From Brazil to the Heartland

|| By Chad Ribordy

Former lay missioner reverses mission by sending volunteers to Kansas City

Two vans pulled into a low-income neighborhood in Kansas City, Mo., filled with volunteers
about to engage in a weeklong service trip. The neighborhood’s residents were used to seeing volunteers arrive on a regular basis throughout the year. What they were not used to seeing is vanloads of foreigners. These particular volunteers had come all the way from São Paulo, Brazil, to do service work.

This story began almost a year ago during a meeting at the Northway/ CTI School of Language in São Paulo, Brazil, where I currently am an English instructor. Before teaching here, I served as a Maryknoll lay missioner for 12 years in Brazil, and was involved in numerous service trips to that South American country. Our Maryknoll mission community and Brazilian partners had hosted students and adults from the United States who came to learn more about mission life in Brazil and perform short-term service work. Those experiences profoundly impacted both hosts and volunteers. So, I thought, why couldn’t Brazilians volunteer to help in the States?

My colleagues at school loved the idea. It would be a way for our students to immerse themselves in the culture, improve their English and do meaningful service at the same time. Our research into service projects led us to Kansas City and a place called Jerusalem Farm, where a Catholic group of young people live together in community and work to bring the Gospel message to their low-income neighborhood.

The focus of their work is to help their neighbors remodel their dilapidated houses. Initially, we anticipated a small group of six or so volunteers, given the costs and hurdles of such a venture. But as word of the trip spread, the number doubled and then tripled!

Although none of the participants were from extreme poverty, none was wealthy either. The cost of the trip was a burden for most, and they had to be creative in raising money. One man sold his motorcycle to pay for the trip.

Last July, 18 Brazilians, men and women whose ages ranged from 9 to 55, embarked on this service adventure and spent a week in the hot, Midwestern sun, repairing roofs, fences and ceilings, and cleaning.

Three volunteers from São Paulo, Brazil, help repair houses in Kansas City, Mo.: Daniela Lopez, 24, a teacher, top left; Leandro Godinho, 16, a student, top right; and Carolina Munhoz, 25, a film editor, bottom. (Courtesy of D. Lopez/U.S.)

“It looked as though they had just given up on their homes,” Filomena Tanzi, a store manager and a mother of two, said of the Kansas City neighborhood. “Their houses alone would be considered mansions here in Brazil, but the conditions of those houses, I have never seen anything like it.”

Renato Tiburcio, a physical education teacher, was surprised when he began ripping out a ceiling. “There were mice droppings all over the place. I couldn’t believe it!” he said.

Indeed, many people in Brazil feel that “cleanliness is next to godliness,” especially regarding personal hygiene. So it was with great trepidation that we informed the group about restrictions on water usage at Jerusalem Farm. In solidarity with those in the world who struggle for water, Jerusalem Farm tries to keep its water use to a minimum, including the water used for showers. Our corner of Brazil generally does not have water shortages and the climate is hot and humid, so most of the volunteers were used to taking two showers a day.

At Jerusalem Farm they were told they could take only one “shower” a day and that required filling a five gallon bucket with water and using a cup to shower! Most of the Brazilians were good-natured about it, though as weather temperatures soared, we suspect a fair amount of bending the rules was going on!

One thing that disappointed the group was that they did not have much interaction with the
owners of the three houses they were repairing; the owners were either away or they simply did not interact with the group during the repairs. Some volunteers admitted they were a little nervous when they first arrived in the neighborhood.

Priscilla Delmenico, who came with her husband, Jose Luis, and their 9-year-old daughter, Giovanna, said, “We were a little worried about her safety when we saw the neighborhood. In fact, when we arrived, we were ready to go right home.” Yet, after a week when it was time to go, “we were ready to stay,” she said.

Jose Luis said, “After it was clear that we were volunteers with Jerusalem Farm, we felt safe. Everyone in the neighborhood respects them and the work they do.”

While Brazil has its share of poverty, many of the volunteers were struck by a qualitative difference between the poverty of the United States and poverty in Brazil.

“What was shocking to me was that when we went to shopping malls and stores there, I saw sadness on the faces of the people,” Vitor Muller, owner of the language school and the group leader, said of the U.S. experience. “I also saw sadness on the faces of the people in the neighborhood. The only happy faces I saw were on those of the community members of Jerusalem Farm.”

Indeed, the group was most impressed with the joy they witnessed in the Jerusalem Farm members. Many of the Brazilian volunteers said they learned that while you need the basics in life to be happy, you really don’t need much more than that.

And what about their English? Well, a week in the United States may not make much of a difference in so far as diction and pronunciation are concerned, but the real lesson is that most times, communication is more than language. Shortly after returning to Brazil, volunteer Dalva Tavernari, a wife and mother with only a beginner level of English, picked up the telephone and called the folks back at Jerusalem Farm.

“I don’t know what came over me,” Tavernari said, “but I just wanted to call and see how everyone there was doing.” She proves that you don’t need many words to express sentiments like “I care” and “thank you,” two attitudes at the heart of every mission experience.

(Featured Image: Inspired by a former Maryknoll lay missioner, a group of volunteers from Brazil went to Kansas City, Mo., to fix up homes of low-income residents. Courtesy of D. Lopez/U.S.)

Chad Ribordy and his wife, Angel Mortel, are former Maryknoll lay missioners. They and their two daughters live in Brazil.

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Adam Mitchell

Adam is the Senior Marketing Technologist at Maryknoll.
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