Brazil: 6 Months in Fortaleza with Vanessa Neto
For as long as I can remember I’ve dreamt of going to Brazil; not as a tourist but to get to
know the people and especially to work with Street Children and those at risk of violence,
crime and poverty. I’m a llanita with Portuguese parents and having Portuguese as mother
tongue has certainly being an advantage. However I must say that people really struggled to understand my accent – I even had a translator at first! On one occasion I had to speak in Spanish to the bus driver, I guess it’s like when I went to Liverpool and froze when the taxi driver spoke to me in his strong Scouse accent.
After watching a documentary on Human Trafficking and prostitution in 2013 whilst at
University I learnt that Fortaleza in the North East of Brazil got first prize. It was there God
placed on my heart to go so I went to my good friend Google and began a search. The charity For the Children Brazil which is run by Alex and Ericka Piagetti in unison with the church Calvary Chapel Fortaleza, caught my attention and I got in touch with them.
Fortaleza is currently the most dangerous and violent city in Brazil, and 12th in the world. And this is no joke. Fear can be inhaled as you walk the streets or even drive from home to work.
However, it wasn’t until September 2016 that saw me venturing into the craziest & most wonderful journey in my life… so far.
Upon arrival I was greeted by the pastor Alex and shortly discovered that in Fortaleza you DO NOT stop at a red traffic light after 9pm or you run the risk of being robbed. This followed by Alex’s story of praying for a 16 year old drug dealer, Julio (name has been changed) who pointed a gun at his face, started manifesting demons and then collapsed to the floor. All this left me wondering if I was in the right place and if my life insurance policy from Gibraltar would cover any damage . . .
I had gone to Brazil as a missionary to serve the Church and was willing to help wherever needed, this involved cleaning, painting, fixing doors and trimming tree branches as well as translating various documents into Portuguese and creating lesson plans for the children’s Bible programme. I also had the privilege of spending a few days at a children’s home and an orphanage and a rehab centre.
THERE ARE THREE MAIN GANGS WHO RUN THE CITY, THE PRISONS AND THE FAVELAS (SLUMS); THESE ARE HIGHLY STRUCTURED HIERARCHICAL ORGANISATIONS WITH CONNECTIONS WITHIN THE POLICE FORCE, MILITARY AND POLITICIANS.
I also had the privilege of spending a few days at a children’s home, an orphanage Giving English lessons at a male Drug rehabilitation centre with a friend of mine was great fun. The men were very welcoming and grateful for your visit and appreciated having something to keep their mind busy. We got them dancing, pretending to be husband/wife, sister/brother, son/daughter and singing “head shoulders knees and toes”! What a sight, fully grown men with tattoos and criminal records having fun just like a child. Pitching the lesson to everyone’s level was a challenge as they came from very different backgrounds some had left school at the age of 9 to work, others were illiterate and yet a few had high education levels.
At the children’s home I had a conversation with the mum which caused me to reflect on my life; it wasn’t anything too deep to be honest especially considering where I was but it made me think. The organisation receives many clothes as donations and the young people could choose what they wanted, this lead to having an overload of clothes. Mum challenged them to go to their wardrobe and pick 10 of their favourite items which were in very good condition. They had 20 minutes. These treasured items of clothing were to be donated to others in the community who were in need. One girl handled her clothes in tears, but amazingly all the children, most of which are in their teens, understood the concept of valuing people and not materials. At that moment my mind flew back to Gib and I remembered my dress and bikini collection… Would I have been brave enough?
Fortaleza is currently the most dangerous and violent city in Brazil, and 12th in the world*. And this is no joke. Fear can be inhaled as you walk the streets or even drive from home to work. It’s an oppressive feeling; best comparison I’ve found is the dreaded “awkward silence”, but fear version. There are three main gangs who run the city, the prisons and the favelas (slums); these are highly structured hierarchical organisations with connections within the police force, military and politicians. Corruption and bribery are the bread and wine of life there it takes a lot of courage and integrity to not give in. Was I scared? Po believe it or not I wasn’t. And I owe it all to God. It says in the Bible that not a hair of my head falls without God knowing about it so If anything bad were to happen to me, it’s because He allowed it for whatever reason. He completely protected and sheltered me I didn’t have any bad experiences nor did I witness any – weno one, during our Bible study at the sea side there was a mugging and the young lad got slashed with what to me looked like a butchers knife however even in pain and dripping in blood he chased the guy and we held him until the police and the ambulance came. I guess God wants me to return and chose not to freak me out first time haha.
