Musings of a Temporary Resident of Natal

I know no Portuguese and many Brazilians know very little English. This is challenging for me. For example, buying groceries in a large grocery can be intimidating. Today I got in line to check out, not realizing that there was a big sign that said a maximum of 20 items for that lane. I had already placed my 40+ items of groceries on the conveyor belt. Trying to explain was not successful at all. However, I guess the check-out person could see how confused I was because she went ahead and processed my groceries.Hiper

Having experienced several communication problems over the past three weeks, here are some lessons I have learned.

Review your skills at charades. I have found that if you do enough describing with your hands and arms, you have a good chance of getting your message across. One of my students brings to our sessions an artist’s sketchbook which he uses to visually help me understand what he means. This usually works well. Nodding my head and smiling when I understand the drawing will seal the completion of his message.

Another way to communicate in a language you do not understand is a booklet like Point It: The Traveler’s Language Kit . This resource has hundreds of photos of everything from “toothbrush” to “snow chains.” Just point to what you are looking for and the picture book approach has completed the communication.

If all else fails, seek out a person nearby who speaks English and ask him or her to interpret. For example, in the grocery store episode, a man overheard us and, since he spoke English, was kind enough to come to our rescue. After the explanation about our ignorance, the woman checking us out understood and smiled as we left. Better to be ignorant than rude!

One of the benefits of learning to deal with language barriers is that after I get back to the United States, I hope to be more sensitive to the nuances of English and more aware of the person’s reaction as I speak. I certainly will be more aware of visitors who may not speak English and will welcome the opportunity to help them.

So one way to improve your interpersonal communication here at home is to visit a country such as Brazil where English is not common; you will learn a new culture as well as becoming a more compassionate and aware communicator.

A Promise Not to Complain

My wife says I constantly complain about the orange barrels and traffic cones when driving the streets and highways in the Cincinnati area. But I promise not to complain again.

I have only been a passenger in cars, not a driver, since I arrived in Natal, Brazil, three weeks ago. As a result I have spent a lot of time watching traffic flow and all that goes with it. As I am told often, “This is just the Brazilian way.”

Let me explain. There is no speed lane on the highways; all lanes are speed lanes! Cars dart in and out of traffic at will. Motorcycles weave in and out of traffic stopped at traffic lights. They also pass cars on the curb side.

Donkey & cart

In addition to bicycles, men and women pushing wheelbarrows are on the busy highways as they look through trash left on the medians of many streets. Occasionally, a donkey and cart whose driver is also picking from the trash ambles down the street. When they spot something they want, they stop in the lane of traffic and put the item in their cart or wheelbarrow. Cars maneuver around these and seem to think nothing about it.

Speed limit signs are posted haphazardly on city streets so you are not sure how fast to go in some areas. Not only are speed limit signs rare, but often intersections have no stop signs. So drivers ease into the intersection and hope for the best.

When there is a hard rain, streets flood quickly and a car can easily get stuck unless the driver is very careful.

Traffic weaves around large potholes and even then it is hard to avoid a particularly rough spot in the road.

What impresses me most is that no one seems to complain like I do about roads in the United States. They simply shrug their shoulders and say, “This is the Brazilian way.” I hope I can keep my promise that I will never complain again about the highways in the United States. If I forget, I’m sure my wife will remind me.

Unexpected Answer, Unexpected Question

In our Let’s Start Talking project, we often repeat Luke stories because we sometimes meet with six or seven readers a day. Thus we teach the same lessons multiple times. The questions and answers, however, are not the same. For example, lesson four is about Jesus staying in the temple in Jerusalem to talk and listen with religious leaders. His parents on their way home don’t know this and think he is lost.

One of the questions I often ask the reader after reading this story is, “Have you ever been lost?” Usually the answers center around being lost in a store or at a festival. This middle-aged reader we will call Leo thought for a moment and in his limited English said, “Yes, a long time ago.” I wasn’t clear on what that meant, so I asked him more about the situation. I quickly realized he was talking about being lost spiritually! He said he eventually found Jesus and is no longer lost. That answer surprised me, but I realized he had made an excellent point.

I have preached many sermons on the crucifixion and events surrounding it. Yesterday with another reader I was talking about how the blood of Jesus takes away our sins because he died on the cross.

Then he asked, “How does the blood take away your sins?” Finding words to give a clear and accurate answer to one who is newly learning about Jesus was for me very difficult. What seemed logical in a sermon no longer seemed to fit this young and curious reader. How does the blood of a person who was killed 2000 years save us today? I did not do a very good job. Since our reading together, I have been mulling over a better answer so I will be prepared when that question is asked again.

