My Life So Far–Brazil, Part Two

I was at the university when the Brazilian army invaded the campus. They brought armored personnel carriers and tanks, rifles and other armament; much of it marked "U.S. Army." As soon as this began my Brazilian colleagues urged me to leave the campus as I could neither gain nor contribute anything by being there. I went home and spent the rest of the day there. We had no idea what was happening or what this would mean for our work.

About midnight, another professor, Dona Billie, knocked on the door. She explained that many students had been arrested and sent to prisons, but several others had simply been killed on the spot. There were two student leaders who were designated to be eliminate. There was no way they could be safe in Brasilia as the military was actively hunting them. They needed transportation out of Brasilia and had determined that they could be hidden in the city of Goinia, about 130 miles away. The problem is that there were several roadblocks set up to prevent just such a thing. Would I be willing to drive them. We would attempt to spot the roadblocks far enough ahead that they could get out beforehand, walk though the fields and rejoin me on the other side. Of course they had a good idea where the roadblocks were set up. According to Dona Billie, I needed to realize that there was danger in doing this and needed to be prepared.

Why me? I was a missionary and an American, therefore less suspicious. In those days, I wore clerical garb on occasion including a "Roman collar".  I quickly dressed in a dark and somber suit with a black clerical shirt and the collar. I grabbed my bible. Putting it in the passenger seat, I climbed into the VW bus and, following directions, picked up the students who lay down in the back.

Each time we approached a checkpoint, we executed the plan. After the students were out, I would approach the checkpoint, stop and be subject to some questioning. "Where was I going so late at night?" "Goiania."  "Why was I going to Goiania?"  I would pick up my bible and show it. I'm going there to preach the gospel and bring people to Jesus. They would open the VW's doors, look inside and see nothing out of place. By this time, these soldiers had done this routine a hundred times, so their enthusiasm had wained. Fortunately they were none too thorough.

Of course my memory is a little weak by now, but I vaguely remember four or five such checkpoints, though there might have been more. Eventually we reached Goiania and found the right house. It had taken about four or five hours. I would like to say that I was a brave warrior for justice and right. The truth is I was scared the whole time. I spent several hours in Goiania, getting fed an excellent breakfast and just wasting time. One of the people made a point that I could not return too early. Enough time had to pass so that I could have been preaching to a group. Otherwise, I might encounter one of the same soldiers who might remember me and question a quick return.

This was the beginning of a whole new world. Social justice, counseling, urban ministry was one thing. Trying to do that while living under a military dictatorship proved another.

Very shortly we discovered that the world had changed. Tamayo could continue to teach English to the wives, but now there were some of military wives in her groups. I, however, could not any longer work with the city administrators. The concept was too foreign for the colonels and generals. Any changes were closed down and improvements were stopped. In fact the solution to the needs of the poor was to clear them out of Brasilia and relocate them in camps a few miles outside of the city.

I continued to teach, however I wasn't making the contribution that was intended–there were Brazilians who could teach counseling. We remained in Brasilia until the end of the school quarter. I used the extra time to interview progressive voices in Brasilia and occasionally in Rio de Janeiro universities, writing a newsletter which was smuggled into the US and distributed by friends here to mailing lists that had been compiled.

In March, we decided to adopt a child and by April, visited an orphanage in Brasilia. Four nuns were caring for over 100 children, mostly babies. These women were amazing. Even though they could not give each child the attention and love deserved, they worked tirelessly to do their best. Forced to feed more babies than possible, they would hang baby bottles over the railing of the cribs and let the babies suck on their own. No way could they hold all those babies and give them the loving strokes they needed, but they still did an amazing job.

We met several babies on the first day we visited and choose a bright, beautiful little girl. There were documents and papers to complete, social workers (Also overworked) to meet and assure that we would be good parents. Eventually everyone was satisfied and we brought Frances Haru home with us.

