For three years, I directed a non-profit organization called Life Compass that ran out of a church. We raised money and we bought instruments (guitars, pianos, violins, and snare drums), ESL textbooks, cooking supplies, theatre equipment, and art supplies. We offered free lessons to the youth in the surrounding inner city. It was my job to find volunteers to teach the lessons, expand the program, and increase funding. In three years, I quadrupled both the number of students we served and the number of teachers. I did it for a mother and her daughter who I met in Brazil.
I participated in a mission trip all over Brazil in the summer between my Sophomore and Junior years in college. We traveled to Sao Paulo, Campinas, and Rio to sing, do some landscaping, and renovation. It was beautiful. The music, the culture, the ocean, THE FOOD. All of it was so much to take in. We were utterly blown away by the beauty of Brazil, the generosity of its people, and the vibrancy which seemed to be produced by the air itself. Life was springing up from every corner, the churches were 10,000 strong, and the buildings were beautiful architectural achievements.
About halfway through our trip, after experiencing all of this, our native contact said the following: “Now that you have experienced so much of Brazil, I think it is time for you me to bring you to Jesus”. If you know anything about Rio, we assumed he meant “Christ the Redeemer” that overlooks the city of Rio. So, we eagerly boarded our bus and set off…in the opposite direction of the statue. We started to suspect he meant something different when we entered a very large garbage dump just outside of Rio. As we pulled in, our contact and our university professor stood at the front of the bus and jointly said “We have arrived”.
A little tentatively, we stepped off the bus one by one and looked around the mountains of refuse. It was only when the last member stepped off the bus that we began to notice cardboard roofs held up by pieces of wood and mud, the sounds of voices coming closer, and the laughter of children. We were standing in the biggest garbage slum in Brazil; home to over 20,000 people. Our leaders split us into groups and told us to look around. We entered homes, met those who lived there, and listened to their stories. And then I entered a house I never wanted to leave.
It was the only house with an actual shingle roof, concrete walls, and wood floors. A woman came out to warmly greet us and brought us into her living room. It was filled with flies, maggots, garbage, and a few animals. My eyes took in the scene, darting around until they landed on a girl in the center of the room. She was sitting in a chair, looking straight ahead, not seeming to know that we entered. “This is my daughter,” the woman said, “And she has cerebral palsy.”
Through tears she explained how missionaries came and built the house for her daughter when they met her. “They wanted to help us, to give us some extra shelter. I thank God for their kindness.” We visited for a little while longer, and then she asked me to pray for her daughter.
It was the first real time in my life that I had no idea what to say. I was standing in literal garbage that was home to thousands of people a mile outside one of the richest cities in Brazil. I was humbled, I was crying, and I was beyond angry. In my muttered prayer, I asked God for help, that those here would experience God as near to them, and for something else I can’t remember. I said Amen, we hugged the mother, and we walked back to the bus. When we arrived, our native contact asked us, “What did you think of Jesus?”
I left Brazil devastated, because I knew there was very little I could do for the girl and her mother. I visited many slums before and many after, but I was shocked in a way that I haven’t been since. I wasn’t sure what I could do to help and, since then, the slum has shut down and all 20,000 people have been forced to evacuate. I still often think of the mother and her daughter.
Life Compass will probably never directly benefit any of those I met in the slum. But those I met directly motivated me to go to those near me, those in my community, who I could help. The strongest factor of such inspiration was that at the center of the slum, was a church. And this church provided all the food, education, and clothing for the entire 20,000-member community. I wanted to be part of something that could do something similar for my own context.
Sometimes we learn what we can do for others after moments of shock and anger, and what we can do isn’t always for those with whom we experienced the shock. Sometimes the most helpless moments can lead to fruits for others who are suffering or who are in need.
And my personal prayer is that I have eyes to notice it.
- Benjamin Geeding