Further Reflections on the Amazon
The last time I posted about my trip to Brazil with Justice & Mercy Amazon, I was still fresh off the flight home and my heart was still reeling, so I gave you facts, because facts are easy. They don’t require heart-searching or deep thought, emotional processing or involvement of feelings, morals or points of view. Facts are simply statements of things that are, and truth be told, that was the easy way out. But since then I’ve been hoping to bring you something that reads more like an Ann Patchett novel and less like the REI summer catalogue (although camping gear advertisements can be fascinating). A way for you to see what I saw in the eyes of the people I met, hear their voices, comprehend their needs, and experience the Lord as I did.
This particular trip was a survey of sorts…to connect with villages along the Rio Negro, the branch of the Amazon River just outside the Brazilian city of Manaus where JMA has a ministry center…in the middle of the jungle. But beyond Evernote files of photos and GPS coordinates and several legal pads of carefully documented notes of physical needs: diagrams of improvements that can be made in the future to school and church buildings, plans for sustainable projects and school supplies, we came home with hearts and minds full of stories of people. Stories that didn’t end when I stepped off the boat and headed home to my tidy house in America, but stories of people that are continuing on each day and are being lived even as you to read this.
As I clambered off the Discovery boat and down the gangplank into one of the villages…a precarious task in and of itself that was further complicated by the ever present violin strapped in a pack on my back…I noticed a teenage girl with highlighted hair watching our group with keen interest. She made a beeline for me after I played my violin in our short worship service, stuck her hand out, and said in perfect English, “Hello, my name is Emily…it’s nice to meet you.” Although this ended up being the extent of her non-Portuguese language skills, I commandeered one of our translators for a few minutes so we could chat. She wanted to know if I was friends with Selena Gomez, Taylor Swift, or any of the boys from One Direction. I was curious about her knowledge of pop culture and she explained that she’d only recently moved in from another village where a friend had a TV that picked up the South American Disney Channel. My mind went immediately to my niece who is almost thirteen years old and also named Emily, and how she too loves celebrities and fixing her hair and makeup. But unlike American Emily who is presently absorbed in summer break activities before returning to middle school in the fall, Brazilian Emily is not currently attending school as the government has failed to provide the village with a teacher for anyone over grade 6. Teenage pregnancy is common among these villages as many of the girls have little opportunity for school or work or any kind of spiritual discipleship or guidance. We’d seen it over and over in our travels on the river, and several of Emily’s peers, who were standing a short distance away, were already balancing babies on their hips. My heart broke both for these other girls and at the thought that Emily might be next. I could tell that she was smart and that she had big dreams, but also that she was impressionable and could easily be swayed by the things that the world paints as desirable. The wistful glances she threw as a few boys her age with trendy haircuts ambled by us made me afraid for her heart and her future.
Another team member gave her a Bible and asked if she’d heard about Jesus. She said that yes….some other missionaries had come and told the village all about Him and that she’d probably believe some day. Just not yet. As we sailed off, I watched her splashing around in the river, flirting madly with a boy who seemed a few years older than she was. I just wanted to reach out and pull her on-board with us and take her home and disciple her. Because that was not an option, I fervently prayed that she would be kept safe and that she would not only be provided for physically, but that the longing in her heart would be met; that she could find her identity in Christ and the prosperous hope and future that He plans for her…and for each of us…to have. (Jer29:11)
Several of my team members and I met for dinner last Thursday night to debrief from our trip and brainstorm ways that we might translate all the information we collected into game-plans for future trips. As we took turns sharing memories around the dinner table, a single theme seemed to resonate in all that was being said: our ministry is nothing if personal connections are not made. And doesn’t that perfectly mirror the gospel? That Christ calls us not to a checklist of good things to do in our fleeting time on earth, but to relationship with Him and with the Father, and with each other. I’ve been reading through the Biblical New Testament books of Mark, Luke and John this past week and time and time again there are examples of how Jesus conducted His earthly ministry: by meeting a physical need and pointing the person straight to the Father.
“Son, your sins are forgiven…Get up, take your mat and go home” (Mk2:5&11)
“Daughter, your faith has healed you…Go in peace and be freed from your suffering” (Mk5:34)
“He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God…AND healed those who needed healing.” (Lk9:11)
I love this model. Jesus demonstrated that it is equally important to give someone a food bag as it is to share the Gospel with them. To give a young girl an education and a useful skill as well as discipleship and instilling in her a sense of self-worth in Christ. In line with this, JMA seeks to empower and bring dignity to the people of the Amazon River Basin not only through sustainable projects, relief supplies, building projects and education, but also through teaching the Word, care for the jungle pastors, and other forms of evangelism and discipleship. I am excited to watch as they continue to find new avenues to further the Kingdom of God in Brazil, and blessed to have played at least a small role in their work.