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GMTM-11E - 1972: Brazil at Last!

Updated: Jan 9

It had been 9 years since I first knew God had called me to do mission work in Brazil, and I was still in high school. Now, at the “mature” age of 25, I was married and had two small children. We had just spent 15 long, challenging months on the road, staying with people we had never met, in places we had never been, the perfect preparation for our new life in Brazil. We had come to the crucial point where more ingredients were about to be stirred into the recipe of our lives: a new language and culture, strange sights, sounds, smells and sensations, and we were not in charge of the kitchen. How would it all turn out? The proof of the pudding would be in the eating.


When we landed at NYC in the afternoon of March 23, 1972, we had only been gone a couple of hours from Chicago. Rachel (4) looked out the window at the city beneath us as we approached the airport and made the understatement of the day. Thinking it was Chicago, she said, “We just went up for a ride.” No, Rachel. Little did she know that our life-changing ride had only just begun, and it wouldn’t end with the 9-hour flight to Rio de Janeiro and the hour-long connecting flight to São Paulo, where we landed nearly 24 hours after leaving Chicago. The skyline of São Paulo’s skyscrapers rivalled that of New York’s, but after spending almost 24 hours travelling, even Rachel knew we hadn’t “just gone up for a ride”.

In obedience to God’s call, we were excited to finally arrive in Brazil where we would spend the rest of our lives—which we did for 3 years before God revealed the mission field He really had in mind for us: Madeira Island, a place we had never even heard of. 3 years and 3 months later we would pass through the São Paulo airport again, leaving Brazil behind for good, headed for the US and eventually to Portugal. As we landed in São Paulo, we hadn’t the faintest clue that Brazil was only the training camp for our work in Madeira Island, where we were to spend the rest of our lives—this time for 40 years. Madeira was the schooling that prepared us for service here in Arkansas, where we are once again spending the rest of our lives working for the Lord—for how long this time? Duration yet unknown. Truthfully, we have no clue how many other places where God could call us to spend the rest of our lives. We’ve been spending the rest of our lives serving Him since the day He called us, and each of these locations is part of the preparation for our eternal assignments in the Kingdom Jesus will set up on earth when He returns. There we will indeed spend the rest of our lives serving and worshipping Him—eternally. We’ve only just begun.


Again, in writing the story of 1972, I consulted the journal that I faithfully kept, but I noticed a major difference between the entries before March 23 and those after that date. While we were still in the US, there were gaps in the record, days and perhaps a week or so when nothing was worth noting. In Brazil, no page was left blank and most of the pages were completely filled in, margin to margin. The days were often long and exhausting, but the last thing every night was to record the events of the day, no matter how tired I was. Everything was new and different and needed to be recorded.

Even so, many details were not included in my journal. I found them in the almost weekly letters Abbie and I wrote to our parents. After my mother passed away in 2019, I ended up with bundles of letters we had written and she had carefully saved. She saved every letter we wrote her from the mission field in Brazil and Portugal. In the last 9 months of 1972 alone, there were 23 letters that provided another perspective of what we were going through.

Those first nine months in Brazil were a gestation period for a new missionary family

For simplicity’s sake, I’m breaking the story of Brazil into calendar years, although life doesn’t fall neatly into the divisions on a calendar. As a start, the rest of 1972 was our first nine months in a foreign country. The only times we had ever been outside the US was a week in British Columbia, Canada, and a couple of hours across the border at Tijuana, Mexico. In neither case did the local language pose a problem. We handled the Canadian English quite well, I think, and our brief foray into Mexico wasn’t long enough to make a blip on the radar screen.

Looking back, those first nine months in Brazil were a gestation period for us as missionaries: we had to develop far enough along that we could breathe on our own. There was still a lot of growing and learning ahead of us, but we were not in an incubator…by the end of the year, we were a bouncing baby missionary family, equipped to deal with our new surroundings.


So, here we are in Brazil: what was different? 
Well, what wasn’t different? Let’s just start with the things that made the greatest impression on us that first month.

The first view of our new homeland was from the air as we approached the landing in Rio de Janeiro. The earth was red and so were the tile roofs of the low buildings. The trees were dark green and tropical, an indication we weren’t in Chicago anymore. That should have prepared me for stepping out of the plane. When we left Chicago, the temperature was in the 20s (F) and when we arrived in Rio de Janeiro the next day the temperature was in the 30s (C). We had gone from below freezing (24º F/-5º C) to 90º F/30º C in 24 hours. I had boarded the plane in Chicago quadruple layered for the freezing weather—undershirt, long-sleeved shirt, vest, and double-knit coat. (Double-knit was all the rage back then.) When we got off the plane in Rio, I was wearing a suit and tie in a sauna. And it wasn’t just me. There was no air conditioning in the airport, where we went first to immigration. Four or five immigration officers sat behind a long table with no booths or windows. My, how times have changed, and so have security measures! My first image on the ground in Brazil was that of one of the officers seated at the table, fanning himself with his tie. I used a sheaf of forms to fan myself with or I’d have used my double-knit tie, also.


