Monday, February 26, 2007

João's a Hero

Six-year-old João Hélio is a hero. His sweet face smiles at you from hundreds of T-shirts, his name is on the lips of Brazilian citizens across the country, his parents talk on TV, and a city plaza now bears his name. But his heroism is not the kind any of us would aspire to. No, João was the victim of car theft in Rio de Janeiro around 9:30 p.m. on February 7th shortly after he, his mother, Rose, and his 13 year-old sister left a spiritist center. They were stopped at a red light when three armed, young men surrounded the car. Rose and her daughter quickly got out of the car and hurried to open the back door to release six-year-old João from his seat belt. The bandits didn’t want to wait that long and took off like a bullet with João dangling from his seat belt on the outside of the car. Pedestrians hollered, but instead of stopping, the driver began zigzagging in an attempt to get rid of João. At first glance an observer thought João was a doll until he saw blood splattered on the vehicle. The car continued zigzagging for four miles until the robbers entered a dead end, abandoned the vehicle, and fled. Little João died of course, the bandits were caught—one is a minor—and now the country is left to deal with this heinous crime. A debate is on in Congress whether the age for convicting minors shouldn’t be lowered. Citizens march in the streets crying out for the government to be harder on punishing criminals. More than one mass has been held. There’s a lot of conjecturing going on, but none of this will bring João Hélio back to his parents.

He’s dead.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


It was exactly 33 years ago today that Pat, Reesha and I left behind the "old" world for the "new"--kind of like my Norwegian ancestors had done. We didn't know what awaited us, had only hearsay knowledge of the man who would be "our boss", our linguistic skills consisted of a two-month intensive course in Portuguese that had ended six months previous, and we had never laid eyes on the land we would soon embrace as our own. Sound scary? It sounds scarier now than it did in l974 because in l974 I was young, ignorant, and ready for adventure!

We left Minnesota on a cold February afternoon on a small 737 jet plane. And there was no big farewell at the Minneapolis International Airport as the occasion would seem to demand--just my parents and Dick, one of Pat's older brothers. We avoided conversation that would evoke tears, and in those last minutes before boarding talked about nothing of value, heaped our winter coats on top of Dick and laughed as we took pictures. We said goodbye the best we could, hugging and kissing one another, trying not to wonder if this would be the last time to see each other, letting Grandpa and Grandma have one more squeeze from Reesha. And then we disappeared inside the shiny, silver cylinder waiting to whisk us away. I settled in my seat, surprised at how small the 737 was inside and looked out the tiny airplane window. It was then I saw my parents--their faces pressed against the airport windowpane, hands shading their eyes from the glare of the harsh winter sun, and like an Apocalyptic revelation, I suddenly realized what I was putting my parents through. For a brief moment, I felt their pain sharp and quick, and a cry rose deep inside me, then died quickly as I denied it expression. The 737 slowly backed away, and my parents cast a lonely figure, like sentinels at their post, never wavering or flinching from duty, until they shrunk to tiny specks and were lost from view, but etched forever on my heart.

We hip-hopped from Minneapolis to Rochester to Chicago (circling O'Hare for two hours while a snow storm raged below), then landed in tropical Florida. There we boarded Brazil's Varig airplane, and hearing the tanned Brazilian stewardesses speak Portuguese, I suddenly realized I had crossed an invisible line into another culture. Florida's night had fallen as the plane lifted off into the blackness. I refused to take my eyes off the flickering white lights of Miami as they grew smaller and smaller until the last blink of my culture and identity was blotted out. We were being propelled through the icy black night that surrounded and engulfed us toward an equally obscure and unknown future.

We continued hopping--to Caracas for a fuel stop at 2 a.m. and a few hours later, Manaus. We looked spellbound at the mighty Amazon River flowing below us, discharging more water into the ocean than any other river in the world. We witnessed the dark, crystal-clear waters of the Rio Negro unite with the Amazon's muddy, yellow waters, called white waters in spite of their murky color. For miles and miles the black and white waters flowed side by side in separate, clearly-defined streams before they finally intermingled. It seemed a fit description of the meeting of my own American culture with the new Brazilian one. Like the rivers, our differences would remain intact for a time, flowing side by side. Not until 600 miles down the coast, when ocean currents agitate these rivers, do the waters finally intermingle, consummating the marriage. And it would take a long time before the waters of my American culture intermingled sufficiently with the waters of the Brazilian culture for me to say "we", not "me" and "you." Then we hopped to Brasília, where we went through customs, and finally, after a long layover, arrived at our destination--Belo Horizonte--where we were swept into a blur of happy, white, welcoming missionary hugs. We had arrived safe and sound!!

A Litter of Kids

A missionary friend who works in Paraguay told me this story. He was recently on a missions trip navegating the Paraguay River when they anchored at an island to deliver food, clothes and medicine. Someone came up to him and said, "So and so was looking for you." And So and so turned out to be a young boy from a poor, poor family that this friend had helped many times when they lived near him. They had since moved away, and now, he discovered them on this island. "Can you help us?" was the young boy's plea. Their parents had abandoned the three youngest children on a different island, and like many poor families with too many children--a litter of them-- couldn't provide for them, so they abandoned them like so many unwanted puppies. But the children weren't ready to lie down and die. They found a barrel on the island and put the youngest, who couldn't swim, into the barrel. Then all three set out, the two oldest swimming and guiding the barrel down the river until they came to an inhabited island and found help. But even the help they found was not sufficient, or they wouldn't have made an appeal to my friend. Yet, he cannot support this family, but will try to find a home for the youngest child at least. A pitiful situation.