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What it’s like living in João Pessoa

September 12th, 2009

Tom and Luciana Stowe: We are full-time evangelical missionaries in Brazil in a city called João Pessoa where we are starting a new work for the Lord. Our goal is to plant many churches throughout the region, filling the Northeast of Brazil (the least reached region in the country) with Bible-teaching churches to help people to know Jesus.

What it’s like living in João Pessoa

Toms blog1I have to admit, I really have very little idea of what people think about us living here in João Pessoa. I have never conducted a survey or even casually asked around to get people’s opinions about the subject. I do know however, that most of the Americans that I talk to about Brazil think it is this tropical paradise and that we are living this beautiful life soaking up the rays at the beach. Of course, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

In preparing to write this, I felt a strange sense of fear because I know that people have all sorts of opinions of what missionaries are supposed to be like or how they should think. They can never be negative because they are serving the Lord. I know that I could upset readers and possibly even lose supporters of our ministry because of what would be perceived as complaining. But I want to write about what life is really like here and the things we really experience on a daily or weekly basis. So here we go.

The Northeast of Brazil is known for being the most conservative area in the country. Its strong catholic roots continually influence most parts of the culture as life has changed slowly over the years compared to rest of the country, and especially the rest of the world. It feels a little like going back in time a few years as a Toms blog2laissez-faire attitude swirls throughout the culture ranging from people not waiting in lines to most buildings looking a bit rundown.

People here view life completely different than I do, and different from how most of Western society views it. They have different dreams, goals, values, political views, religious views, music, philosophies, food, customs and routines. In many ways, the Northeast of Brazil is opposite of the US (I have actually made a list of ways it is opposite from the US and will post it here, hopefully someday soon).

In being so different from anything I have ever experienced in my life, many challenges have arisen in beginning our ministry here. First of all, Northeasterners in general don’t have the same view of Gringos as people in the south of Brazil. In the south, people tend to be much more open-minded to foreign cultures, and tend to have a real love for foreigners, especially Americans. What happened was that many European immigrants moved to the south of Brazil in the early to mid 1900’s. The culture obviously felt the effects of all these converging people groups and it created (in my opinion) this really cool, open-minded culture; it seemed to get the great relational values of Brazil mixed with the strong work ethic and structure of Europe. Here in the Northeast, however, they didn’t experience the same immigration. Foreigners are usually seen as outsiders, and even seem to be viewed with a bit of suspicion and distain. Often times when I walk down the street people will stop and stare at me like I’m some sort of freak (I can admit I am a little weird, but the staring definitely goes overboard!). People constantly assume that we are some sort of cult because I came from the US and I look like I could be a Mormon (they always ask me if I’m Mormon, I guess because I am white? I don’t wear black pants, a white button-up shirt, or a tie.). A friend of one of the guys in our church even asked him why Brazil needed a Gringo to come down to start another church in their country.

So the stereotypical Latin American warmth is not flowing to say the least. We are not invited to people’s houses for meals or invited to go out. In fact, people here in JP tend to be rather unfriendly and extremely closed. Outside of our church I have two guys that I am building friendships with and both are super cool guys…both are from Sao Paulo! It makes for an overall difficult place to move to when you do not have a preexisting group of friends to get oriented through.

Toms blog3Another major issue in living here is the structure of the culture. Many things simply don’t work the way we are used to. For example, it took us 3 months to get a phone set up in our apartment and a week to get a bank account set up for Luciana, a Brazilian citizen! I met a guy who works in some administrative position at the bank who told me that the workers will often send people home saying that the system is down when they don’t want to help them. I asked him, “You mean, they will say the system is down when it really is not, just to not help someone?” He responded, “Of course!”

Customer service is not one of their cultural values, so people tend to not go out of their way to help someone when they don’t have to. I have honestly walked into many stores and greeted the workers only to receive a strange look back, as if to say, “Why are you here?” They claim to be a capitalistic economy, but they don’t understand perhaps the most fundamental principle of capitalism, that the customer is the most important commodity. It seems that many people work because they have to in order to survive, not because they love what they do and want to work. Therefore, it is extremely rare to hear a ‘Hi,’ ‘How are you?’, ‘Can I help you?’, ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ ‘your welcome,’ ‘excuse me,’ or any other polite etiquette in a work place.

