Brazil or Bust
“Man”, said my friend, “of all the options you have, it seems like you’re taking the most challenging one.” He was probably right. He had spent the better part of the past 4 years in Lima, Peru, and I had finally followed him down to check out the “Lima Life” for myself. After two months in Peru’s capital, I was having a great time, but I had decided that my heart was really in Brazil, the country that had captured my attention ever since my first visit during the 2014 World Cup. My challenge was this: to touch down in Brazil, choose a city, pick a neighborhood, find a church, and find enough work, teaching English or otherwise, to break even and not starve, all before my bank account ran out. Adventurous? Yes. Unrealistic? By globe-trotter standards, not necessarily.
I had every reason to stay in Peru. I had friends who knew the lay of the land, and job offers were plentiful. There was a whole assortment of teaching positions to consider, and I had even wound up as the lead role in a TV commercial for Peruvian White Asparagus. It was a long way from Hollywood, but that one hour with a camera in my face had paid well, and brought potential for even more opportunities. Meanwhile, the word coming out of Brazil was that with its economy in shambles, teaching jobs were drying up. As for my new found acting career, I knew that promoting odd-colored veggies would never get me onto the hyper competitive runways of Brazilian high fashion. To make it harder, I had chosen Rio de Janeiro as my city. Rio was big, busy, expensive, and violent, and almost every one of its 11 million inhabitants was a perfect stranger. I had friends in other Brazilian cities. In Rio, I knew . . . a guy . . . kinda. My friend was right; I was taking the toughest option. I had given Peru a chance, but there was no comparison. My heart was in Rio, and nothing else would do. So, I said goodbye to my soccer team, my salsa squad, and all my new friends in Lima, and with a mixture of anxiety and optimism, got on the plane. It was an overnight flight across the Amazon; my plane crossed the mountains that encircle A Cidade Maravilhosa (the Marvelous City) just as the sun came rising out of the Atlantic Ocean, making both sky scrapers and the sea glow gold as we came in for a landing. The challenge was on. It was Brazil or Bust.
Fast forward two short months. I was skinny and exhausted with almost no appetite. I pulled on a sweatshirt to fend off the morning chill. It was always cold in that house, with the stone tile floors soaking up the damp chill of an unusually chilly and wet southern winter. Outside my bedroom door, thick dust was everywhere, and the walls reverberated with the sound of power tools. This was not working. The screen on my laptop displayed a list of flights. I was planning my trip home.
What had happened in those 2 months? A whole lot. I had known from the beginning, that I would have to trust God to pull multiple rabbits out of a hat for this plan to work, but I was optimistic. I knew that if Rio was where I was supposed to be, then I could trust the Lord to provide whatever I needed to stay. That so many things did fall into place only made the eventual decision to leave that much more difficult. I loved where I was living, in a hillside hostel overlooking the city center. I had made valuable contacts and had promising leads for both teaching English and DJing. I was playing weekly street soccer in a nearby favela. Perhaps most importantly, I had found a church nearby that quickly became my local Christian family. They had a vision for reaching the large foreign community in our part of the city, hoping someday to add services in English, and they were excited to have me participate in their ministry. It seemed that the necessary ingredients were falling into place. Perhaps God was going to make a way for me there after all.
There were other factors, however, that were working against me. To start, my financial situation was not ideal. Had I come to Brazil straightaway after leaving my job in the U.S., I could have had a much larger cushion, but my best friend’s wedding in Finland coupled with my two months in Peru, while necessary and wonderful, had been costly delays. By the time I finally landed in Brazil, my situation was precarious. I needed to find work immediately, and despite some promising clouds on the horizon, the rain was not coming soon enough. Although I was soon “hired” by two separate teaching agencies, it still takes time to receive a real schedule with real students. Actually getting paid is an even longer wait. DJing was at a standstill while I devoted myself primarily to pursuing teaching. In the meantime, funds were desperately low, and my bare-bones budget had to be cut back even more. My diet was reduced to the bare essentials of rice, beans, and homemade pancakes. In an effort to further cut costs, I moved out of my beloved hostel and agreed to help renovate a nearby yet-unopened bed and breakfast in return for a free bed. Having my own room in a million-dollar house was nice. Living in a construction site was not. I liked the young owners and my co-workers, but I never felt fully at peace with my choice to live there.
