A college graduation beckons Becky and me to Brazil. College graduations are usually good things and the kind of things family and friends like to attend. 5,000 miles is not too far to travel for a graduation soaked with the grace of God.
On Sunday evening we will attend the “culto de formatura,” graduation worship, for our friend Nilceía Fernandes. On Monday evening we will be at the graduation itself. I will preach at culto de formatura. My text will be from Judges 6, the call of Gideon. The angel of the Lord insists that Gideon is a mighty warrior who is being called to free his people from the oppression of the Midianites. Gideon replies that he is the youngest member of the least family of the smallest tribe in Israel. The angel says, "Go in this strength of yours." I'm not going to talk much about fleeces or lapping water like a dog. Just about being the youngest member in the least family of the smallest tribe and then going in this strength of yours.
Becky and I met Nilcéia nine years ago. She was a fifth-grade dropout and a seamstress doing piece work in a sweat shop. Nilcéia lived with her family in a shantytown, or favela, so riddled by crime and violence that we were unable to visit by night. She had little hope of ever escaping the poverty and hopelessness of the favela. But God had different ideas. Through the work of Igreja Presbiteriana no Jardím America, Nilcéia came to know the hope of the God that does not disappoint. The church offered what we might call a GED program and Nilcéia completed it. God gave her a dream of one day becoming a Christian counselor whose work would bring his healing balm especially to women of the favelas. But that meant a college degree, and women from the favela don’t get college degrees. Five times Nilcéia took the rigorous college entrance exam and five times she failed. But God had given her a dream and she persisted. The sixth attempt was successful. Through the missional partnership with our former church, Nilcéia received the financial support she needed to make her tuition payments and through the encouragement of her wonderful husband, Emerson, and by the grace of God, she ran the course. Culto de formatura will be filled with joy and thanksgiving. Nilcéia has not yet found a job. There aren’t many jobs for women from the favela who want to bring God’s healing balm to their sisters. But Nilcéia knows the one who has told her to “go in this strength of yours.”
We will also spend time in the home of another remarkable favela woman named Jendira. Jendira is the mother of three sons, Leandro and Leonardo both in their early 20’s, and their younger teenage brother, Luiz. (The photo shows Jedira with Leandro and Leonardo to her immediate right and friends Fabinho, Itamar and Edvan,who always count on Jendira's house to be a place of warm acceptance.) About a dozen years ago Jendira’s husband and the boys’ father was shot in a drug deal gone bad. No one knows exactly what happened, but he was left partially paralyzed and lived another nine years or so with a festering wound and constant pain. All the while Jendira supported her family with the income earned from her one-chair beauty salon. As the boys grew older, they began to be lured into life on the streets and in the alleys of the favela. But once again, God had better plans for their lives. Leandro and Leonardo are now baptized members of the church. Leandro is a deacon and hopes to finish his college education in another year or so. Leonardo has a steady job and is a worship leader and works with the children’s program at the church. Luiz has not yet decided if he will lead a life more like his father’s or more like his older brothers. Jendira’s house, where she raised her three sons and cared for her wounded husband, was recently bulldozed by the government – the people of the favela have no property rights. They have found a new place to live, but Leonardo says it is small and dark. Still, Becky and I look forward to Jendira’s hospitality that is always great and full of light.
Finally, we will visit with James and his family. James was just twelve when we first met him. Like Jendira’s husband and Leandro’s, Leonardo’s and Luiz’s father, James’ father was caught up in drug use and petty crime. He wasn’t much of a dad. By God’s grace, James was never tempted by the ways of the street. At Igreja Presbiteriana he found safety and love that was lacking at home. He met a group of men who were willing to do some of the things that a good father does for his son. He brought his younger sisters to church and Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. In his time, God used James to bring first his mother and then his father to faith, as well. His mom who once seemed so beaten down by life smiles with a shy smile and his father has been clean for a couple of years now and works whenever he can find a job. After several attempts at the college entrance exam, James, too, passed and began his first semester just last month.
To call the favela a hopeless place is, if anything, a gross understatement. But Nilcéia, Jendira and her sons and James and his family are amazing reminders that hope in Christ knows no limits; indeed, it is a solid rock – all other ground is sinking sand.