In January of 2014 I was blessed with the opportunity to travel to Rio De Janiero, Brazil with my college soccer teammates. We were in the air as 2013 changed to 2014 and we were probably somewhere in between watching She’s the Man and trying to find a sleepable position on our 12 hour flight.
We reached Rio in the morning around 8. We were nothing short of giddy when we touched down on this foreign soil. We had been planning the trip for over six months, but none of us had even the slightest hint as to what the agenda was. All we knew was that we were to arrive, get in touch with our contact, and he would take us from there.
I really didn’t even know the state of the country. I didn’t know what the economy was like, I didn’t know the culture, I didn’t even know that the language most commonly spoken in the area was not in fact Brazilian.
The first thing I remember thinking about Rio was that it was beautiful. We drove over Guanabara Bay by access of the longest bridge in the southern hemisphere of the world. We had our first look at Sugarloaf mountain, a mountain named affectionately after the European bread.
The real beauty, though, is in the people who make up Rio. We discovered very quickly the love and light heartedness of the people. They were not short on hospitality or making us feel welcome- regardless of whether we were in a grocery store, on Copacabana Beach, in the hotel, or on the soccer pitch.
We had an incredible opportunity to serve in several orphanages around Rio. We went to one that was government funded. The children each had their own bed in an un-air conditioned building. They had toys and food and loving adults who worked at the center. But even at the government-funded orphanage it was heart-breaking to see.
The main building where the children stayed during the day was a large open room without tables or chairs or windows or doors. The floor was concrete and the building itself was constructed with large, cement bricks. The ceiling was lined with wooden beams, and nestled in the angles and corners of the beams were hundreds of wasp nests. There were thousands of wasps, flying in and out of the unprotected building as they wished. The insects would land near the students from our group who came from the US, and we would jump in panic, shooing them off or running away completely. The kids from the orphanage wouldn’t even flinch or act as if anything significant had happened at all.
Another orphanage we went to, an unfunded organization, owned a small building in what seemed to be a neighborhood. Each floor of the two-story building, which housed around 20 kids, was no larger than an American’s standard-sized living room. On the upstairs part of the orphanage was the play area for the kids. Half of the upstairs was covered by a cement ceiling and the other half was completely open to the elements. Something that stood out at this orphanage was a little girl, maybe around 4 years old, who ran in holding a stray kitten. This had the potential to be a cute story of the orphan girl with the orphan kitten who become best friends. No. This little girl comes in holding this poor kitten around the neck, slinging it back and forth. This was the most horrifying thing any of us had ever seen, but the workers at the orphanage laughed and smiled, not really giving this situation any second thought.
The orphanages were very different, but the kids were the exact same. They were in need of someone to love them. They needed someone to see them, care about them, and deeply and truly love them, and that is exactly what we had the opportunity to do.
One of the coolest ministries that we were able to do while in Brazil was simply to play soccer. I didn’t know how to speak Portuguese and they didn’t know how to speak English, but we all had the mutual love and understanding of the beautiful game that they call futebol.
Our ministry was simple. Play a game of soccer- be competitive, be good, and be classy. Then after our game, win or lose, we would grab a player from the opposing team and use what little bit of language we knew (which was next to nothing) to get to know them. And regardless of how far our conversation went, (which was typically their name, age, and how many siblings they had) we prayed for them at the end. Prayer seemed to be a universal thing because they bowed their heads and said Amen at the end.
But the most amazing part of my journey to Rio wasn’t the mountains or the sand that squeaked when you ran. It wasn’t the crystal clear blue water or the wild monkeys we saw. It wasn’t even the Corcovado or playing soccer. The most amazing part of Rio De Janiero, Brazil, was that the God of the universe used a group of girls who play soccer to break down the barriers of culture and language and to allow us to share with them the perfect Gospel of Jesus Christ. And what an amazing thing it is to be faithful to who Jesus has called you to be and to serve Him in humility and love.