A few weeks ago, I was sat in a hammock on a wooden porch in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil, watching the sun rise above the hills and peek between the palm trees, burning a creeping mist off a lagoon.
I mean… what? Who gets to do that?
Today, I am sat on an Ikea sofa under a pile of blankets, wearing my thickest slippers, drinking tea, and using my cat as a [willing] hot water bottle.
Either way, hammock or sofa, sandals or slippers, I have come away from this mission trip knowing I am incredibly blessed.
So my day to day life is pretty cool. I get to work at church, with the best people I know, doing my favourite stuff. If you’re reading this and for some reason you don’t know me, I’m admin support for the Senior Pastors at Valley Church in Preston, and the Youth and PM Service Pastor along with my husband, Jack. Hard work and barrels of laughs. Literally amazing.
I’ve spent the last ten days in Brazil with my Senior Pastor, Ed Carter (Edge, as the Brazilians like to call him – Ds are hard… or rather, they’re not haha!), and two of my key team, Alex and Danny Moore. I can’t begin to articulate just how much I’ve learnt in such a short space of time. Neither can I wrap my head around the way in which God orchestrates our lives so we learn just the right lessons and solidify the right concepts and relationships at just the right time.
Our first four days were very hard work . We landed first thing on Thursday morning, were welcomed by Pastors Daniel and Lily, who drove us two hours from Sao Paulo airport to IMEL Church, Sorocaba. From this point until Sunday evening, we were basically either teaching classes on our ministries or travelling. It was exhausting in the best way!
Monday through Wednesday we took at a slower pace, relaxing and visiting the jungle and spending time trying not to vomit at the sight of giant spiders while people repeat that it’s not technically a spider so you don’t really need to worry but actually it has eight legs and a body so it still totally counts and I’d really rather not dwell on technicalities when there are giant spiders lurking all around me. Okay, we’re still working on spiders, but I’m a lot better than I used to be!
So anyway, here are five things (cinco coisas – see what I did there?) that I learnt during my time away. This is far from exhaustive, but honestly I learnt a lot that my heart still needs time to dwell on before it comes spewing out of my mouth in some spider-induced word-vomit disaster. I’m sure you agree.
Sorry, that’s not true. I did have a lot of fun trying, though. Also, can we pause for a moment and think about how ironic it is to learn the phrase “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Portuguese” in Portuguese? That bothered me the whole time. I should learn the word for ‘much’…
ACTUAL REAL LIFE UM
I realised how blessed and privileged I am that I get to spend my life in Valley Church and under its leadership. I knew I belonged to a good church, but more and more I realise just how rare a thing we have here. I am actually discipled. Like, actually. In the way that Jesus modelled. I have a mentor who believes in me and who always points me back to God. I am surrounded by a group of people who are doing the journey with me, and we genuinely believe in and want great things for each other.
And I’m not just discipled in a Sunday-Christian way; I’m discipled in the authentic ‘go change the world’ sense of the word. I never imagined in a million years that I’d get to do the things I get to do today, and I’m still certain that there’s always better adventures and bigger things to learn beyond the horizon. (Guess who just popped into my head for a flying visit … SEE THE LINE WHERE THE SKY MEETS THE SEA, IT CALLS ME!) I should probably see someone about that, it keeps happening …
Do be careful, however. It turns out senior pastors don’t enjoy being belly laughed at for failing to climb into a hammock correctly.
They also retaliate.
Empowering the new generation.
As often as I got up to speak, I was asked incredulously about my age. Typically, I would mention my husband and the following conversation would ensue:
“You have a husband?”
“How long have you been married?”
“… How old are you?”
It turns out that this reaction was a mixture of surprise that I was actually anything older than 18, horror that I was married at the practically infantile age of 21, and culture shock because in Brazil it’s apparently rare for anyone to be expected to achieve much of anything before they’re 30.
My mum pointed out to me afterwards that outside of our church, that’s also kind of rare in the UK …
This really brought home to me just how unusual it is to have leaders who are happy to empower someone so young to do so much. I have a wealth of advice to turn to, and the knowledge embedded in me that everything I’ve learnt isn’t about me in the slightest – the minute I think that, it’s dead. It’s about the people coming up under me, who I can empower to reach others and continue the cycle. Again, I live in an environment where this is common sense, but to so many it’s revelation! If things don’t change, they grow stale and die at the same rate you do. No one wants to watch that happen. Find some people to share every little thing you learn with, love them, share your life with them.
The welcome home!