Finances were not the only issue. Shortly after my arrival there were also some serious moral shortcomings, followed by the crash in self-confidence that is so often a consequence. Was I really supposed to be there? Did I have what it takes to navigate a place like Rio, with its seemingly Kryptonite cocktail of temptations? Was God showing me I should be elsewhere? I wasn’t entirely derailed, but the experience left me badly shaken, distracted and low on emotional energy. The Christian life is often compared to running a race, but it is very difficult to run a race when we are preoccupied with running from ourselves.
Given a full schedule of students by my first agency, only to have it taken away just hours later. My one student with my second agency had seemed like a perfect fit at our introductory meeting, but finances were tight for her too, she wouldn’t be able start lessons for at least another month. Once again, there were clouds, but still no rain.
I came to realize that it was not just my money that was spent. Every part of me was spent. I no longer felt that I was thinking clearly. No decision I made brought any sense of peace. My parents, ever my sources of wise council, were over 4,000 miles away, and they were not about to pretend to know God’s mind or make my decisions for me. I couldn’t find any 11th commandment in the Bible saying “You shall or you shall not go.” All I knew was that I was financially, mentally, and physically exhausted. Flights out of Rio were unusually low. I woke up one morning and knew it was time. It was one of the most difficult choices I have ever had to make, but this challenge had gone bust.
There were so many questions and second guesses running through my mind. I had a second stash of funds, set aside for long-term savings, future ministry expenses, and emergencies, which I had decided from day one would not to be used for day to day expenses on this trip. Using them would have bought me more time. By not using those funds, was I trusting too much in my savings, and not leaning enough on the Lord to provide for my needs? Or by using those funds, would I be ignoring God’s direction, irresponsibly pursuing my desire to stay longer and acting as a poor steward of my resources? I still do not know the answer.
I had to question my commitment as well. Was leaving really following God’s direction? Or was I only bailing because I was tired of being cold and sick, and fed up with rice and beans? “Real” missionaries don’t get to leave when things get hard. Was I really committed to Brazil? Or just to having a good time?
Then came the comparisons. I wasn’t the only young person with big dreams in a big city. I was surrounded by English teachers, artists, hostel owners, entrepreneurs, and others who were working hard at making a living. Some had come in previous years, taken a risk, and were now reaping the rewards. Did they have something I didn’t? Americans and other westerners love to claim that “if you want it enough, you will make it happen”. Did I not want it enough? Or worse, did I have some critical deficiency that was keeping me from taking the bull by the horns and “making it happen”? Or even from a Biblical perspective, had I been a “sluggard”, folding my hands to rest one too many times?
Buying that ticket out actually brought a sense of relief in many ways. A final decision had been made and I was free to enjoy my last few days in Rio. I was the most relaxed I had been since my arrival. My appetite came back. But the relief came coupled with the feeling that I was letting so many people down. My volunteer class of high school kids, the aspiring flight attendant who had gone through three other teachers before deciding I was “the one”, the young adults of my church who had welcomed me in so enthusiastically, the crew at the bed and breakfast, who had cared for me when I was sick. The goodbyes were hard.
I did hear from the teaching agency. The director later told me that she had been preparing to send me a new schedule the very day I bought my plane ticket and resigned my place. Shortly after, I heard from the production company I had hoped to DJ with. They were rebranding their events, looking for new talent, and wanted to know when I was returning to Rio. Since coming home, I was offered work by two more teaching agencies. In the end, I was offered work by every reputable group I had contacted.
I can only conclude that God had purposes for me that he has not yet disclosed. I believe that God’s grace is sufficient for whatever race he calls us to run. I also believe that his grace comes in different forms, at different times, for different callings. For this challenge, that grace did not come in the time or form needed for me to stay on in good conscience.
People sometimes ask me, “What was God telling you?” or “Did you pray about it?”. My first impulse, super sanctified Christian that I am, is to come across the table and grab them by the neck. The question often comes off as if either they assume that I never bothered to pray during all this, or that God is a vending machine that dispenses tidy answers on demand. I was praying. I had a whole beach, a well-lit half-mile of white sand to run up and down on at night and pray and cry my heart out. I have no idea what God was saying during that time. We often talk about how God opens or closes doors for us. Except that this door seemed to be just flapping in the breeze, swinging wide open one moment, only to slam shut the next.
I would love to be there right now, polishing the English of Rio’s business community by day and creating the soundtrack for the city by night. I’m thankful for the two months I had in that incredible city. I’m also thankful for the home and the loving and supportive family I can return to. I’m thankful that my faith is stronger and deeper than it was before. The cross of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is bigger to me than it was before
by Ian Bridgman