I am missing you right now.
Like, heart-ache, missing you.
My experiences in Brazil with Compassion have irrevocably changed the purpose and direction of my life. I spent a week there in September 2012 and returned in September 2013.
In Brazil I experienced pure joy and happiness like I never had before, but I also had my entire worldview, beliefs I had held my whole life, severely tested and put under the microscope when I came face-to-face with the stark reality of what life was like for one of my sponsored kids.
Both the happiest and the hardest days of my life occurred while I was there, and this paradox is difficult to get my head around.
I will never forget walking the streets of Fortaleza at night with brand new friends. I was a sheltered, wealthy, undersized white guy, but not once did I feel unsafe with these wonderful people around me.
I will never forget the content of our conversation: as we were walking, my friends would point out how many drug dealers lived in each street.
I will never forget relaxing in a beautiful park in the middle of the day, only to be told at night it transforms into a godless, lawless place where evil takes over and police won’t go anywhere near it.
I will never forget the feeling of oppression, violence, despair and hopelessness literally hanging in the atmosphere like a roof over our heads.
I will never forget the incredible feeling of standing in a church filled with ‘worshipping warriors.’ These people lived in the same streets I had just been walking; their very existence was a daily battle and lives were being lost every day to drugs, violence and abuse. Yet somehow they choose to hold on to God and trust Him. He is their only Hope.
Something did not add up for me. I was being violently yanked out of the comfortable culture and version of Christianity to which I was accustomed. There was a cognitive dissonance between what I was seeing and what I had believed about God. I was challenged way beyond what I was comfortable with: If life was like this for these people and they are still holding on to God and giving everything for Him, where does that leave me? I still wrestle with it today, trying to live out my faith in a culture that puts self, wealth and possessions above everything else.
I will never forget meeting and sharing with Compassion graduates. Incredible young adults who, thanks to God and their sponsors, have come through the program, graduated and gone to college and now have a future and a realistic opportunity to impact their communities and help their families out of poverty. I loved seeing some of them return to their Projects as staff as the cycle of hope continued. They were providing the kids with a real-life example of the way Compassion works and that, contrary to what they see in their communities and home lives, they do indeed have a hope and a future.
I will never forget the privilege of sharing Jesus with a group of children who have already been through more in their short lives than I can possibly imagine.
I will never forget visiting Project BR-458 twice in the space of a year and seeing their church go from construction zone to sanctuary, entirely from the funds of their church members.
I will never forget visiting a young lad and his family on behalf of his sponsor. His mother left and his unemployed father was doing his best to raise three children. There was one word carved into their front door: "Jesus." He is their only hope.
My Brazil connection begins with Ana Cristina, who I started sponsoring in 2010, when she was 10 years old. You can read more about her story here (or read about it in my book). In short, her family life involved murder, drugs, revenge and living in fear. When the reality of her life sunk in, God moved my heart and I ended up sponsoring a total of 12 children from the same area of Brazil.
I won’t go into details of the visits here (once again, check out my blog and my book) but I will say that I cannot deny what I saw and felt. If I had embarked on those visits purely as a humanitarian mission or a “good deed,” that all changed when I entered the Compassion Projects, which were located in local churches. I mentioned earlier about the violence, hopelessness and despair that pervaded the atmosphere in the communities. Well, when I entered the churches it was a completely different universe.
Peace, love, joy and life were tangible and the only conclusion I could possibly come to was that the love of God was in these places. It was the one safe place that these children had; an oasis from the reality of their home lives. A place where they were free to be kids, to laugh, dance, sing and play. A place where they had their material needs met through healthy food, clean water and medical care.
Most importantly, they had the opportunity to develop a relationship with Jesus, since He is the reason that Compassion exists at all. He is the reason that the church volunteers give up their time to care for these kids and invest in the lives of the families.
A few years ago I read a story about Gloria Jean Coffee co-founders Nabi and Angela Saleh. They sponsored 250 kids in Brazil through their business and threw a big party at a resort where they spent the day with the kids and their family. This captured my imagination and I decided to do a similar thing (albeit on a smaller scale).
So, when I organised my trip to Brazil in 2012, instead of just going to the Projects and their homes I arranged to take all ten kids and their families to a special park which had a pool, mini-zoo, horse riding and soccer field. Kids were able to be kids, even just for an afternoon, and I was able to share the simple joys that come with birthday parties which I think many of us take for granted.
The highlight for me was seeing the teenage band from Project BR-329, who I had met earlier in the week, come to the park with their instruments to surprise me with some tunes. I had no idea this would happen, and I can only imagine what they gave up and sacrificed to be there for me on that afternoon.
It was such an incredible day, I decided to do the same thing again in 2013. This time, however, there was only one place I was going to have it.
