Note: I wrote this blog entry after a one-week trip to Brazil in January 2010 in which I visited my six mission areas in São Paulo. It is somewhat lengthy and religious in nature, but hopefully worth a read.
Homecoming: My Return to Brazil
In 1994 and 1995, I had the privilege of serving as a full-time missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Brazil São Paulo East Mission. It was a life-changing experience for me that has shaped my life ever since. When I was set apart as a missionary, President Jerry Black, my stake president, promised that I would make eternal friends in Brazil. How right he was! Unfortunately, over the past several years I have lost contact with most of those dear people. So a few months ago, I decided to return to the land of my mission to renew those friendships. I booked a relatively inexpensive flight and applied for entry into Brazil. I was excited and yet nervous. Due to the language barrier, child care issues and extra expense, Robin graciously stayed home with the children. (Thank you, sweetheart. I owe you big time!)
On Wednesday, January 13, I flew to Los Angeles and then boarded a plane bound for São Paulo, Brazil, the third largest city in the world. I quickly made friends with Simone, my Brazilian seatmate and during the 12-hour flight, we talked about many subjects. She spoke to me in English while I practiced my Portuguese on her. I told her that I planned to visit certain unremarkable cities in the state of São Paulo. She asked, “Why in the world are you going to spend your vacation in these weird little towns? Why not spend more time on the beautiful beaches of Rio de Janeiro?” I replied that this was not a vacation for me, but more of a spiritual journey back to places that meant a great deal to me. I expressed my love for her country because it was there that I matured emotionally and spiritually. It was in Brazil that I grew from boy to man. It was there that my testimony became fixed and immovable. Simone confessed to me that she had made a goal to become more religious in the coming year. As I told her about our faith and its teachings, she became increasingly interested. I invited her to seek out the missionaries and hear their message.
Well, the plane landed in the hot and humid air of a southern hemisphere summer. As I stepped on Brazilian soil, I felt an indescribable joy. I was back! So many years had come and gone, but I had finally returned to that wonderful place. I could hardly believe my good fortune. Back in missionary mode, I struck up conversations with just about everyone – it was so fun to speak Portuguese again with real Brazilians. My first destination was the mission office after having traveled all night. The missionaries serving in the mission office welcomed me like the prodigal’s son, especially since I had brought them some beef jerky, which just isn’t available in Brazil. I talked with several missionaries awaiting interviews with President Morreira, their fairly new mission president from Portugal. Then the mission president’s wife pulled me aside and asked if I would talk with a sad, solitary missionary seated in the hallway of the mission office. He’d been in Brazil for just a week, was very discouraged and was thinking about going home. I sat down by this young man and told him about how difficult it had been for me when I first arrived 16 years earlier. Learning a new language and culture is challenging, and missionary work is tough. I assured him that things would get better – he would pick up the language and learn to love the culture. I knew that the Lord had a work for him to do in this land. I hope it helped.
That afternoon, I had a wonderful time visiting some members in the neighborhood near the mission office. Later, after a very happy reunion in a pizzeria that evening with dear friends, I returned to the missionaries’ house and stayed in an available room offered to me at no charge. Of course, you get what you pay for. While the price was right (free), the bed had no sheets and no pillow, and came with a somewhat dirty blanket and a flea-bitten mattress. I itched all night. Some things never change, and the filthiness of missionaries’ apartments is an eternal constant!
The House of the Lord
The next morning, I felt a strong desire to visit to Sao Paulo temple, the first temple built in South America. Originally dedicated in 1978, that temple had been refurbished and rededicated in 2004 by President Gordon B. Hinckley. When I was a missionary in Brazil, it was the only temple in the country; now there are five with two more under construction. The growth of the church there has been astonishing. There now are approximately 1 million church members in Brazil with hundreds of wards and stakes and 28 missions. When I got off the bus in front of the temple, I chuckled that a Wal-mart had been built right across the street. Ahh, American economic imperialism! As I entered that sacred edifice and participated in the temple session in Portuguese, I was overcome with feelings of peace and love. I knew that this sacred place is where families can be united together for eternity. President Howard W. Hunter, who was president of the church for a mere nine months during my time in Brazil, encouraged members to make the temple the great symbol of their membership. He referred to it as the “supernal setting for their most sacred covenants.” Indeed temples around the world are a place of refuge and worship, even in the middle of a busy city of 27 million people. The temple was important to me as a missionary. It continues to be important to me today. Attending the temple brings me spiritual direction and helps me see the big picture.
