My Life So Far–Brazil, Part One

Arriving in Santos, we were met by mission staff. The Brazilian mission was headed by the Rev. Jaime Wright. Jaime was a son of missionaries, grew up in Brazil with Brazilian citizenship. He and his brother both served in the Brazilian military. 

We had learned at MOC that Brazil's democracy had been overturned in 1964 by a military coup d'etat that ousted the president João Goulart. But the military let stand the facade of democracy, as long as it had so little power. Jaime's Wright's brother, Paulo was, by this time, an elected member of the national legislature and a leader in the liberal, socialist party.

Our first days were taken up with preparation for living in Brasília, the capital of Brazil. We entered a whirlwind of getting our goods through customs, buying a few appliances that were not available in Brasilia and getting to know people. We had to get a driver's license and take charge of a mission-owned Volkswagen Microbus. Finally off to Brasilia, to search for a home. 

I should explain about Brasilia. (For convenience sake, I'm leaving out the accent marks of Portuguese. I hope my Brazilian friends will forgive me.)  Brasilia was one of the first planned cities in Brasil. It was designed, not by an urban planner but by an architect. Beautiful and innovative from the air, many of the touches that would make it a good place to live were ignored.

Brasilia was laid out in the shape of an airplane. Two wings held the planned housing and small neighborhoods, while the main body had all the government buildings. To get from one neighborhood to another nearby, there was a long boulevard, that also fronted most of the area of small commerce like hardware and specialized shops. Between more distant locations was a highway that ran in front of the wing, from one wingtip to another with cloverleaf entrances and exits at intervals along the way. What could be wrong?  The entrances to the highway came off of streets that were meant for 45 kilometers per hour traffic (30 mph), The highway was marked for 85 kph (50mph). However the cloverleaf turns were so tight that one had to slow down to 20 kph (12 mph) to enter the highway. This caused many accidents when very slow cars tried to enter the high speed highway. 

Other problems of Brasilia included very poor construction with most of the work done by untrained and illiterate workers who flooded in from the impoverished rural areas; no public parks; poor infrastructure. Many of the houses which were sold initially for very low prices, were purchased by "coronels" well-paid military officers who then resold them at exhorbitant profits. Civilian officials were often over-ruled by a military officer, so that corruption was overlooked.

All that said, the concept of Brasilia was grand and had great potential. In fact forty-five years later, today, Brasilia has grown up and along with the messiness of organic growth it has become a beautiful city.  But not under the military of the day.

The home we found was a dark and dreary one, inhabited by thousands of cockroaches who fed on the dirt that clung to the walls. It had been inhabited by an old woman who painted the walls dark purple, burned incense and candles in every room as she prayed to Jesus, Mary, and Orishas (Gods)  But a thorough scrubbing and repainting began to rid us of the cockroaches. Night after night we would put bait out and in the morning sweep away the dead roaches by the hundreds. Eventually this plague subsided and we were able to keep them out.

Only one amusing story. The back door was too small to allow the refridgerator in. Even with the doors removed, it was still a couple inches too narrow. We went looking for a person to rebuild the door. First there was the pedreiro, the cement and stone guy to widen the opening. But the building had been built with concrete with too much sand, so as he worked, the sides kept breaking off, further and further. Eventually we could have driven a truck through. Not understanding that this wasn't the man's fault, we fired him and hired another person to rebuild it. After buying a new door and hinges, the new pedreiro rebuilt the wall to house a standard door frame. Then we hired a carpenter to hang the door. Rather than using a ruler and attaching the hinges, he took apart the hinge, attached one part to the frame, then using his thumb to measure, he attached the other part to the door. Of course the hinges didn't fit and we had to start this part over. I don't mean to imply that the workmen were ignorant or stupid. They were, however, untrained. I'm sure that the woodworker could have grown chickens and produced eggs far better than I ever might. But this was the general situation with all the building going on in Brasilia.

On the good side. Before we got our stove and cookware, we ate many meals consisting of a rotisserie chicken accompanied by fruit of many kinds. There were abundant pineapples, at least 15 varieties of oranges, papayas, mangos and several other fruit we didn't know.