On another note, I joined another mission organisation called Iris Ministries
team who run four main programmes in Fortaleza:
1) Red light outreach so talking and praying with prostitutes and transvestites,
2) A missionary training base for those who desire to serve God and the church full time,
3) They also go into one of the main favelas (Oitao Preto) within the city centre which provides drugs for the area, they hold homework clubs and bible study for the children visit the elderly and sick.
This place is crazy; it’s oppressive and feels dark. Most people who live there unfortunately either deal or consume drugs, mostly crack cocaine. Getting to know the kids is a heart breaking experience as you feel hopeless, knowing that some of the 11 year old girls will prostitute themselves and the boys will very quickly find themselves on the other side of the law. At the entrance it gives you advice (or a warning depending how you want to see it) “lower your car windows, turn your lights off and remove your helmet”.
You may also be greeted by armed guys hmmm great! But, they are people, people created in the image of God who He loves and wants a relationship with by extending His hand towards them.
4) The other programme Iris run involves a remote community about 3 hours away from
Fortaleza. I spent 4 days there with the full time missionaries and I admit that I was
challenged in so many ways; I was in a house in the middle of nowhere, Wi-Fi… what’s that?
We didn’t even have telephone coverage let alone internet connection, the nearest house was a 40 minute walk through the mountains, to make things worse the area has been terribly affected by a 5 year draught, there was no running water, we flushed the toilet only when necessary, you know what that means… and used a bucket of water like the one we take to the beach to shower once a day, as a result of the lack of rain the majority of the community are out of work, you can imagine their hygiene… whilst I was there 4 children aged between 1 and 7 years of age came to the house for us to help them, the baby had 2 holes in his tiny feet filled with maggots or worms, don’t know what they were, they came to us to help remove them with tweezers. I wanted to puke. The eldest girl was crying hysterically with a table cloth over her head – her mum had cut her hair completely as her head lice were out of control she had scabs and sores and puss coming out from them and was embarrassed and upset at her new look.
Four of the full time missionaries based there are 2 young married couples in the 20’s. They had exchanged their good comfy life in the city their jobs, family, friends and internet
to be there and serve the community, to teach, to support, and to bring hope. This reminded me of a story in the Bible where Jesus commends his people by saying “For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me…” He then said that whatever you did to the least of these people it was as if they were doing it onto him (Matthew 25: 35 – 40).
Do you remember Julio the drug dealer I spoke about at the beginning? I had heard a lot about him and even spoken to him on the phone and was feeling disappointed that I hadn’t been able to meet him in person. However 2 days before my departure a friend and I went to visit him at his new home as he had to leave his previous after killing 2 guys from the opposite gang. He is currently 18 years old with 2 kids and 7 (known) homicides, is he scared of going to prison? No. As I mentioned earlier the prisons unfortunately are run by the gangs, he knows he might get shot one day but for him and many in his situation he counts it a blessing if he lives to blow out his 24th birthday candle. However, at that moment sitting on his bedroom floor chatting with him and his girlfriend he was just a kid, a happy kid who struggled to understand my accent and who for one reason or another made wrong choices, hung around the wrong crowd and whom God hadn’t given up on and sent us there to remind him of this. This encounter, as without a doubt one of my highlights, God was saving the best for last lol.
To conclude, I absolutely loved being there it wasn’t always easy and there were very boring weeks where id spend 3-4 days stuck at home alone. But I met great people, (and also crazy people) but people who understand and live out the simplicity of the Gospel day to day. I hope to go back to Fortaleza next year, I’ve got a few projects in mind I’d like to do with the teenagers. I want to encourage everyone reading this to be brave and shift your dreams into reality and follow your passions, use the gifts and your individuality for the best. If you’d like further information about anything spoken above you can contact me on: Vanessa_neto1@hotmail.com
*http://www.worldatlas.com/articles/most-dangerous- cities-in- the-world.html