Since many readers have a limited knowledge of the Bible and all are from a different culture, finding the right answer and responding to an unexpected answer certainly keep me from growing weary of doing the same lesson multiple times.

Appreciation Goes Both Ways

Our readers in Natal are very appreciative of our time to help them practice English. I believe this goes both ways.

I have been encouraged in my daily life by the attitudes of our readers. They work hard to be here and it is not always easy for them to come. They arrange their reading hours around work, school, and transportation availability.

I will mention two of my readers who especially influence me by their spirit.

One man I’ll call Frederico has a great positive attitude. He comes to read with a smile on his face and a bounce in his step. He thanks me as I correct him on the pronunciation of a certain word. Today I asked him if he was always positive.

His answer was, “Yes, I am like this all the time.”

I followed with, “Do you ever have a down day?”

He said, “Never. In fact, my friends call my positive approach a disease. They don’t understand how I do it; it is just the way I am.” When he leaves at the end of the session, I walk out with him, feeling uplifted and my spirit renewed.

The other reader I will call Angelina. She has a renewed interest in reading the Bible. She told me at our last session that she is reading in the book of Genesis. One day recently she was eating dinner and the Bible was open a few feet away. She had such a great desire to read from it that she picked it up and read as she was eating dinner. She came in that day telling me that she loved the story of Joseph and she had some questions about Joseph.

These attitudes made me reevaluate my own attitude toward other people on a daily basis. Do I always seek to have a positive attitude? Do I look forward to reading the Bible? Am I really excited or so enthusiastic about a Bible story that I can’t wait to share it with others?

People sometimes ask why we go to other countries to teach the Bible by teaching English. Angelina is a great example of the answer. In my home area, I don’t know where to find people who are so eager to learn from the Bible; here they come to us.

Different and Delightful

Life is different in Natal, Brazil. We must adjust to several actions we are not accustomed to in the United States. Here are some examples.

Security is a very high priority everywhere. The church building is behind a security wall that has barbed wire or sharp ends of metal lining the top of the wall with a padlocked gate. Two padlocks are on the barred exterior door to the building, and another door must be unlocked to get into the building. In addition, a security system must be activated when anyone leaves and turned off when they return. This is typical of all middle class homes and businesses.

Now I am much more aware of locking things and being more cautious when walking on city streets. When I return to the States, I know I will be more sensitive about locking my doors and being more consistent with security systems. I am committed to being more aware of people around me on the city streets. I’m delighted about that continual reminder here.

No left turns are allowed at intersections of the city streets in Natal, and many intersections do not have stop signs. Drivers just assume the other person will stop (or not).

I have not driven a car in 15 days; we depend on others to transport us or we find a cab. When I am home, I typically drive everywhere we go. This change gives me an opportunity to see the sights along the way and to give attention to the architecture and unusual arrangements of home and businesses. This is enjoyable and rarely available to me in the States.

Church services are in Portuguese, both songs and speaking. It is delightful to hear the voices of Brazilians sing these songs and to guess at the meanings and pronunciations of the words on the screen at the front of the auditorium. I listen more to how words sound when sung in Portuguese and am much more aware of the melody of the songs.

I feel out of place at times in malls and on the streets because I do not know the language and look different from most around me. I find that a smile and a nod of the head always seems to guarantee a smile and a nod in return from the people I pass. I will be better about having the pleasant look when I return to Kentucky.

Although many things are different here, I am delighted to learn about the language, the culture, and the people. Brazilians are hospitable, helpful, and encouraging. We are making many new friends and our temporary church family is a pleasure to worship and work with.

Do You Believe in Reincarnation?

Readers are unpredictable. In the middle of our lesson yesterday, Alex asked, without introduction, “Steve, do you believe in reincarnation?”

I was stunned. We had been talking about the temptation of Jesus, and I tried to think of how his question related to our lesson. It didn’t. I stumbled in getting out the words, “No, I do not believe in reincarnation.” I decided to go with the abrupt change in topic and asked him, “Do you believe in reincarnation?”

His answer? “Yes.”

He then proceeded to say that he believes in Spiritism and gave me a brief explanation of his religion. Alex mentioned, for example, that if a person is born with some impairment or is subject to some tragedy in life, he is paying for his sins in a previous life. If a rich man in this life is selfish and does not share his good fortune with others or treats others badly, in the next life he will be poor and will suffer many losses. In each life, you evolve and your goal is to be more and more like God.

