By Archdeacon Peter Townshend
In many ways it could have been a good sociological experiment. Take three people with limited knowledge and experience of each other, put them together on a plane for a 13½-hour flight (not including a seven-hour stopover) before arriving at Belem, a city of more than two million people at the mouth of the Amazon River where very few people speak English and the three travellers speak no Portuguese. You then let them spend 16 days there, and wait to see what happens.
Well, it worked and we had a wonderful experience because of one common denominator: our faith in Jesus.
Rev. Claire Miller of St. Thomas’, Owen Sound, Lauri Nevins, a school teacher and member of St. George’s, Owen Sound, and I had the privilege of representing the Diocese of Huron in October on the third trip to our companion Diocese of Amazonia.
We were greeted in Belem with much love as members of one Christian family. Bishop Saulo Barros and his wife Ruth have fond memories of their visit to Huron diocese, but they and all the Anglicans in Amazonia also remembered good times spent with the people from Huron who visited on two previous trips.
This meant that we were enthusiastically greeted as family and shown wonderful hospitality. Our hosts also kept us very busy as they introduced us to our family in Amazonia.
The first day, Bishop Saulo spent a morning with us to share the history of the region, the historical presence of the Anglican Church, the creation of the Diocese of Amazonia in 2006, which now consists of a combination of 10 churches or preaching points, and the challenges they face.
During our stay, we had the opportunity to visit most of these places, but unlike some of the previous visitors we were unable to visit the very rural areas of the diocese because of distance, time, and finances.
We did have visits to three coastal islands, but much of our time was spent experiencing the Anglican ministry to Belem, especially to the people living in very poor and dangerous neighbourhoods.
Much of this ministry is centred in small rented facilities with metal roll-up doors. The facilities are basic, but they allow the Anglicans to be present and offer Christian ministry, not only with services, but also with music and educational projects.
We visited two music projects where a young man named Bruno has been hired to teach young people to play guitar.
At an educational project, volunteers give their time every Saturday morning to work with children who are having difficulty in school.
Due to Lauri’s educational background, it was arranged for us to visit several schools, including public schools with very poor resources as well as a private school. There are many private schools because, with the poor quality of education in the public schools, most people, if they can afford to, will enrol their children in private. Of course many people cannot do this.
We were surprised to discover the most expensive private school was Maple Bear School, which is a bilingual Portuguese-English school that claims to use Canadian curriculum and pedagogy. It is part of a school franchise business, founded by two Canadians from Winnipeg. There is just one of these schools in Belem, but more than 80 throughout Brazil and others around the world.
We had many opportunities to share in worship and fellowship. We learned to expect spontaneity as we were often asked to pray or comment on Scriptures, offer a blessing or simply talk about our life in Canada, without any time for preparation.
At other times, there were specific expectations of us. We all shared in a women’s network meeting, as Ruth led a discussion on the role of women in the church. Following the discussion, Claire used her skills with crafts to share one of our indigenous traditions of making dream catchers and explained the meaning behind them.
On another night, I was asked to provide a study evening for the clergy and lay leaders on “Our Anglican Identity”. It was felt this would be helpful for the small community of Anglicans who live in a mostly Roman Catholic population, with the strongest alternative being the very fundamentalist Assembly of God churches that are appearing on every street corner.
On All Saints Day, the clergy of the diocese were away at a conference introducing the new Brazilian prayer book, which meant that in the morning, Claire and I were expected to take services at different churches where we officiated and preached with the assistance of an interpreter.
Later in the afternoon, we discovered we were expected to celebrate and preach at another church that evening.
One of our most moving services was listed on our agenda as evening prayer at a private home, so we expected a time of prayer with a dozen or so people. We drove to a home deep in one of the neighbourhoods and then a caravan of five cars drove up. We gathered in a side yard with lights strung up around the property. Approximately 50 people gathered to listen to Scripture, share together in Bible study, sing songs of praise, and pray.
There were many prayers of thanksgiving that night, as one man who had been expected to die was carried in healed from his health challenge. He wished to thank everyone who had been praying for him. After the service, there was a social time with juice and a lunch. True to Anglican tradition, there was always food.
Claire, Lauri, and I also shared in pastoral visits. We experienced wonderful hospitality as we enjoyed several lunches in people’s homes and other social events. We also visited historical, cultural, and ecological sites.
Generally we had a great time. I was pleased to discover the Anglican Christians in Amazonia are Spirit-filled, joyful, faithful, and extremely thankful for God’s blessings. They love to gather for worship and fellowship.
That was good for me to experience because when I discovered I would have the opportunity to travel to Amazonia, the first thing I did was to search out Belem on the Internet. The first response to my search was an article with a heading “Belem, one of the 10 most dangerous cities in the world”.
We did not feel fearful as we tried to be wise and cautious tourists and as our hosts kept a close eye on us and cared for us. There is, however, an undercurrent of fear and violence in the community.
On one night Ruth was explaining this concern to us. She said she was afraid things were getting worse because in the first 10 years that she and Bishop Saulo had lived in Belem, she had been robbed only once, but in the past three years she had been robbed three times.
The next morning we discovered that as Ruth was driving her son Thomas and a friend to school, she was again robbed at gunpoint. Two weeks after we returned to Canada, Archbishop Fred Hiltz and the primate of Brazil, Archbishop Francisco de Assis da Silva, were visiting Belem and they and their companions were also robbed at gunpoint.
It has become apparent to me that by the life of faith they share together and by ministries like the music and education projects, the Anglicans in Amazonia are intent on showing their children there is an alternative life to that which they experience in these dangerous and violent neighbourhoods. They are intent on demonstrating the Anglican community is a faithful community in which people can experience other people who will love and care for them.
They are becoming known as “the church that walks with the people”.
The Anglicans in Amazonia need our help. They want us to pray for them. I know they are praying for us. It will be wonderful to welcome some of our Amazonian family here to Huron when they visit us in 2016.
The sociological experiment was successful. It proved the love of God cannot be restricted by geography, political boundaries, or differences of language or culture. We truly experienced that we are one in Christ, one family in our Lord Jesus.
Archdeacon Peter Townshend is rector of the Church of the Holy Saviour, Waterloo.