By Jessie Morgan
When a recent United Methodist Volunteers in Mission group traveled to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to do mission work, group members were forced to step outside their comfort zones while experiencing the acceptance and love of the Brazilian culture.
The group was in Brazil from June 10-24 and did work ranging from a children’s vacation Bible school to installing windows and painting walls in church buildings.
The group, led by Lee McMillan, consisted of 16 members total, nine of whom were youth. McMillan, who has traveled to Brazil four times, said she enjoyed that this group was a mix of youth and adults.
“It’s good to have a combination because it brings maturity to the youth and youthfulness to the adults,” McMillan said.
Using the Instituto Central do Povo, an Advanced Special Mission of the UMC, as a base, the group traveled to other locations in the Rio de Janeiro vicinity, where they volunteered at local United Methodist churches and the Lamb mission.
The first step for the group was to travel from the ICP to an area called Bangu, where they stayed with host families. Group member Amelia Petersen, a rising high school senior from Irmo, was apprehensive at first.
“We landed in Brazil and finally get to ICP, and then they said, ‘Get packed, now you’re going to Bangu to stay with families,’” Petersen said.
Once she arrived in Bangu, however, any uncertainty was gone.
“I loved meeting the host families. They made us feel so at home,” Petersen said. “We got to experience real fellowship with those people.”
The first night, the families held a party for the missioners, complete with local foods.
“They always wanted to share their gratitude with us,” McMillan said.
“Sometimes people struggle to open up to strangers, but they were so welcoming,” Petersen said. “One day they invited us to come play soccer with them, even though none of us knew how to play or were any good.”
One of the focuses of the mission work was working with the children, including Methodist Youth Fellowship activities. In their first VBS, missioners had 100 attendees in both morning and afternoon sessions.
While language was somewhat of an issue, the group “tried to be crafty and fun despite the language barrier,” McMillan said.
“We used a lot of visual aids, so the children were able to understand the general concepts,” she said.
At the last VBS, volunteers from both of the other VBS programs pitched in to help.
“They didn’t have to do that, but they wanted to be with us to give more support,” Petersen said.
According to McMillan, the Brazilian culture is very positive.
“They are such friendly, happy people,” she said. “They always find a reason to smile.”
The group moved on from Bangu to spend many of the remaining days working in favelas, the term for the urban slums in Brazil. These areas are extremely poor and often riddled with problems like violence and teen pregnancy.
While the area around the ICP was cleaned up greatly and had decreased violence because of a police presence, the group worked in a favela in the Jardim America area that was much different.
“It was scary,” Petersen said. “There was still a lot of violence in this area, and the residents put up barriers against the police.”
This is where the group worked at the Lamb mission, a ministry teaching languages and Bible studies to the local children.
The group again did VBS and also MYF sessions for the youth. Petersen said the goal of the MYF sessions was to provide a safe place for the young people living in the favela.
“We were trying to give youth somewhere to escape,” Petersen said.
The group also provided an escape by taking the older youth on an outing to Copacabana Beach.
“It was amazing to us that so many of them had never been to the beach before, even though they did not live very far from it,” Petersen said.
McMillan noticed the impact of the American and Brazilian youth on one another.
“It was great seeing the teens so easily be accepted by and accept their Brazilian teenage counterparts,” McMillan said. “They really enjoyed each other.”
“We were definitely able to bond,” Petersen said. “They are just so open and loving. I really felt empowered that I could make a difference in their lives.”
McMillan said this is the kind of relationship-building that shows true United Methodist connectionalism.
Petersen believed that beginning in the comfort of Bangu then going to the uncertainty of the favelas seemed fateful.
“It almost seemed like God made the trip this way,” Petersen said. “First, God gave us comfort, but then forced us to move beyond that comfort zone.”
Petersen was particularly moved by a devotion the group had at the famous Christ the Redeemer statue, which stands on a mountain overlooking Rio and is said to watch over and protect the city.
“Interestingly, the favelas are actually behind the statue, so symbolically Christ can’t see them,” said Petersen. “The message to us was to reach out and be God’s eyes into the favelas.”
Petersen said working in the favelas has increased her interest in social justice issues and energized her faith.
“I want to be a Christian who can be a voice of people. The love of God can be a part of bringing justice to the people,” she said. “I had enough faith in God to go to some of the scariest parts of Brazil and know God is going to protect me. People often avoid getting dirty and just stay in their comfort zone, but it’s important to stand up for your beliefs no matter what.”
“We are the hands and feet for Christ in the world,” ˆshe said. “It just feels good when you are able to do this work for God.”