They use the same Bible and will read from it at their gatherings (not called worship services). They meet regularly at centers. He said the room is not that much different from our buildings but they don’t have music and preaching.

I left that session overwhelmed. Here is a young man who is very goal-oriented, intelligent, and a delight to be around. Yet his religion is so different from mine! I had a hard time connecting him with his approach to life. I try to respect everyone’s philosophy of life; I have to admit that this conversation broadened my knowledge of how different other people’s spiritual outlooks can be.

However, I plan to go to our next session tomorrow with faith that God can work in his life to see the truth. I want him to understand that Jesus is the Son of God, that heaven and hell are real, and that Jesus wants us to follow him. I believe that God can work through me–and others–to help this young man know Jesus Christ.

We will continue to read stories from Luke and make applications to our lives. I hope he will see me as an illustration of how the Scriptures can change us to be more like Jesus every day—for this life and life eternal.

A Contrast in Readers

In the first two days of sessions with readers, I have quite a contrast in my readers’ interests and language skills. For example, Alex is a very talented, bright 22-year-old. His English is excellent, although his search for the right word in English is sometimes challenging. He reads the Luke stories well and has excellent questions. His pronunciation skills are way above average among most of my readers. His questions are frequent and challenging. For example, one question he asked today was, “Is the devil one person or several?” after reading the story of the temptation of Jesus in the desert. This led to a stimulating conversation about places in the Bible where the devil is mentioned.

In addition, he comes from a very stable family where both parents have successful careers and who give him much moral support. He comes to our sessions with a smile on his face and a look of anticipation as we begin the session.

In contrast is Edmonson, a middle-aged gentleman, whose English is very limited. Often I will have to repeat a sentence several times before he understands, and even then I have confused him. As you know, I speak very rapidly and that makes it even more difficult for us to have a conversation even when I slow down. In addition, he is broken-hearted about his family problems.

One of my most challenging words to explain to him was the word, “careful.” I tried several times to give an example of the word and also provided what I thought were appropriate definitions. Nothing worked. Finally, we both agreed just to move on.

Edmilson is really earnest about his desire to learn better English skills and he also is very concerned about his faith. Because of his family problems, he stopped attending worship services at his church. He says, however, that he believes in God and believes what the Bible teaches. There is definitely an opportunity to help him regain his faith in organized religion. I was exhausted at the end of the session and somewhat discouraged. As I walked him to the door, he shook my hand and said, “I really enjoyed our conversation tonight.”

I was reminded of the LST motto, “God’s Word is the teacher and you are the illustration.” Even though I feel inadequate about sharing the good news, God will find a way through us.

When a Tree is Not Just a Tree

A few weeks ago in a sermon at Central I told about a small tree that we saw growing in a large pothole in Natal, Brazil. I made the point that the infrastructure in Brazil is very different from that of the United States. Basically, I was saying that potholes go so long without repair that trees start to sprout.

I found out how wrong I was! When I was talking to prospective readers at our information meeting Tuesday night, one of the readers asked me what I thought of Natal. I retold the tree story.

One of the people said, “Oh, that is not why the little tree was there. When a pothole gets that huge, someone will put a tree [or, as we observed, an umbrella] in the hole so people won’t hit the pothole. The hole is so deep and dangerous that you can ruin your car if you hit it directly.” He said further, “That is not uncommon at all in our country.”

This conversation reminded me of how we view things differently in cultures not our own. Other customs that are different in Natal include the rudeness of eating any food with your fingers. In a restaurant yesterday I chose a chicken leg to eat, as did Lanita. Then she realized and reminded me that it is very rude to eat any food with my fingers. You use a fork or, in the case of sandwich or hamburger, a napkin to put the food into your mouth.

The Apostle Paul dealt with different customs in writing to the church at Rome in Romans 14:1-15. He was concerned that we should respect each other in our different customs about eating and special days.

We should respect other nationalities’ customs and traditions as long as they don’t contradict God’s Word. We can even apply this, I think, to other regions of the country where we live. Be willing to eat foods of a region that might not specifically appeal to you. I learned this lesson in adjusting to Lanita’s Southern cooking and especially in eating in the homes of her relatives when we first started dating. I’m still working on eating cooked turnip greens, however.

So I am trying hard here in Natal to avoid insulting any of my readers or hosts in my actions and deeds.  As Paul said, “…I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (I Corinthians 9:22.)

Remember, a tree is not always just a tree. It may be another country’s orange barrels.