The documents that got us here

The paper trail

The church in Santa Cruz do Rio Pardo, in the state of São Paulo, presented the initial request for our coming to Brazil as missionaries on April 16, 1971. It was finally approved on October 18, and all during that time we were on the road, (patiently?) waiting for the word it had been approved. But the Consulate in Chicago only notified our church in Rockford, Illinois, two months later, on December 18, that we were approved to proceed with the visa process. The visas were stamped in our passports on February 28, 1972, and we had 90 days to enter Brazil. We arrived on March 24, less than a month later. We were more than ready to go! [In the space that asks what my monthly salary would be, it says, "Cruzeiros (the Brazilian currency)....undetermined" and below in the space for further clarification, "supported by voluntary offerings, does not have a mission board headquartered in the US or here (Brazil). He will be a member (of the church) here."]

Those were in the days when the US issued family passports, so the kids were grouped with Mom. I guess the philosophy was that in the case of trouble, the kids could abandon the country in safety with their mother, while their father languished in prison. :)


Memories of foods...

Now, 50 years later, the tastes and smells of this new country still linger in our memory. We had a 3-hr layover in Rio before catching our ongoing hour-long flight to São Paulo, where missionary colleagues had been waiting for us…for a long time. Our flight arrived 7 hours behind schedule. On the ground in Rio, we waited for our flight in the only air-conditioned space of the airport: the restaurant, where we got our first taste of Brazil. A Brazilian lady travelling with her children from Chicago to São Paulo saw this young couple with two small children, 3 and 4 years old, and realized we had no clue what we were doing. She befriended us and suggested we try guaraná on the drink menu.  I looked at the label and hesitated. “Sem alcool” it said. I knew hardly anything in Portuguese, but I didn’t need a language course to figure out what “alcool” meant. I knew enough Portuguese that I could pronounce the first word, “Sem”, but I didn’t know what it meant. The lady saw my reaction then explained that “sem” means “without”. One more Portuguese word added to my miniature active vocabulary. So we tried the carbonated guaraná drink for the first time, a taste I described in my journal as being “a cross between cider and ginger ale.” Guaraná is a berry and juices are made from it as well, but the carbonated drink is probably the most common and popular.

It was in that restaurant that we were introduced to the smell of Brazilian meat being fried for steak sandwiches. I can’t describe it and I don’t know if it’s the meat itself or the oil and any seasoning it’s fried in, but I’ll recognize it if I ever come across it again. And a short time later on the connecting flight to São Paulo, we had our first taste of Brazilian coffee. The stewardess brought us tiny demitasse cups and poured the coffee from a normal thermos. Two things struck me immediately: the coffee was lukewarm, and it was sweet, disgustingly so to me, who had always drunk coffee black, without sugar. It was almost a syrup. We discovered that Brazilians love to use sugar…after all, it’s a major national product. The small town we ended up living in was surrounded by sugar cane plantations and in the summer we watched the smoke rise from the fires that were set to burn the leaves from the sugar cane stalks before they were cut and sent to the sugar mills. One time when I was travelling, I stopped at a service station and ordered a coffee. The waitress set a glass on the counter and continued down the counter serving others, giving me time to put sugar in my glass. As she came back along pouring coffee brewed through a “sock” filter into our glasses, as she went to pour coffee in my glass, she suddenly stopped short and looked at me with a confused expression. She saw my glass had no sugar in it and she didn’t know what to do. I almost had to pull a gun on her to get her to pour coffee in a glass without sugar. Years later, in Madeira, we teased one of the members of our church who was from Brazil. We watched and counted the number of spoons of sugar he put in his little expresso coffee. At our potluck dinners at church we knew the desserts that were brought by Brazilian members would be super sweet.

...and floor wax

And speaking of lasting impressions, there was the smell of the floor wax at the Rosses’ house in São Paulo, where we stayed for most of the first month before we moved into a house next to the Montgomery family 250 miles away in the interior. We stayed with the Rosses whenever we came to São Paulo to take care of documents or banking business. I don’t know what wax was actually used on the parquet and tile floors, but it was used often, once a week. Even with our eyes closed, our noses told us we were at Don and Betty’s house in São Paulo.

But our home was not to be in the big metropolis of São Paulo. There was a house waiting for us 250 miles to the west in the small town of Santa Cruz do Rio Pardo, near the border with the State of Paraná. The house had just been fixed up and freshly painted and all it needed was everything else.

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1 Comment

Steve Ford
Steve Ford
Jan 10

Loved this episode, especially description of smells and tastes! Would love to visit Brazil some time.

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