In early August Janet and I went to Brazil on an assignment that included some speaking and a little bit of vacation. One of the publishers of my books in Brazil was celebrating their 40th anniversary at a big banquet, and had also arranged a spiritual retreat on “the scandal of grace” for a couple of hundred pastors and leaders.
I like going to South America because Janet slips back into her childhood enthusiasms so quickly. She spoke Spanish before she spoke English, and the words and hand motions all come flooding back, along with memories of fruit and flora. Brazilians, of course, speak Portuguese, but they’re Latin to the core and can usually understand most of her Spanish.
The speaking went as well as I’ve ever experienced on an international trip. My hosts arranged the same translator I had here in 2005, and he is superb: son of American parents but reared entirely in Brazil. He knows all the idioms in both languages, and everyone down here marvels at his ability. Moreover, he’s a real ham, and adds inflections, extra voices, humor, and lots of expression to whatever I say.
The three-day spiritual retreat gave us a chance to spend in-depth time with people, and there were some fascinating people there. For example, the governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro decided to come at the last minute, which caused quite a consternation. She brought along six bodyguards, and the retreat organizers were afraid some journalist would sign up under false pretenses. She succeeded her husband in the elected position of governor, and he is now the state Minister of Security, which means the police force in Rio works for him—a controversial position, because there’s so much violence in that city. The two of them are recent Christians and have been attending a small Presbyterian church, where they teach a class for married couples. They both come under a lot of scrutiny and press criticism. She told me a bit of what is involved in taking off three days to attend such a retreat but, she said, “I knew I needed it.”
We had a memorable conversation with a beautiful young Brazilian woman with golden eyes so clear it seemed you could look right through them. She was married to a prominent pastor who had just confessed to an affair and was subsequently booted out of the church. She said that of their church of 2000, only five or six members offered any support. Though devastated, she decided to stay with him and forgive him. She told us this story in halting, grade-school English, with tears falling in large drops from her eyes the entire time. “I am still a cripple,” she said. “But I feel a kind of, how you say, transfusion, of God’s grace you speak of. Now I feel I am maybe a happy cripple.”
We were actually meeting at a Catholic retreat center, quite amazing considering the fractious history between Catholics and Protestants down here. I love coming to Brazil because the Gospel is still definitely Good News there. You meet news anchors, music figures, Formula 1 race car drivers, reporters, doctors, people in all sorts of occupations who are new Christians and are excited about their faith. The publisher arranged a luncheon with about 50 of their Brazilian authors, and I did a spontaneous workshop on writing. It was like a flashback to the past: Brazilian Christians are struggling with issues that hit the U.S. church 30-50 years ago: how to do art without propaganda, whether or not to work within “secular” writing channels, how edgy to be in fiction.
I also like going to a place where the church is booming and the Gospel truly sounds like Good News. Evangelicals have doubled as a percentage of the population in the past 20 years. In an ironic twist, Brazilians now go as missionaries to Portugal, the land that brought Christianity to the continent in the first place—rather forcibly, of course. On the other hand, problems abound: huge cults with weird theology, an inflated prosperity gospel, scandals. (One leader of the Reign of God church was recently caught with three million dollars in his suitcase.) In comparison, U.S. churches seem staid and corporate; here there’s lots of life, and often of the adolescent variety. Sunday morning I spoke to two congregations of a couple thousand, and then an afternoon meeting at a private club that attracted another crowd.
My book What’s So Amazing About Grace has sold the best here. Janet and I learned a long time ago that whatever problems appear in the U.S. church are amplified overseas. That’s because missions often attract the more extreme personnel: more legalistic and more rigid than their American counterparts. So whatever problems you see in U.S. churches, you see exaggerated elsewhere. For that reason, the whole concept of grace is brand new to many Christians here—and that first great gulp of grace tastes really good to thirsty people. The subtitle of one of my books, “How my faith survived the church,” also attracts a lot of interest, because so many people have problems finding a balanced church.Copyright © 2005 by Philip Yancey