. Missions break down barriers and proves the falseness of the separation narratives we often tell ourselves. It’s so much harder to vilify others when you have sat and broken bread with them.

There are so many people I am thankful for giving me the opportunity. June Willson offered me a spot on the mission trip. My parents spent time and money preparing me to go. My church provided donations to help finance the trip. Their impact on who I am and what I believe is immeasurable.

A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.

June Willson and so many others in youth ministry in the SC Conference of the United Methodist Church planted forests! There are laity, youth ministers, deacons and elders who can point to youth ministries and the various programs like the mission trip I attended as a positive force that shaped the direction of their lives.

I hope and pray that I too might nuture someone else as I was nurtured.