Establishment of Zion in Pimentas
Fortified by my visit to the temple, I took a bus, a train and another bus to Pimentas, my third area. When I served there in 1994, it was a fairly new neighborhood with a lot of poverty. Houses were simple and unfinished. Rivers of raw sewage ran through the streets. Most of the roads were dirt, which meant lots of dust on sunny days and tons of mud when it rained. I recall a time when my greenie, Elder Gilbert, and I were walking home after a rainstorm. Despite his best efforts to remain upright, he slipped and fell backwards, getting mud all over the back of his brand new Mr. Mac suit. Then, moments later, he fell forward, covering the front of his suit with mud. At first he was mad, but then we laughed and took pictures. Pimentas was considered the armpit of the mission. It was a dangerous area where murders and drug deals were common. We had a small ward that met in a rented hall with a roll-up metal garage door at the entrance.
While I was a missionary there, we started a program of neighborhood family home evenings, where we talked about the establishment of Zion. I told the members stories of the prophet Enoch who described himself as slow of speech and one who was hated by all the people. In Moses 7:13, we learn that the Lord turned Enoch from a weak lad to a mighty leader. It reads: “And so great was the faith of Enoch that he led the people of God, and their enemies came to battle against them; and he spake the word of the Lord, and the earth trembled, and the mountains, even according to his command; and the rivers of water were turned out of their course.” I taught the people that, according to their faith, they could become powerful in declaring the word of God in that neighborhood. They could be instruments in the Lord’s hands in establishing Zion there.
That is exactly what has happened in that neighborhood. Those faithful pioneering saints have wrought a great work. Today there are not one, but two beautiful new chapels full of faithful Latter-day Saints. There are two thriving wards which are a part of a newly created stake. Ward members who have been faithful tithe payers through the years have been blessed economically. The streets are now paved and the people have been blessed with prosperity for their sacrifice and service. Brother Pedro, who was living in a rented home for years, has since built his own home of brick and cement. My old ward mission leader, Brother Augusto, owns two thriving businesses. I was reminded of the Lord’s promise to his children recorded in the Book of Mormon: “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper in the land.” I saw this first-hand in the lives of the people of Pimentas, both spiritually and temporally. As Brother Augusto drove me around the neighborhood in his car with hymns playing on his stereo, I felt very happy to see the progress of the people. Most were astonished that I was back in Brazil.
That night my brother Matt arrived on a plane from Rio de Janeiro and we were very glad to be together. He had served as a missionary in the Brazil Brasilia mission in 1991 and 1992, and it was a real treat to visit my areas with him and speak Portuguese. On Saturday morning, drove our rental car to my first area, the city of Jacareí. It was wonderful to be back on the cobblestone streets of that old city. It brought back vivid memories of my first few weeks in Brazil as a missionary in January 1994 – it was hot and humid. Mosquitoes buzzed in my ears throughout each night. We often rode our bikes up steep hills just to have our appointment fall through. My Brazilian companion didn’t speak any English, so I felt pretty alone. But in that first area, I learned so much. Visiting my old house and the chapel was great, but the best part was visiting members who I had known and loved. As we drove the streets, we saw two missionaries walking down the road and I had to pull over to say hello. I told them I had been in their shoes many years earlier and I thanked them for their service.
Ubatuba: Reunion on the Beach
Sunday was an especially meaningful day with visits to of my two favorite areas, including a beach town called Ubatuba. In 1994, the church was in its infancy there. My companion and I were some of the first elders to work in the area. There was no branch, just a group of 10-15 people. We had no chapel, so we met in the garage of an investigator. We were the group leaders and we did everything from blessing the sacrament, giving talks and leading hymns to extending callings and teaching primary and Sunday School. What an incredible training opportunity it provided me as 19-year old missionary!
So 16 years later, I had the chance to go back. Weeks before, I had emailed Elder Delvaux, the Brazilian companion who had served with me in the area, and told him I would be returning to Brazil. He said he’d always dreamed of going back to Ubatuba, but never imagined we could go back together. He decided to get up really early Sunday morning and drive five hours to join me for sacrament meeting. Matt and I arrived in the city Sunday morning, about an hour before the meeting began, and so I took him to a few beaches to watch the waves crash onto the shore. (I never got to swim in Ubatuba as a missionary, and since I was there on a Sunday, swimming wasn’t an option on this return trip either. Oh well.)
