Warm greetings from Rio! A breeze is swirling through the window as we write this and after months of sweltering heat and sticky humidity, it is a relief that the cooler weather is finally here. Today was hot, busy and noisy, but this evening is cool, peaceful and quiet. Rio and its extremes. Beautiful as ever – blue skies and mountains above the chaos and unrest of the city streaming below. Since the Olympics last year, it’s been a turbulent time in Rio’s life.
Economic challenges have squeezed public workers. Police, teachers and medical staff have had sporadic pay for a number of months, leaving schools closed for long periods and some universities shut. And sadly this has led to heightened unrest on the street and in the favela communities.
In this city of extremes where excess and want live so closely together, it would be easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge: Santa Marta – our most local favela community, just a couple of minutes’ walk from Christ Church – was itself was one of the darkest places in Rio 10 years ago, the centre of Voodoo practices and rampant with drugs and violence. Today, despite challenges and violent unrest on a number of occasions in recent months, it is still one of the more peaceful favelas. Eloisa, our friend and cook at Mary and Martha, once a member of a notorious drug gang, now knows Jesus and shines with a joy that isn’t reflective of an easy life, but of having learnt contentment in him in spite of life’s struggles. We are seeing that Jesus can transform entire communities but he does that a person at a time, and as they change they bring a little more of God’s Kingdom into that place.
Our role in Santa Marta?
We continue to be committed to working at the Mary and Martha charity for favela children, teaching English and building relationships there. The children are so affectionate, and we often find ourselves caught around the waist by a little pair of arms hugging us fiercely. As a church, we have just begun supporting Mary and Martha financially, as well as non-financially, and are now actively looking for ways in which the church family can be involved. We are growing our team and have two 19 year old girls helping us with the teaching each week, which has been fantastic.
Just before Christmas, following a postponement due to violence and unrest in the community, we organised for the Mary and Martha children to visit the vicarage garden on the church site for a gardening morning. The children learnt about composting, the vegetables and fruit we have been growing there, and got to plant their own seeds. We finished with some games. It was quite emotional to see one of the boys, Joao (name changed for privacy), who we worry about because he is so unusually withdrawn, smiling. We have never seen him smile before. Although they genuinely have the best views across Rio, inside, the favelas are compacted and made up of narrow, dark passages and cramped buildings. Many families share two rooms. There is no green space, and nowhere to run around and play.
So beginning this week, we are introducing a regular monthly visit to the vicarage garden with a different theme each time. This month will be creativity – we have plans for painting on giant pieces of paper on the floor, getting messy and having lots of fun. We pray we will see Joao smile again.
We would love to have a few more people work with us at Mary and Martha each week, and are also looking as to how we can introduce Rooted in Jesus Junior, a discipleship course for children.
Finally, thinking and praying more broadly than the charity, we want to go deeper into the Santa Marta community. We want to think big and boldly and see what we can do to help instigate further positive transformation. Jane has made contact with the Tearfund Brazil team and begun discussions about implementing a Tearfund tool “CLCT (Church Led Community Transformation)” in Santa Marta, in conjunction with other churches in the locality. CLCT is a process that helps local churches and communities build on the resources and skills they already have to bring about positive change. We are praying about this, and excited to see what doors God will open as we explore this possible next step.
Church life and growth
We’ve had an encouraging few months as a church community, seeing attendance at around 100 each Sunday and nearly doubling since May last year. We have worked hard with our young families’ ministry, trying to build connections with the widely dispersed English speaking community here through family fun-days, and a number of family based guest services at the church. The highlight was the nativity service at the start of December where we had over 100 adults and 40 children come to our service. One of our long-standing congregation members said that he hadn’t seen so many children in the church in the 40 years he had been attending!
A number of these families have now started coming to church, to such an extent that we have had to relaunch our children’s work here. Our kids church now has about 22 every week (from babies up to 12 year olds), having grown from just five when we first came (which included our three!) and we’ve moved our toddlers to a bigger room to accommodate about five new little ones there. Exciting times!
Rio can be quite a lonely city, as perhaps all cities can be, and so at the start of March we started a new drop in parent and toddlers group, led by Jane, called “Little Stars” (you have to love these names don’t you!). It was to provide a place where parents with pre-school children could come and meet, chat, have coffee and join in with some songs and Bible stories. It has only been running for two weeks but we have seen about 12 parents with little ones join us. We see Little Stars as much as an expression of church as a Sunday service, but it’s wonderful when connections are made – two families subsequently came back on Sunday.
We have just started our third Alpha Course with about 13 guests and a great support team coming along. During the autumn Alpha, a Columbian friend of Jane’s came to faith at the weekend away. Jane had initially met her when she was training for the Olympics opening ceremony event, and she was very far from God. She came along to our family fun day, I think more out of loyalty than want, but both she and her boys loved it. Amazingly, the next Sunday she turned up at church with her children and then when we announced Alpha, she was one of the first to sign up. It was incredible to see her ask Jesus into her life at the Alpha away day. Another reminder that God is for all of us, whatever nationality, whether we are rich or poor.
Over the past nine months, Jane has been working with a social action review team as they developed the church’s strategy on social action and a process for how we engage with this ministry as an entire church family. We have just finalised our new strategy, and selected five Rio-based partners. Our vision is that they will be supported financially and non-financially (with skills, time and involvement from church family members). We are prayerfully looking forward to encouraging the church family to catch this vision!
Finally for this section, we have over a period of months been “re-imagining” our Sunday morning service. While it has been fairly traditional up to now, we found more and more people joining the church wanting the chance to worship God in a more informal way. Last weekend, we relaunched our 10.30am morning service with a more informal feel and the introduction of a small band and singers, which will alternate with our existing choir. Wonderfully, we have had positive feedback on the new style service, with many younger members of the congregation, as well as old, delighted at the more contemporary feel. However, change can be challenging, and sadly one member of our PCC has resigned. We continue to pray no one feels isolated by this move.
We’ve been delighted to welcome our CMS mission partners Mark and Jess Simpson’s new baby boy, River, into the world last week. Our children have been enjoying cuddles with him. Mylo, Maia and Louis are settled into nursery and school well and are happy and healthy, praise God. I (Alex) am in the process of replacing my medication for another type as I continue having the after effects of Chikungunia (I have been diagnosed with “reactive arthritis”). We hope and pray this new course of medication will bring complete healing. We continue to thank you all for your support and love.
Alex and Jane