Compassion Project BR-329 is without doubt the most amazing place I have ever been (read about it here). In the middle of an urban area near Fortaleza, this Project serves close to 1000 kids and it is a place filled with life, love, joy, music and hope for the future. I experienced incredible kindness, generosity and hospitality and they taught me to not limit God. When I visited they were in the middle of a massive three storey building Project, for which they had no choice but to trust God to provide for them. Their dreams and hopes for their community and the children in their care were huge and limitless.
So I arranged for my 32nd birthday to be held at BR-329. I paid for a jumping castle, trampoline and cotton candy machine and it was a day of chaotic and glorious joy and celebration, with lots of singing, dancing and cake! Honestly, a slice of heaven. The teenage band were there again, and they had set up an extra drum kit just for me! Normal Project activities were on that day, so as well as my sponsored kids there were lots of other kids around and once again, to be able to give them a day of pure fun and enjoyment was a privilege and a profound experience.
Best of all, when everything had settled down and all eyes were on me, I was able to share with them the true reason I sponsored lots of kids and had come all the way to visit them. I wanted to share the love of God them. Simple. I had to let these precious people know that they were valuable and worthy, and had been created in the image of God for a purpose. He has given each of us different gifts and abilities in order to glorify Him and serve others. Through Compassion they have the opportunity to find out what those gifts are and use them to help their families out of poverty.
The Hardest Day
While the two birthdays in Brazil were the happiest days of my life, the hardest day came straight after. It was the day I visited the family of Ana Cristina. I have visited 31 of my sponsored kids in 12 countries, but this particular visit impacted me more than any other. In 2012 I had not been able to visit because the family had been in hiding, but this time I made a special request to see the family.
This is a snippet of the blog I wrote on the day of the visit.
“To get to her house, we walked down a narrow rocky path, next to a stream of sewage. I tried to imagine living here with no other options or no way out. We came to her house, which was very well secured, and met her parents. I was greeted quietly and cautiously.
I found out that they had moved back to this house about five months previously. Eleven people share this three-room, 1-bedroom house, with a fence that is laced with the jagged edges of broken bottles. The rest sleep on hammocks. They had been renting a house in a slightly safer area further away, but Papa’s building work dried up, so they could no longer afford to rent, and had to come back. The house belongs to Cristina’s grandmother.
At the time, neither parent worked. They receive help from Compassion, where Ana Cristina and her younger sister are sponsored, and also a government assistance program, from which they receive maybe 50 reals a week ($25). There is a marshland over the back fence that floods when it rains, and contaminates the water
There were only three occupied houses in their street. The rest moved away because it is too violent and dangerous. Gunshots are regularly heard. They cannot leave the kids alone in the house, or leave the house after 7pm, because it is simply too dangerous. Their oldest son, who was 20 at the time, fell in love with a 14-year-old girl, and they had a baby together. They also live in an area which is more dangerous than the one we were standing in.
The extent of their dreams for their children are to be able to move to live in a different, safer area. This was survival and existence at it’s most raw. I was staggered and stunned at what I was hearing, and yet I was still on my feet. Right now there was no happy ending with a bow and a cherry on top.
Unfortunately there is no quick fix for poverty; no miracle cure. Even as much as I love Compassion, I have never said that it’s an instant solution to all life’s problems. The Project workers come alongside the family, and offer support for the children and their parents. It’s a long term process.
This was the reality for my precious Ana Cristina. And yet, when I asked her if she was worried about anything, or what she was afraid of, she shrugged and said “nothing.” She could have been bluffing, but I got the sense that she has a quiet confidence in the protection of her parents, despite their inability to provide materially for her, and also in the Compassion staff. She has been shown enough love over her time at the Project to be secure in the fact that God loves her, no matter what else happens in her life.
I gave some gifts, which were received with quiet gratitude. I thanked Mama and Papa for their honesty and trust in sharing their lives with me, and I left Ana Cristina with these words: “As much as I love you, God loves you SO much more. He created you for a purpose. Please always trust Him to protect you and provide for your needs.” I was then able to pray for the family: provision of jobs, protection, safety, first and foremost.
As we walked back up the rocky path, past the sewage stream, a thousand things were going through my head, and yet I was composed. Halfway through lunch, the reality and the tragedy of what I just witnessed hit me so hard. I excused myself, went outside and cried out to God. I can’t even remember what was said, but I was just shellshocked. I begged and pleaded for Him to intercede on behalf of that family and my precious girl. God had to remind me of my own words to Ana Cristina: “They’re mine. I love them so much more than you do. Trust me.”
I am trusting God that my journey with Brazil is not over, and am planning to go back in September 2016.
Thank you Brazil, for your kindness, hospitality and generosity to me. You have shown me the love of God and I will always be grateful.