As Matt and I drove to find the little chapel, our rental car was suddenly and unexpectedly rear-ended by another motorist. The sacrament meeting was about to begin just blocks away, and I felt sick knowing that perhaps I would be unable to attend while we were waiting for the police to arrive. We pulled over and got out to inspect the damage. Miraculously, there was none; both cars showed no signs of trauma. I thought of the scripture in Doctrine and Covenants 84:88, which reads: “For I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angles round about you, to bear you up.”
We arrived at sacrament meeting just in the nick of time. There was Elder Delvaux, my six-foot-five Brazilian companion from so many years ago. We embraced and then sat down in that little chapel, which was no longer in the garage of an investigator. The branch president, having heard that we were some of the early pioneers in that area, invited us to bear our testimonies to the congregation, which we did joyfully, recounting some stories from our days there. As I bore my testimony in Portuguese, tears welled up in my eyes. What joy to see the fruits of our labors so many years later! A thriving branch is now established in that town and we had been a part of the establishment of Zion in that far-flung place.
Journey to Guaratingueta
After a delicious lunch with Brother Carlos and Sister Sandra, some old friends from that area, Matt and I headed out of the city and up a treacherous road through the jungle with extremely steep grades and dozens of sharp switchbacks. A light rain had begun to fall, cooling the countryside and watering the landscape. We drove for nearly two hours, making very good time as we prepared to visit one of my favorite areas called Guaratingueta. (That’s a fun word to say: Guaratingueta.) This city is located next to one of the largest Catholic cathedrals on planet earth, second only to St. Peter’s basilica in Vatican City. Despite the strong Catholic tradition, the LDS Church has two large wards housed in a beautiful stake center situated in a quiet neighborhood. Gauaratingueta is the area where I had the most success and I was very anxious to go back. I had emailed a good friend there who had set up a reception in the chapel for me on Sunday night. Since the time for my visit was limited to that one evening, I had really hoped to see a few friends there.
However, the light rain turned into a torrential downpour resulting in a huge lake of water which covered the highway and brought traffic to a standstill. Here we had traveled more than 8,000 miles only to be stopped in our tracks just 15 miles from our destination. The time appointed for the reception in the chapel came and went, and I was stuck. I had no way to get to the place I had so longed to visit. And I was SO very close! I was heartbroken. We tried using Matt’s cell phone to call the members and let them know we were stuck, but we couldn’t get a signal. They were waiting for me at the chapel, but I had no way to tell them I was delayed, possibly for several hours. Then I realized that even if the traffic did start moving, I couldn’t remember how to get to the chapel. After all, it had been 15 years. What’s more, the gas level in our rental car was seriously low and I didn’t know if we’d be able to make it.
We decided to pray and we poured out our hearts to God in that little rental car, asking him to help us reach our destination. Since the car had been stopped on the freeway for more than an hour, I got out to stretch my legs and I struck up a conversation with a woman in a nearby car. Upon hearing of our situation, she let me use her cell phone to advise the members of our situation. Then she offered to lead us to the chapel since she was heading to that very neighborhood to visit her sister. What a blessed coincidence!
My prayers were answered – well, almost – if only the traffic would start to move and the gas in my tank would just last long enough! Thankfully, the traffic did start moving, slowly at first. As soon as we passed the lake of water on the freeway, we followed our guide and made excellent time. All the while, I was watching the gas gage, offering silent prayers that the fuel would last. When we finally arrived at the chapel, I figured everyone would have gone home. I was more than two hours late. But instead I found a chapel full of old friends who had patiently awaited my arrival. It was incredible. We took photos. We hugged. We exchanged email addresses. We told stories from the past. We laughed. We shed tears. I was overcome by a feeling of joy that I can hardly describe. It reminded me of the feelings that Alma felt when reunited with the sons of Mosiah after 14 years (just about the same period of time I was apart from these Brazilian saints). In Alma chapter 17, it says that: “Alma did rejoice exceedingly to see his brethren; and what added more to his joy, they were still his brethren in the Lord.” This is how I felt on that very special Brazilian summer evening.
