South America: it conjures up visions of jungles, political unrest, and poverty. What was I doing bringing 24 kids to a continent I knew nothing about?
When we boarded our flight to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a few weeks ago, I didn’t know what to expect. My knowledge of South America was based on evening news reports and popular movies. Still, I set out with 6 other chaperones, 2 youth group leaders, a priest, 2 Dominican Sisters, and 24 teens for World Youth Day, a worldwide gathering of Catholic Youth for two weeks of mission work, togetherness, and worship—and prayed for a fruitful experience for us all.
What I found in the two weeks I spent in Brazil was joy, beauty, and a generosity of spirit that left me changed in a way I didn’t expect.
Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. John 13:14
Joy: we were welcomed into Brazil like long-lost family. As our bus pulled into Petropolis, our first destination, it was surrounded by youth playing music, singing, and dancing. As we stepped off our bus—tired, hungry, and disoriented—we were passed from person to person, hugged, and kissed. The youth of Petropolis then sat each pilgrim down on the steps of their church, removed our shoes, washed our feet and kissed them. With this simple, powerful action, the youth of Petropolis showed us their love in a language that needed no translation. As the two weeks continued, we found that Brazilians, especially the young, did not hold back their joy: music, dancing, hugging, and kissing were their expression of love for each other and for God.
Beauty: Many in Brazil suffer in extreme poverty, a poverty that most Americans have never seen. Favelas—ramshackle neighborhoods built on the hillsides—are home to the poorest of the poor and prone to violence. Homeless families live and sleep among the garbage that litters the city. And yet Rio is called Cidade Maravilhosa, The Wonderful City, for good reason: a lush tropical rainforest surrounds the city, Copacabana and Ipanema beach stretch along the sparkling Atlantic ocean, and the Cristo Redentor rises above all, embracing rich and poor alike. The contrast of beauty and faith amid the harsh reality is a fitting visual for what we experienced in Rio.
“Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” Luke 21:3-4
Generosity: As we wondered at the contrasts of Rio, we marveled at the generosity of spirit that we encountered. Our host families treated us like family, giving each pilgrim the best they could offer no matter whether they were rich, poor, or in between.
Many of our hosts spoke only Portuguese, but their hugs, kisses, and constant smiles needed no translation. They gave us their best rooms (even if that meant family members slept on the floor), their best food, and their time with sincere joy that left us stunned.
Then, there were the gifts! We were showered with gifts: homemade scarves, t-shirts, religious items, and more. As I left Petropolis, my son’s host mother took her own necklace from around her neck and pressed it into my hand. Although she spoke no English, I knew that it was a gift given straight from her heart and one that I will always treasure.
Our host families weren’t an exception. Even with 3.7 young people invading their city, the people of Rio were quick to smile, quick to hug, and quick to welcome us. Each pilgrim in our group and everyone I spoke to—whether from Nova Scotia, Scotland, or South Carolina—remarked on the Brazilians’ overwhelming love and generosity.
Not just once, but many times each day we were approached by strangers who welcome us to their city, asked if we need directions, hugged us, and posed for pictures. “Do you have Facebook?” they would ask, and write down their names on a scrap of paper. “Friend me.” One late night, an off-duty bus driver even loaded a group of tired and lost Minnesotans on his bus and drove to the doorstep of their destination, refusing an offer of money with a smile on his face.
The people of Brazil blessed and humbled their visitors and left us asking if we—Americans with so much more in terms of opportunity and possessions—show the generosity of spirit that we saw in Brazil. Do I embrace others—both friends and strangers—with joy and welcome? And can I let myself be changed by the spirit of generous love that I saw lived out by a people with so much less than I have?
I would love someday to return to Brazil. Not just for the mountains, the beaches, and the rainforest, but to sing and dance and hug and learn from the joyful and generous people that I now call my friends.
Have you seen the spirit of generosity in your life? How did it change you?
And now, some pictures just for fun: