Brazil #3 - Much Bigger than the Amazon Rainforest

by Juan Sarmiento, for the team

“Where is Venezuela?” The continental proportions of Brazil, in addition to its character as the only Portuguese speaking country in the hemisphere, must have been some of the possible reasons behind the many times that I used to be asked this question about my country of birth when I was a student here in the early 90’s.

One of the biggest surprises that I received on this visit to Brazil after all these years is that Venezuela is in the news and a common topic of conversation. Thousands of families from Venezuela are walking days through the Amazon rainforest in search of what appear to be better living conditions in communities in the northern state of Roraima. According to the Economist, this is “the largest movement of people in Latin American’s recent history.” Last month the BBC estimated that the number of Venezuelans arriving here to be 35,000 but most people think that the actual figures are much higher. The already frail infrastructure of the region is threatened by the explosion of refugees from the neighboring country undergoing a severe economic crisis. Tensions have surfaced and conflicts between Brazilians and the arriving Venezuelans have emerged. Debates about whether it makes sense to receive so many people into a society that is already facing so many challenges have become heated.

Venezuelans are not the only ones in the news and in the arguments between those that stress the pressing need for hospitality and those that insist on the need for being cautious. Meanwhile, the newly arrived are gradually making their way to the southern states of Brazil. In fact, a member of our group saw families using the park in front of the hotel where we are staying for improvised living quarters. Not only has the government of two of the cities that we visited been active in establishing shelters, but we have been pleased to hear that Christians are engaged in helping refugees feel welcome in several of Brazil’s twenty-six states.

Cassiano Luz is one of the key leaders in a new coalition of ministries working to coordinate the efforts that churches are undertaking to receive the individuals and families coming from Venezuela. As a young man, he and his family of three left the comfort of their home in the most affluent area in the country to serve as cross-cultural missionaries among the indigenous Yanomami people of the Amazon, in an area near the border of both countries. Cassiano built his own rustic home and spent eight hours a day learning the Yanomami language during the first year of service. For nine years they shared their lives and the gospel. Cassiano has earned a great reputation as a missionary to difficult places and later as the leader of renowned Brazilian and international mission organizations. A pastor and an anthropologist by training, he is using that reputation to help form a movement to mobilize and organize a broad variety of ministries directed toward helping Venezuelans experience God’s love through God’s people in this country.

This wonderfully hospitable country is already home to the largest Syrian and Japanese communities outside those countries. Now, Brazilian congregations are quickly and eagerly opening their doors and hearts to show the love of Christ by helping Venezuelan refugees settle in their communities. Venezuelans and Brazilians may speak different languages and have different cultures and socio-political challenges but in addition to our common indigenous heritage in our shared Amazon region, this crisis is helping us encounter each other at a place of common vulnerability and hope. 

Increasingly, Venezuelans are coming in need of food and shelter. Christians here are recognizing that Venezuelans are not just the people of a country located somewhere between one of Brazil’s least populated areas and the Caribbean Sea. In some sense, I could say that Venezuela is no longer only “over there” but also here. More importantly, the love of Jesus is bringing many of us closer together. God’s kingdom is being manifested through acts of generously shared compassion. ¡Gracias Brasil! ¡Gracias Cassiano! ¡Gracias a Dios!

Juan Sarmiento
Associate Director for Mission