Frances Haru. Frances was the name of a woman we had learned to love. She was the mother of Joan Sears so the was a name in her honor. Haru was Tamayo's mother's name; another strong and great woman.

Of course the name was the least concern that day. Getting her fed, changing diapers, helping her overcome the damage of abandonment; those were the key ingredients of the day. Who knew that we needed a carriage, a way to sterilize bottles, equipment to wash diapers and sterilize them, toys, a play pen, things to keep her entertained, etc. But we did it. Gradually having a baby became the norm and we learned to do a decent job.

Adoption required convincing a judge. The judge normally in charge, did not like having children adopted by foreigners. There was a history of foreigners adopting children and then raising them to be servants, not as their own children. He was going to be a problem. One of the men we had met in our work was a superior court judge, Romildo da Silva and he rescheduled things so he could make the decision.

The mission office scheduled a trip to introduce us to more of Brazil. Only a couple months after the adoption, we boarded a single-engine airplane, piloted by George Glass, a missionary who usually used it to visit far flung villages and provide them with church services. The other person aboard was a much older woman missionary.

We departed Brasilia in the plane for a three hour trip to a back-country town. There was no airport, but just a grass strip. The people came out to greet us and to shoo off whatever animals were wandering on the airstrip.  We were welcomed and after an evening worship service, had a grand dinner, talks, etc. The mosquitoes were overly abundant. Frankie was in a "bed" with a couple of children watching her. During a break we discovered that her poor body was covered in mosquitoes. Tamayo decided to stay there and protect her. Of course the village folk were used to the mosquitoes and just didn't consider ti so bad.

The next day we went on, in the small plane, to Recife, the home of Dom Helder Camera, a hero of Brazil. Years before, we had met a Brazilian doctoral student at the seminary in California. Aureobispo dos Santos was now the president of the seminary in Recife. He set up luncheon with Dom Helder and a long opportunity to get to meet him and talk about the problems of military dictatorship in Brazil.  Meeting this man is one of the high points of my memory.

Only about three weeks before our lunch, the military or their death squads had murdered one of the young priests who worked for Dom Helder. They then tied his body high in a tree as an example to others. Then, a week later, they machine-gunned his home, fortunately not killing anyone, but a clear message. Dom Helder was not detered by this and continued to preach, justice and ecumenism in life and in the church. This was only my second direct example of the savagery of the military dictators and their lackeys. The first being the university invasion. Of course I knew about the less brutal work of the military.

One of my friends in Brasilia was an amateur radio operator. He introduced me to the head of the "Data Bureau" who invited me to see his work.  He oversaw a battery of IBM computers and card readers. With these they were able to keep track of  "subversives", anyone who was trying to oppose the oppression of the poor. They were the Brazilian equivalent (For that day) of the NSA spying on citizens today.

We spent two days visiting Aureobispo and his family before returning to Brasilia. But soon after arriving home, we were visited by the head of the mission, Jaime Wright. Jaime wanted us to move to Sao Paulo. There was no way to fulfill the work we intended when we arrived in Brasilia and the church simply didn't need another foreign missionary, but there was work to be done in supporting the work of the Council on Church and Society in Latin America (ISAL), based  in Sao Paulo and elsewhere to support urban ministries organizing the social justice work. Of course it was a quiet effort and was fronted by a school for literacy. The school was based on the work of Paulo Freire who had trained many of the teachers. Freire now worked for the WCC in Geneva, but his ideas had been tried and worked in other Latin American countries and succeeded in improving the lives of many.

We were in Sao Paulo only a few months, during which time, I had become close to the workers in the school. There were two Dominican priests amonth them. Every Wednesday, the priests and I would gather in their apartment at noon to celebrate an ecumenical version of communion/mass/eucharist. Sometime in September, I was heading to the apartment. As I got within a block or so, the sidewalk was blocked by a crowd watching the political police drag out two of the priest and throw them in a truck. Of course, I was smart enough to walk away.

