My wife and I are on the tail end of a two-week stay in Brazil — my fourth time and her first. The occasion was the invitation for me to speak at a couple of conferences on the topic of evangelism. We’ve flown a lot of miles over this vast land, but have also driven a fair bit. Driving on Brazilian roads is full of surprises. Let me describe some of what we saw. To clarify, I was never the one driving. In most of the following, Rev. Ken Wieske was our chauffeur, a missionary with 17 years of driving experience on the streets of Brazil.
We started our Brazilian adventure in the capital city, Brasília. The capital was designed from scratch and founded in 1960. It’s comparable to Canberra in Australia — another planned capital. This is the neatest and safest Brazilian city I’ve visited. Perhaps Brazil wants to make a good impression on the foreign diplomats who reside there. Traffic in this city is fairly tame, at least from what we witnessed. However, we did spot a motorcyclist laying on the road, having just been hit by a van. He appeared lifeless — was he merely unconscious or dead? We couldn’t stop and didn’t find out.
As safe as Brasília is, there are areas in the metropolitan region that can be sketchy. On our way to and from a speaking engagement at the Reformed church there, we travelled through one such area. Like in other large Brazilian cities, at night you do not stop for red lights. If you stop for a red light after dark, you’re inviting trouble — perhaps a car-jacking, maybe a simple robbery at gunpoint, or worse.
Our next stop was the city of Belém, way up north near the mouth of the Amazon River. Apart from some congestion, we didn’t witness anything out of the ordinary in this city. One thing that was extra-ordinary was the change in the weather from the first time that I visited in 2012. In 2012, I spoke at the Reformed Conference hosted by the Central Presbyterian Church of Pará. Then, five years ago, you could depend on the tropical rains to arrive every day at about the same time: 4:00 PM. People would even make social arrangements before or after “the rain.” Today I’m told that doesn’t happen anymore. When (or if) the rain comes, it comes after dark. I’m told that this is the result of deforestation in the Amazon rain forest.
After enjoying the wonderful hospitality of the brethren in Belém, it was down south to Recife. We flew to the northeast of Brazil, and then drove down the coast. Along the way south to the beach town of Maragogi, we passed through a police checkpoint where drivers are often stopped for bribes. This time they had already nabbed some poor schmuck on a motorbike and so we got past. Maragogi was the location of the 26th annual Puritan Project Conference. As in Belém, I spoke here on the topic of evangelism, along with a bunch of other speakers. It was a super time of fellowship with old and new friends and also a great opportunity to foster the growth of the Reformed faith in this country — people had come to this event from almost every state in Brazil. There were even some attendees who’d flown in from Portugal.
The drive home on Friday was, let’s say, interesting. The distance from Maragogi to Recife is approximately 133 km. Normally, it should take about 2.5 hours. We left Maragogi around 3:00, but didn’t arrive at our accommodations until past 10. The first three-quarters of the drive was smooth enough. But then about 40 km out of Recife we hit a massive traffic jam. It had been raining for about two days and some of the streets in Recife were flooded. This backed up traffic to about 40 km out of the city. We were trapped in the world’s largest parking lot. Escape options were few and questionable. Google Maps suggested alternative routes, but Google never tells you what those alternative roads are really like: are they dirt roads littered with flooded pot-holes or do they take you through a favela? We stayed on the main route.
As we were moving slowly along, guys were on foot wandering amongst the cars, trucks, and buses, selling water and popcorn. We were behind a bus when we suddenly heard what sounded like a gunshot. I know what a gun sounds like and that was very similar. When it happened, the bus seemed suddenly to drive erratically. However, as it turned out, it wasn’t a gunshot, just somebody’s car back-firing and the bus just happened to be jockeying for a faster lane. Some time afterwards (was it an hour? Two? Time stood still), a fellow on a motorbike was weaving his way through the vehicles and bounced between the one Rose was travelling in and their neighbour. He just kept going.
On our last Saturday, we attended a 40th wedding anniversary celebration for some Brazilian friends, Manoel and Telma Canuto. This was in Boa Viagem, a Recife neighbourhood. On our way there, we saw a bus stopped by the side of the road with several police cars parked around it. Three guys were up against the wall with their hands interlocked over their heads. In 2017 so far, there have been over two thousand (2000!) hold ups on Recife city buses. In the past week, there was a 24 hour period when there were 13 such incidents. It’s not unusual for shots to be fired in these incidents and for people to be injured or die. Life is cheap here. In this instance, the evildoers were somehow stopped and apprehended.
The streets of Australia and Canada are incomparably safer — and for that we ought always to be thankful. However, streets all over the world have one thing in common. Wherever you go in the world, you see countless people on the streets and they’re all traveling somewhere. They’re also going somewhere in the spiritual sense. All are either on a broad road leading to destruction or on a narrow road leading to life. One road is congested and full of traffic, the other is comparatively less-traveled. Whether in Australia, Canada, Brazil (or wherever), we’re living on a mission field. Our calling is to be God’s instrument to direct traffic off the broad road and onto the narrow road. I’m glad that work continues to be done in Brazil and seeing it done here makes me even more intent on seeing it done where God has placed me too.