I had a lot of questions when I landed in Rio de Janeiro in the fall of 2013, alone and with no plan. There I was, in the middle of the airport, with no place to stay, no one waiting for me, and no knowledge of any work to do. If God really called me to the field of missions and called my heart to Brazil, why had so many things not worked out?
Faith means going even when you don’t know why or how
The journey to this moment was long and consisted of months of uncertainty, doubt, and discerning. In the end, I felt called to Brazil due to the income inequality, the poor health care and education for children, all coupled with a feverish social climate exacerbated by the impending World Cup and Olympics. I knew that was where I needed to be; it was way more than just a hunch. I tried to look up missionary organizations or NGOs all over Brazil to partner with, but the task proved to be more difficult than I imagined. Social work in Brazil isn’t as developed or organized as it is in the States. Most of them did not have websites, and those that did often did not respond to emails or calls. It became clear that I was not going to find an organization to partner with from the States; I would just have to pack up and move there and try to figure it all out once I landed.
But despite all of the immediate obstacles that faced me upon landing, it did not take long for things to fall into place.
The dictionary defines “Grace” as “unmerited divine assistance –” favor or blessings that are freely given, rather than earned. One of the most notable examples of how this is used in the Bible is in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9). I bring this up because grace is exactly what I repeatedly received when I was in Brazil. I found a place to live by getting to know a local Brazilian man with an extra room for me to rent, a mere 3 weeks into my time in Rio. I ended up living with him until the day I left. I connected with and began working for a Brazilian NGO called Saude Criança just 5 days into my time in Rio because their volunteer coordinator happened to speak English. I also stumbled across a Brazilian church that was planted by an American missionary, so I was able to attend church in Portuguese and develop a Brazilian community, while still having an American ally to help me figure out what was going on. Through him I met other missionaries whom I partnered with, teaching sports on weekends and working in a day center for extremely high risk youth in the favela of Jardim Gramacho. Six weeks into my time in Rio, I had a full 6 day work schedule.
It is sometimes better to serve alongside people rather than try to lead them
The first thing that I think every volunteer needs to face when they go overseas is this simple fact: you do not know more than the locals about the problems they face. Period. For me, working with the people meant standing in solidarity alongside the Brazilians working to fight poverty and oppression. It meant asking them, “what do you need me to do?”, and then doing it. It meant humbling myself by not thinking I had all the answers, and by demonstrating that I can faithfully take instruction. And there will be times for you to teach as well if you are invited to do so, as I was. If they wanted to learn English, I would teach them English. If they wanted to learn basketball, I taught them basketball. But I would never dream of saying “I’m teaching you this because I’m certain you need to know it”, instead I would say “I’m teaching you this because you have asked me to do so”.
The impact of a missions trip goes well beyond the trip itself
I was in Brazil for a total of 7 months, but the impact it had on my life has gone far beyond that time frame. I learned that the call to fight for social justice, restoration, and reconciliation in all the nations is real for me. Before I became a missionary, all of those desires were merely theoretical, I had no real experience to go with my desires and theories; but after actually staring horrific poverty right in the face and working among it for a while, I can say with confidence that my desires to do something about it are actually real.
Today I live in Switzerland where I study human and social development, but not long before my time in Brazil ago I was a 24 year old living in Oakland, California, 2 years out of college and feeling that something was missing in my life. I had been working in transitional housing for foster youth in California , following a calling I received in college to orient my career around social justice and serving the marginalized peoples of the world; but I wanted to follow that calling outside of the United States.
Now, I continue to follow this calling to bigger and more impactful levels; none of this would have happened were it not for that call I received, and followed, to go into the world, and live and work alongside the Brazilian slum communities. It reinforces my theory that God does not call us to missions just to impact and change the lives of the people we work with, but also to radically change our own lives forever. As missionaries, we often get much more out of the experience than do the people we hope to serve. We often end up learning more from the people than they learn from us. This is why I believe God calls us to all nations; to better understand the world so that through Him, it can be radically transformed and redeemed. I know more about the world now than I did two years ago, when I was just an idealistic, yet jaded 24 year old, aching for something greater. The wonderful thing about all of this? I’m still not done learning.
Matthew Bush wrote this piece for Flux, an online forum for those of us encountering adulthood. Originally from Oakland, California – the place he loves most in the world – he is currently a graduate student at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. He’s pursuing his Master’s in Development Studies, where he focuses on studying poverty, civil rights, and human trafficking. Although Matthew is very serious about a handful of things, he’s an overall laid back person. When not working, or studying, he’s mostly watching or playing sports. You can follow his blog here.