“I couldn’t see a thing, and now I can see an eagle in the sky. ”With these words, a 30-something woman in a once-brightly flowered sundress at a makeshift medical/eye clinic thanked Americans on a short-term mission trip for giving her what most Americans take for granted: the ability to see clearly.
BELO HORIZONTE, Minas Gerias, Brazil – “I couldn’t see a thing, and now I can see an eagle in the sky.
”With these words, a 30-something woman in a once-brightly flowered sundress at a makeshift medical/eye clinic thanked Americans on a short-term mission trip for giving her what most Americans take for granted: the ability to see clearly. Her home in one of Belo’s shabbiest parts of town would now be brighter, and her heart would be lighter, because she could see the beautiful hills covered with the ramshackle no-longer-red brick and once-white stucco buildings that surround her.
In addition to the hope that life could be better – which was given her with the gift of clear vision – was the gift of the life-empowering hope of Jesus that she also heard about.
The woman was one recipient of the ministry of a 162-person team of people (99 from Louisiana) who all converged for the 25th annual mission trip to a city in Brazil to do God’s work for a week. This is the third year they’ve been in Belo – the name means “Beautiful Horizon” in Portuguese.
For some, it was a church-sponsored mission trip; for others, a solo endeavor. For all, it was a gift of time given to God, to be His instruments among a people receptive to His message.
“I came because a friend of mine had a stroke and couldn’t do missions anymore,” said one first-time mission volunteer from North Carolina. “The Bible says to work while it is day, for the night is coming. Well, the night has come for my friend. I don’t want to be sitting in my chair, thinking about what I might have done for the Lord. I want to remember that I have done something to honor God with my life.”
Everything participants on this mission team did was to earn the right to give an evangelistic witness: drama, jump rope, sports – on high-traffic, lower-income streets and in prisons, detention centers, schools. There also were medical, dental, or eye clinics, VBS and the construction of three churches, all in the very poorest neighborhoods of Metro Belo. And everywhere the Americans went, they shared their faith with vigor and passion.
A plucked rubber chicken drew attention wherever its holder went, and a bejeweled rat trap clearly illustrated what happens to people enticed by sin. Both of these were used during ministry in the streets.
Church services took place every night at 22 locations, and the American pastors preaching at them, with Brazilian pastors and church members, visited each day in homes.
Conversations abounded about “the impossible” that God was doing through the mission team and their Brazilian coworkers, in this extremely hilly city of about 3 million people – 4.5 million in the metropolitan area.
Milton Wilson, pastor of First Baptist Lecompte, said he led a downcast woman to the Lord on Monday; her husband had left her and their five children a year ago for a younger woman. Wilson said he felt led to pray with her that her husband would return to her.
“That’s impossible,” she said. “With God, nothing is impossible,” Wilson told her.
That very night, her husband contacted her, for the first time since he had left. He came by to see her on Tuesday, and when Wilson saw her again on Thursday, she told him with dancing eyes through one of the 115 interpreters assigned to help the Americans: “I think we’re going to get back together, and I know God did this!”
At a church construction site, Pastor Allison Roberto Campo Mendouca said he was a member of a large church (now the mother church) three years ago, living in “this [extremely poor] neighborhood,” where he saw the need for ministry that would help strengthen families. He started a Bible study for children in a home, which evolved into a Sunday School for children.
“When you live near, you see the need,” Mendouca said through an interpreter. “It is sad to see children 3 and 4 years old who have no hope.”
As parents became interested in what their children were telling them, he rented a small room for adult worship services. The church had no plans to build, but were offered an American mission construction team after they were given a narrow, two-story house in great need of repair, which was on lot deep enough for a church 50 feet long and about 25 feet wide.
“It’s a beautiful surprise God’s love has given,” Mendouca said. “This is an impacting experience for the entire neighborhood. All here around are very joyful for Americans to build this church. … When people here can see that someone cares for them, they are able to have hope in the future.
“The Holy Spirit is moving across Brazil, and He is using [the American/Brazilian partnership] to grow His kingdom,” the pastor added.
Here’s how the partnership works: The Americans each fall ask the Brazilian nationals what their most pressing needs are, and spend the next several months finding the people and other resources needed to fill the needs. The Brazilians work out logistics – enough volunteers, drivers, vans and more – to support the Americans when they arrive in mid-July.
“We work with the Brazilian National Convention and our IMB missionaries,” said Wayne Jenkins of Louisiana, coleader with Dwight Lowrie of Texas. The two men were pastors when 25 years ago they joined forces to be able to take a larger mission team and have a greater impact than either one could do on his own. Since then, the Brazil mission team has grown by word of mouth.
“It is partnership in action,” said Jenkins, who now is evangelism/church growth director for the Louisiana Baptist Convention. “We cooperate together – churches here [in the United States] with churches there, state convention here with state convention there – and together we are able to do more for God than any of us could do on our own.”