The next morning, the newspaper's front page was a notice that the two priests had been on the roof of the Political Police building and committed suicide by jumping six floors to their deaths. Those in the know explained to me that, of course they didn't jump but were thrown. It was likely a way to discredit the progressive catholic church. Suicide is considered a mortal sin by most believers.

Later that very week, one of the young women in our group was arrested and disappeared. By that point it was becoming clear that while the government would probably not harm me personally, their Death Squads could indeed kill me without question. The Death Squads were composed of off-duty military and police officers, who claimed to be independent of the government–but in reality were directly under military control.

Despite all this, we still hoped to salvage a worthwhile contribution to the improvement of the church's work in Brazil. To that end, I met with many people who were finding ways to maneuver through the minefield that Brazil had become. Jaime Wright was becoming one of my heroes. A little like mild-mannered Clark Kent during the day, he changed into Superman and worked tirelessly–and dangerously–to support various groups who were finding ways of making life better for the poor and underclass.

About this time, we were invited to visit urban ministries programs in Porto Allegre were two of the missionary families were working to improve the life of the poor who had come to the city to find work. We spent over a week in Porto Alegre being introduced to the work Eventually one of them and I chose to visit Argentina to see the work going on there despite the opposition of the Argentina military.

We returned to Sao Paulo, ever more determined to make our contribution. A few weeks later, Cecilia (the young woman arrested) was thrown out of a truck onto the sidewalk in front of the literacy offices. She had been horribly tortured and tormented. I will not describe all this, merely say that as bad as you may imagine, it was worse.

By the end of the year, before Christmas, Tamayo and I decided to visit friends in Bolivia. These were folk we met at MOC in Stony Point. Doctors, hospital administrator and an agricultural teacher. Landing at La Paz at almost 14,000 feet (4100 meters) one could hardly breath. The plane was met by medical people carrying oxygen tanks. La Paz itself is only slightly lower.  We spent several days in LaPaz, then took a one-lane road down into the jungle where the doctors were placing IUDs with the tacit approval of the local priest. Our friends remained to work, but Tamayo, Frances and I took a bus back up that one-lane road with a several thousand foot drop off right beside us.

Next in Bolivia was to visit our friend in the agricultural work and to see the great improvements that he was helping to make for people. He was also deeply involved in helping to establish a hospital.

On our return to Sao Paulo, we were met by my boss, the head of urban ministries for the church in the US, George Webber. He and Jaime Wright had decided that I should seriously consider leaving Brazil. I was now targeted by the Death Squads as well as the military. The Brazilian government really wanted us out and wanted it to happen as quickly as possible.  I had been developing an ulcer for some time because of the pressure. I was now putting Tamayo in threat–as well as Frances. But finally, I just was not able to make the contribution as well as might a Brazilian. My work was really over.

Only a few days later, we boarded an airplane for New York City. There was one stop north of Brazil. As the plane touched down, I got to walk around for a few minutes. Suddenly, I realized that the pain in my stomach as gone. It has never returned.

Let me be frank. I could write another several thousand words about the experience and fear of living in a military dictatorship. It was more horrible than a reader can imagine. There were many people tortured, killed, and "disappeared". It was not only Brazil. Similar military dictatorships served the needs of the wealthy elites in Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, Guatemala, Peru, Chile and other countries. They were supported by the United States. 

When I left, I brought, hidden in my luggage, microfilms containing affidavits documenting, by name, US CIA and military teachers of torture. A common torture machine was an electrical device that was clipped to a prisoner's genitals or lips and other parts of the body. It delivered extremely painful shocks, not enough to kill and end the torture. These machines were designed and manufactured by a factory in Louisiana. The officers in these various militaries were trained at the "School of the Americas" to oppress their people. This continues even now. Though the name has been changed to "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation" the reality has not changed.

I find it fascinating that my many Brazilian friends have no idea. They are about my other daughter's age (More about her later) so they did not experience living in that kind of oppression. AND I CERTAINLY DO NOT WISH THAT FOR THEM!

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