The United Presbyterian church purpose in sending us was to assist the local city administrators to "humanize the city of Brasilia." This began by them becoming comfortable with our presence. Reaching out, Tamayo started teaching English to the wives of some of the administrators. The University of Brasilia was one of the few to have a structured program to teach counseling to beginning social workers and psychotherapists. That was where I began, but quickly made contact with Frei Matteus, the Catholic chaplain and created a fledging joint Catholic/Protestant chaplaincy, at least in operation, if not in name. However the bishop of the diocese would never have approved, so we simply did things that way, but maintained the fiction of it just being a Catholic office. The next step, within the week, was to put as much effort into working with the administrators of the city to look at ways they might improve the lot of the people. It was they who had reached out to Jaime Wright and COEMAR and George Todd, the far-sighted head of the Presbyterian church's effort in urban ministries to request help. They were the reason the Presbyterian denomination had invested so much money and energy in me.

(Remember that before we moved to Brazil, we had six months of language school. I had been sent to Chicago to the Urban Training Center and to the U. of Chicago to learn about urban administration and ministries. In addition, the church funded a ten-city tour of urban ministries in the U.S.)

Both of us were making good strides toward fulfilling our goals. Of course, this was not a short-term endeavor. We were in for the long haul.

There were two other missionary families (Brazil was the last country where the Presbyterian church still called its people "missionary". This was at the insistence of the Brazilian Presbyterian Church, which was very conservative–as were many of the missionaries.)

It was not inappropriate. Both of the other missionary couples in Brasilia were very traditional, and conservative. I know that the younger of the two, probably in their mid-thirties, saw their task as evangelizing to make more Presbyterians. In fact, we did make friends with them. We drove up to their home one afternoon. Their young daughter informed us that Al and Kathy were not at home. They were up in Planaltina ". . .making Christians out of all the Catholics." (Planaltina was a small town just outside Brasilia.)

While the whole life of Brasilia was permeated with the military, they mostly left things alone as long as no one had the power to challenge their authority.  So when I met the Catholic chaplain of the university, I immediately liked him. He was a progressive who often questioned the dogmas of the church, and able to do so now in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council which had ended only three years before and had made very major changes to the practice of the Roman Catholic church. Of course he also incurred the displeasure of the hierarchy in Brasilia.

Things went along. We were making progress on getting better at Portuguese language. I was able to do more of my teaching in Portuguese without embarrassing myself. Tamayo and I hired a wonderful young man, Jaci, as a tutor. As we got to know him our personal friendship developed. Through Jaci, we also came to know his fiancee, Gleide, a delightful woman. Through both we obtained another view of Brazil's racial issues.

Brazil prides itself on not being racially prejudiced. Compared to the U.S. that is undeniably true. However, it is also true that economically there is a strong correlation between wealth and skin color. In the middle class and above, there is also cultural prejudice; Jaci was light-skinned, Gleide was quite dark. Jaci and Gleide often found themselves fighting a battle against relatives and friends who didn't want them together.

Again, this is nowhere near the level of racism we experience in the U.S. Our neighbors in Brasilia were both quite light, but their five children were a rainbow of hair color and texture, skin color, and facial features. On a superficial scale we might have been fooled into thinking that Brazil had solved all its prejudice.

Another cute story: Thanksgiving came. We managed to find a turkey, but no pumpkins. After inviting Jaci and Gleide and a couple others, I decided that we had to have a pumpkin pie. Sweet potato pie would do; problem, Brazilian sweet potatoes were white. That would be sacriledge. So I found food coloring in the store and tried to make the sweet potatoes the "right" color. It was probably the only purple sweet potato pie ever baked.

So far this story has been mostly pleasant; the next section begins the hard parts. But before I go there, I want to acknowledge how much I was learning to admire the Brazilian culture and how gracious Brazilians had been with us. Whether it was the friendly way we were welcomed by many Brazilians or the help that some gave us, they were marvelous. Even government bureaucrats went out of their way to accomodate us. We made close friends with one family, often visited them.Leite was the head of the Brasilia office of Varig, then Brazil's primary international and national airline. Margarita went far out of her way to make us welcome. We celebrated their children's birthdays, Christmas and many other occasions. Margarita taught us how to tenderize meat. (In those days, the meat that came to market may have been pulling a cart the day before. It was tough. But using a little of the papaya "milk" made it tender and flavorful.) For my part, I helped Margarita overcome her faith issues because her favorite saint had been dethroned. (This was a common task for me in a predominantly Catholic country where many popular saints had lost their positions after the Vatican Council just the year before.)

I still have a great admiration for Brazil, Brazilians and Brazilian culture. Of course, I recognize the weaknesses, but every culture has its weaknesses. I have often wished I could visit Brazil for a long period. Perhaps some day. Meanwhile, life became complicated, dangerous and difficult.

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