In another sense, the lack of structure in society leads to confusion on the roads. Driving seems to lack serious structure as things like stop signs mean nothing and aggressive driving rules the highways. Parked cars line the sides of major streets where no parking signs are posted on every light post. People stop their cars right in traffic to let people out or pick people up, even when there are parking lots or areas to pullover. The hardest part is that the police do absolutely nothing in concern to all this. In fact, the police seem to do very little anywhere which has dramatic effects on the society as a whole. People know they won’t get tickets for speeding, running red lights or illegally parking, so they just go ahead and do whatever they want. It blocks up traffic, causes accidents and puts innocent people at risk. Two American girls were here visiting and we drove them to get sometime to eat. They said that they were terrified when they rode in cars here in João Pessoa.

Toms blog4Also criminals know that the police won’t make much of an effort to find them if they mug someone on the street or steal from a store. With little fear of consequences, criminals control the country with fear. Even if they do get caught many stories have occurred where the victim decides not to press charges because the criminal threatens to come back and do something to them once they get out of jail, which will most likely happen within a few days or weeks. One shop owner had a guy rob his store at gun point. The criminal told the shop owner that if he did anything he would comeback someday to kill him and his whole family. After he left, the shop owner called the police and gave them a description of the guy. So the police caught the actual guy (which was a shock to me) and brought him to the shop to have the shop owner identify the robber. The police asked, “Is this the guy?” The shop owner out of fear responded, “No.” The police had to let the criminal go. Imagine the fear that people live with when criminal activity rises to such incredible levels!

Finally, probably the most difficult part of our job here is that people don’t seem to have the sense of commitment that we are used to. Like I said before, the laissez-faire attitude of the society works it way into most every facet of life. We learned very quickly that when someone says, “I’ll call you,” that you better not hold your breath waiting. My next door neighbor did this to me almost every time I saw him for close to six months. Not once did he ever call me! The ministry is about people and building relationships with them. It makes it very hard to build relationships when people constantly flake out on meeting together.

Moreover, with our work here in the ministry we often ask people we meet what they think of Jesus. The vast majority are completely apathetic about the topic, even though they say they believe in Him. But this is really hard to get used to after spending my entire life in the United States and Europe, where the subject is so polarized. People are usually for or against Jesus. Some people get so upset when they talk about Jesus or the Bible that they cannot even think rationally anymore! But here, almost everyone “believes,” but they just don’t care; it doesn’t seem to change the way they live their lives. There are a fair number of evangelical Christians who truly follow Jesus and the Bible with all their hearts, but they tend to be the minority of people we meet.

In the church this lack of commitment becomes all too apparent as well. People don’t even have a commitment just to attend church every Sunday. I have written before about how when I became a Christian I was at church at minimum twice a week. My Youth Pastor once said to me, “Don’t you have a home?” because I was always there hanging out. But here it is different; people come about twice a month, and usually arrive late. If the problem were that we were asking too much of them, by having services during the week, on Saturday and twice on Sunday, I could understand them getting tired or burnt out. But we only have one service a week, on Sunday evenings for an hour and a half. It seems if we were to ask people to serve in some way at the church on top of coming every week, it might blow people’s minds away.

An obvious problem arises that you cannot build a strong church alone, without faithful, committed members to help. But since some people arrive up to 40 minutes late for an hour and half service, it seems their commitment is severely lacking. Plus it is sometimes the people who think they are the strongest in their faith that have the greatest problems in this area.

Overall we are slowly adjusting to the cultural differences and dealing with some of the issues we have faced by communicating with people individually about these problems. We are trying to encourage and exhort people to be more responsible and committed in concern to our church. But the culture is a powerful influence. Every one of us has become who we are after being shaped by the culture around us. These people here are no different; it’s just that their culture is different. So we, as missionaries, are trying to adjust to a drastically different culture in order to carry out the work God has given us to do. Please pray for us to have wisdom and strength to continue serving the Lord and continue to teach people the Word of God, even in the face of a difficult culture.

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