With this partnership, the Brazilians are encouraged and motivated to see the zeal of Americans on mission in their city, and the Americans are inspired by what they see God doing through them.
Kathy Smith of Marietta, Ga., one of the sports team, said she didn’t know if she would make a return mission trip to Brazil. (Each year many of the mission volunteers are returnees; many others are first-timers.) Smith had learned what God had wanted her to learn, she said. He opened in Brazil her eyes to the needs in her local community, and her ability to help meet some of those needs.
“I don’t need to come to Brazil to do what He wants me to,” Smith said. “We have the same needs in Georgia.”
Several churches sent 10 or more members to Brazil, including Fairview Coushatta, First Lafayette, Highland New Iberia, and Kingsville Ball, among several others.
“When any local church surrenders to the call of God to join Him in His work, the kingdom of God grows,” said Matt Endris, who was one of a dozen people from the church he pastors – Fairview Coushatta – to participate in the Brazil mission. “The prayers and preparation of the churches in the United States and Brazil till the soil and equip the workers. Those who go are able to sow good seed and water what has already been planted by the Brazilian churches. This yields a harvest now and in the future.
“Through all this process, the workers are rewarded, the churches are strengthened and God’s kingdom comes on earth the way it is in heaven,” Endris continued. “We see Matthew 28:19-20 come to life right before our eyes.”
God at work
Each ministry – and nearly every person – had a story to tell of how God used them to impact someone’s life now and for eternity.
The medical team saw everything from a cook’s smashed finger to a middle-aged woman who might have breast cancer. The dental team pulled scores of teeth. The eye team gave away more than 600 pair of glasses donated by the Lions Club. Each person seen received a gospel witness as well as attention for his/her physical needs.
The drama, street and jump rope ministries, and the home visitors, talked with thousands of people, hundreds of whom made professions of faith in Jesus. How was this possible?
The drama team used mime to show how sin entices, that Jesus took on the sinner’s guilt, and that once the sinner realized how much Jesus helped him, he chose Jesus, who then gave him the strength to choose to not again be enticed by sin.
The street team started their ministry at each location by passing out simple gospel tracts printed in Portuguese, the national language of Brazil. Several people stopped, sat down, and seriously read what they had been given. Though some people refused a tract, nary a one that was taken was later found on the ground, mission team members reported.
The home visitors tarried. Their goal: building relationships the Brazilians could follow up on, long after the short-term missionaries returned to their American comfort zone.
The three construction teams’ ministry was more practical than spiritual, yet its long-term spiritual impact is incalculable.
“This building helped us make people more comfortable and come back, with everyone welcome,” said Milton Sincero, pastor of a church that was built three years ago. “Now we can teach them the ways of God.”
By noon Wednesday at one construction site, all the block had been laid, and Brazilian nationals were preparing to stucco the walls while at the same time the Americans were setting in place the metal perlins and trusses for the roof.
By the time of the building dedication Saturday night, the walls had been stuccoed smooth and painted a bright white, as was the underside of the sheets of roofing tile. In one church, one hundred white plastic chairs – a gift from the mother church – were arranged in careful rows. It was clear that what the Americans had started, the Brazilians had made their own.
“Churches have changed because you’ve come here,” said Arlecio Franco Costa, pastor of Igreja Batista Do Barro Preto at a Sunday morning worship service as he welcomed Americans who had built a church for one of Barro Preto’s missions. “Churches wait 17 years for a church, and you build it in five days. … Pastors get encouraged because of your presence, and many families come to know the Lord. …
“We are not going to be the same by the end of this crusade,” Costa continued. “The light of Jesus will be brighter in us.”
A Brazilian pastor, who struggled valiantly to make himself understood with his few words of English, took a week’s vacation to drive Americans around in his car. A psychologist with a prison ministry took two days from her job to interpret for the Americans at a prison. A Brazilian church member, who spoke no English, wanted to do her part so she closed her hair salon and cut 86 people’s hair in three days at a medical clinic site. For many recipients of her kindness, it might have been their first professional haircut ever.
Everywhere the Americans were, Brazilians were working side-by-side with them, and the blessings went both ways.
“Your lives show us what our lives can be like,” said the manager of the hotel the Americans stayed at, during the final celebration service. He made a profession of faith three years ago, and last year called his entire staff together to hear a gospel presentation. This year he called them together to see the drama team’s presentation.
“You helped our children; they needed to see you,” said Pascal Stowell, an IMB missionary from Louisiana who drove his family nearly seven hours to spend time with the Americans. “Amy and I needed your friendship this week,” Stowell added, referring to his wife. Then his words turned toward the Brazilians.
“All the work you’ve done this week, they need your prayers,” Stowell said. “Pray for the protection of these new believers. Pray these churches will grab hold of the vision and disciple them.”
For those to whom statistics are important, more than 2,100 Brazilians made professions of faith during the week Americans were in Belo. In addition, “I saw Brazilians get discipled,” one team member reported. “I know God sent you,” another reported having been told by a person he led to the Lord.