USPG Volunteering Manager Rebecca Woollgar reflects on her experiences in Brazil where she witnessed the Anglican Church’s inspiring work among communities that face many challenges.
Visiting Brazil was a huge culture shock for me, as I knew it would be. It was my first experience of a country and society so different to my own. In nearly every conversation I had, the same issues kept coming up: the corruption of the government and the growing issues of drug crime, violence and human trafficking. At times these stories were overwhelming and I couldn’t help but feeling desperate for these communities. I was told story after story, statistic after statistic, depicting the scale of sexual abuse on public transport, violent muggings on roads after dark, and the power held by drug lords.
These stories made me reflect on how much we take our own personal safety for granted here in the UK. We may have complaints about the NHS or the government, but in comparison to Brazil and many other countries around the world, we are hugely privileged in the services we have and the justice that is upheld here.
Our Anglican partners in both Rio de Janeiro and the Amazon are reaching out to their communities and offering practical help and support. I was hugely inspired by the people I met and the difference their activities were making to individual lives and the wider community. The local church is a beacon of hope and light in these dark situations. It reminded me of Philippians 2:15, which speaks about us becoming children of God who shine like stars in the dark world.
One girl I met, Leticia, shared how much a local guitar class meant to her, and the confidence it gave her. The class is run by the Anglican Church in Belem, and was set up to encourage children to stay off the streets and away from the danger that seems to be around every corner in the area of Icoraci. I was informed that Icoraci is a hotspot for human trafficking and drug crime. The guitar class is part of a community project that offers a safe place for children to learn together and talk openly about issues affecting them. At the end of the class, the children stand in a circle and pray for their community. This was how my visit ended, and it was incredibly special to be a part of it. As we were saying goodbye, Leticia gave me her bracelet which had a guitar symbol with her name written on it. She said she wanted me to have it so I could remember her. It is something I treasure and a reminder to pray for her and the other children who benefit from that class. I felt very fortunate to meet these children and hear about the hope the church is giving them in a society so full of hopelessness.
Another community project we visited was in a remote village in the Amazon called Barcarena. Here the children had prepared a traditional Brazilian dance for us.
The project offers children the chance to learn new skills, especially in the arts and creative subjects that schools often cut out of the syllabus. Finding out that in Latin America children only go to school for half the day was a shock to me. Stories I heard included teachers not turning up and the huge range of ages expected to learn in the same class. Children who participate in the community project tend to fare much better at school because of the confidence the project gives them. It was inspiring to meet Fabio who co-ordinates this and many other local projects. He has benefited from training given by the Anglican Church which has equipped him and other volunteers to run these projects and help give children a positive experience.
I returned from my visit to Brazil with a renewed sense of hope in the transformative power of the local church. Not only that, but of the collective difference that people can make when they work together in a community. I felt personally challenged to get more involved in my own local area, in Essex, and have started volunteering at a homeless charity, serving hot food to those in need.
I came across a quote recently that sums up this challenge, by the American author and historian Edward Everett Hale, who said: ‘I am only one, but I am one. I can’t do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do. And by the grace of God, I will.’
Please join with me in praying that our brothers and sisters in Brazil may continue to give a voice to the oppressed, hope to the hopeless and love to those who have been marginalised by society.