The invisible wall between people is somehow thinner in Brazil. I hugged more people in one Sunday morning at IMEL Church in Sorocaba than I usually hug in a year. No joke. Usually, that would freak me out… and to be honest it did, a bit. But the principle carries because that’s not just a weird Sunday phenomenon – people actually want to be close to each other! (I’ll wait while you pick yourself up off the floor.) I am at a complete loss as to how to explain that I walked into a church full of strangers, spent minimal time with all of them, and walked out with new family and friends.
For the first time in my life, I really understand what Paul meant in his letters to the developing churches of the new Christian world when he called his recipients “brothers and sisters”. We truly are a global family, and we should be tapping into those connections more. In our age of modern communication, I think we often forget how easy it is to send words of encouragement to one another.
I am a daughter of Jesus. He adopted me when I acknowledged him as my saviour, and has been leading me ever since. If that sounds weird to you it’s because you know him as the unsettled hole in your heart that nothing ever seems to fix up for long. If you’re fed up of that missing piece and fed up of feeling like you’re doing this thing alone, do one thing right now. Ask him to fill it. Then go to a church and open a Bible. Repeat. And watch your life change.
I often manage to forget that I’m far from the only one adopted! I have the most enormous family you can imagine, if I’m willing to seek them out and invest in some relationships. I get to be a part of the most amazing, global family.
Safety and privilege.
One of my favourite things about Brazil is how you never see anybody walking around on a mobile phone. In fact few people even carry bags. Why? Because if it’s in your hand, it’s very likely to get swiped! We saw people from every walk of life on this trip, but to an (admittedly ignorant) outsider, they seemed to fall broadly into two categories. People who had nothing, and everyone else. The people who had nothing were numerous.
I saw one teenager lying on the pavement in 35 degree heat, barefoot. I saw some people who had formed a small group for protection tying down makeshift tents between trees at an intersection because a storm was coming. If you have even very little in Brazil, you have really rather a lot. These people had nothing.
We saw a robbery from the car one night. A man snatched a woman’s rucksack and she chased after him shouting abuse. She even caught him and attempted to wrestle it back. Of course I know that these things happen, but I realised that this was the first time I was seeing it, and that speaks volumes about the kind of life I have led.
The right to dream.
Halfway through our trip, I had my heart broken by a little boy at a social action project run by IMEL called LUAR. They take children from the deprived neighbourhood (with permission – ‘take’ as in by the hand, not as in by aliens) and teach them a higher quality of education than they get at their school. They teach them Bible values and life principles. Best of all, they teach them to dream. We were meeting children from drug-ruined and abusive families whose biggest, brightest, most unattainable dream had been a job at the corner shop.
Ps Daniel was in the middle of telling us all of this when a very little boy rounded the corner and hugged me round the hips. He shook the hands of the men and hugged Alex too and then asked me my name and ran off to play again. That little boy didn’t need wealth or a privileged upbringing to understand that a small act of love can make someone’s day. He didn’t need possessions to be happy. He just needed a little love. And what he received, he poured back out generously.
If you have never travelled far enough to see life on the other side of the poverty line, do it. It changes something fundamental within you.
To wrap up, life in Brazil is simply worlds away. While there are similarities to be drawn between Sao Paulo and any large city on the planet, it doesn’t have that same universal, uniform quality of other big cities of the world. It’s like staring at a spot the difference puzzle that has fewer similarities than differences. That Bible verse… “To the ends of the earth” starts to make a lot more sense. It’s easy to become desensitised to that concept when you’re part of a generation that has always been able to pick up a phone and speak directly to any other phone-owner on the planet. Especially since smartphones, WiFi, and FaceTime. But this infinitesimal corner of Brazil, impossibly enormous and full of humans, has shown me that life on mission is less like the mirror I thought it was, and more like a prism. There are more sides than I can ever hope to discover or understand, but the light shines through them all, and emerges brighter and more dazzling for all that mystery. It gets cast out into places I didn’t expect.
And my new happy place? Sat in a hammock on a porch in the middle of the Atlantic forest at 6am, Bible in lap, new morning sunshine falling in shafts through the trees, surrounded by an impossible number of chirping birds, croaking frogs, and the occasional alien book-flapping sound of a gargantuan butterfly lolloping past on wings bigger than my hands. An impossible tropical paradise. No distractions. Just nature on a grand and foreign scale, and God’s Creating glory at the centre.
My favourite part is the imaginary addition of my ten year old self running around this paradise screaming as if her pants are on fire because of bugs.
I can’t thank God enough for the influences he has surrounded me with, the opportunities he has helped me to take hold of, and the vast and incredible journey he has already brought me on at twenty-four-and-a-half years of life. Here’s to the next twenty-four-and-a-half, when I’ll be as old as Ps. Ed! Sometimes, the word blessed just doesn’t seem to cover it.