In 2006, I arrived in Rio de Janeiro at the People's Central Institute (ICP in Portuguese) with a group of 35 youth and chaperones from Myers Park United Methodist Church. I speak Portuguese and had been to Brazil several times, but this trip was the beginning of a relationship that changed my life and a gift I can never repay.
Our group worked hard during about 10 days in July to renovate classrooms so ICP could open a remedial tutoring program to supplement its existing daycare and preschool. Within a month or two after we returned, ICP opened the tutoring classes, creating a safe place and after-school enrichment for about 60 children from the nearby slum.
One of the Brazilians who coordinated our team's labor was named Sergio. His bright smile, calm presence and affection for our group made him a fast friend. We worked alongside him during the week, and one night he asked if I would translate his story for the group.
Sergio has four siblings. When he was four years old, his parents would disappear to drink for days at a time. He and his brother would go to the street and beg for food while their older sister stayed home and cared for their baby brother. One night the police picked them up, and they were sent to various orphanages. Sergio went to the Ana Gonzaga Methodist Institute. As their parents made occasional drunken appearances at the various orphanages in subsequent years, he and his siblings had opportunities to be adopted, but their grandmother refused to have them permanently separated and eventually took them back into her tiny home. When they arrived in her neighborhood, many of the local children would not play with them because they came from an orphanage.
Sergio returned to Ana Gonzaga as a counselor, worked with street children and became a teacher. When I met him, he was unemployed but was soon hired to lead the new tutoring program. I returned to Rio in 2007 with a group of adult volunteers, and Sergio had been promoted to assistant director of ICP. He again shared his story with our team, confessing he was worried how he could continue advancing his career to help children because he lacked the money to finish college. Several members of our group decided we would pay for his tuition. Sergio graduated on time, and in 2008 we invited him to Charlotte as the chaperone for three Brazilian youth.
Last summer, our group hosted a baby shower for Sergio and his wife, who were expecting their first child. Pedro Lucas was born in February. One day last winter, Sergio wrote a note on my Facebook wall in Portuguese, inviting me to be the baby's "madrinha." I had to look up the word to be sure I understood. He wanted me to be the godmother! I accepted the invitation in all-caps enthusiasm and spent the next six months marveling at the gracious gesture, uncertain how to express how much it touched me.
One of God's greatest gifts to us is a kingdom in which ordinary economics don't apply. He creates abundance out of scarcity, exalts the humble and humbles the exalted. And God turns givers into receivers. I know Sergio feels deeply indebted to our church; I am simply the face of the many volunteers and generous donors who have helped him during the past five years. But as anyone who has ever been on a church mission trip can tell you, we arrive as eager, can-do volunteers hoping to be a blessing to others...and we return feeling powerless at our inability to reciprocate the love and hospitality we are shown by our hosts.
Sergio and I are the same age. Our childhoods were very different, but we each survived the impact alcoholism has on a family. My own experience was mild in comparison to Sergio's, but we both grew up faster because of what we lived through as children. And we both believe that God makes his presence best felt during our own worst moments.
Standing with the family on a large outdoor stage for the baptism, I held a squirming Pedro in my arms as the pastor splashed his head with water. Drops rolled into his eyes, and he cried at the pain. I tried to savor the moment but mostly focused on holding on as tight as I could to his chubby little body. And I marveled at the fact that that true wealth is measured in a currency only God controls.