As my trip came to a close, I made one last mad dash to visit some people I had taught and baptized before departing. The reunions were sweet and rekindled such feelings of love and joy I can hardly describe. However, I tried to do too much and almost missed my flight. With the help of my Brazilian friends, I got to the airport just in the nick of time in the pouring rain. As I got out of the car with my luggage, my old ward mission leader, Brother Augusto, hugged me. Eyes welling up with tears, he said, “Elder Lambert, chances are we won’t see each other again in this life. But let’s both work hard so that we can see each other again in the celestial kingdom someday.” I assured him that I would.
Completely exhausted, I collapsed in my airplane seat and slept for most of the 12-hour flight to Los Angeles. As I waited for my flight to Salt Lake City the next day, three missionaries who were coming home from Korea were waiting for the same flight back to Utah. I congratulated them on successfully completing their missionary service. They were filled with the spirit and I could tell they had served faithfully. The light in their eyes was undeniable. I told them a bit about my trip and encouraged them to always maintain contact with their friends in Korea. Back in Salt Lake, my reunion with Robin and the children was very happy. It was so good to be home, despite the cold weather. I came home a changed man; my experience had rekindled feelings long since dormant. I will never forget my visit there.
Returning to my mission field a decade and a half later was an amazing experience. It was like traveling in time. Children that I knew back then are now adults with children of their own. Time continues its relentless march forward. And the Brazilian saints have gone through life’s challenges just like the rest of us. One dear woman that I baptized died of a heart attack, while another had been killed in car accident. A very dear friend in my first area had died of breast cancer, leaving her husband and four children motherless. A few couples had gotten divorced and a number people had fallen away from the Church, including some dear friends and even some influential church leaders. The church had grown a lot in some areas and not much in other areas. Life, with all of its warts, had continued for these people. And yet, a great deal of good had happened. Many of the youth had served missions and gotten married in the temple. They are now the leaders in the Church in their wards and branches. Some of the people I taught and baptized have served missions and some have served as bishops, branch presidents and Relief Society presidents.
I felt a great deal of gratitude from the members for my visit. They never expected me to return and were touched that I hadn’t forgotten them after so many years. I was grateful that they remembered me. Many people had kept letters and pictures I had sent them shortly after my mission. Many still had a copy of my wedding announcement from 12 years ago. One family even had that invitation framed on the wall of a bedroom in their home! What a lasting impact missionaries can make. I have thought many times how much I would have missed out on had I chosen not to serve, or had I quit during the first few weeks like that young, sad elder I met in the mission office two weeks ago. I hope he sticks it out. The impact on his life and on the lives of others is incalculable.
That impact was brought to my mind once again a few days ago when I received an email from a young woman who was four-years old when I met her family in the beach town of Ubatuba. Her mother and grandparents were members of the church, but her father, Ricardo Martins, was an alcoholic that wanted nothing to do with the Church. In fact, he had even thrown some missionaries out of his house in the past. Naturally, we were very cautious when we first struck up a non-religious conversation with him on the street in front of his house one day. Slowly, Ricardo’s hard exterior melted through our friendship and he invited us to a family home evening at his house. Incredibly, he gave the lesson and the spirit was strong. We invited him to hear the discussions and he accepted. Weeks later, he was baptized in a river near a waterfall. He has since served as a branch president and his oldest son Vinicius just returned from a mission. His daughter Barbara wrote the following to me in an email this week: “You and your companion will always be remembered by our family. You were angels sent by the Lord that saved our family. We now see the fruits of your effort and will yet see many more fruits.” You can count the number of seeds in an apple, but you can’t count the number of apples in a seed.
A mission is hard. But it is worth it. I’ll never forget sitting on a bumpy bus at night during my first few months in Brazil. I was discouraged and frustrated. I then found this scripture that changed my attitude forever. It’s in Alma 28:8: “And this is the account of Ammon and his brethren, their journeyings in the land of Nephi, their sufferings in the land, their sorrows, and their afflictions, and their incomprehensible joy.” I love that — sufferings, sorrows and afflictions go hand-in-hand with incomprehensible joy.
I believe we are engaged in a great cause – the establishment of Zion. Whether it be in a Brazilian beach town or in our own living room during family scripture study, we are involved in a marvelous work and a wonder. Never underestimate the power and influence your choices can have on yourself and others. As Brother Augusto said, “Let us work hard so that we can all meet again in the celestial kingdom.” What a marvelous reunion that will be!