In October of 2008, instead of heading to college like a lot of his friends, David Graber, a first-year environmental science major, was leaving his hometown of Goshen for 10 months of service in Brazil.Graber and three other young adults headed to the capital, Brasilia, as part of the Radical Journey program run by the Mennonite Mission Network. The Radical Journey program includes a month of service in an urban setting in the United States and ten months in an international location. “I knew I wanted to go to a Latin American country because I had taken Spanish in high school,” Graber said, “and when Brazil was an option, I chose to go there also because my grandparents had been missionaries there.”
The group landed in Brazil without knowing any Portuguese, so for the first month the main focus was learning the language. “By 8 or 9 in the evening, I would have a humongous headache from trying to speak and think in Portuguese,” Graber said as he described his first few weeks in Brazil.
After spending the first month learning Portuguese in a satellite city of Brasilia called Gama, the group was separated into pairs to begin service assignments. Graber stayed in Gama with another group member. There they taught English, gave guitar lessons and ran a Spanish class for the community and church members at the local Mennonite church, A Comunidade Menonita do Gama.
The first few months were also a time to adjust to life in Brazil. “The food was hard to get used to at first,” Graber said, “I got tired of rice and beans every day…but after a while it was strange not to have rice and beans.” It also took a while to get used to the wildlife in Brazil. “At my first house, I would go to brush my teeth at night and sometimes there would be cockroaches in the shower that would come up from the drain,” Graber said, “I wouldn’t brush my teeth on those nights.”
(It should be noted that cockroaches from Brazil are about three inches long, can fly, and hiss.)
After two months in the first service location, the group met up again in January (Brazilian summer break) to have Vacation Bible School for children and then travel to various towns for the month of February. During this time off from service, the group was able to watch preparations for Carnival, one of Brazil’s most well-known and biggest celebrations. “We got to watch different dance groups practice and one of the most famous Carnival band leaders practice with his group,” Graber said.
Graber’s next service assignment was in another satellite city of Brasilia called Samambaia. He and his partner taught an English class that was filled with little girls. “The group before us had brought them candy and sweets every day, so by the time we came around they expected an incentive in class,” Graber said, “eventually we had to start bringing treats for them too.”
In two months, the whole group met up again in Ceilandia to work on maintenance for the church and teach English. They also played worship music and taught Bible studies in a nearby favela, or shantytown, where their host church was founding a church. By July, the group was done with service and traveled to Paraguay for the Mennonite World Conference and Global Youth Summit. “We felt really grown up travelling by ourselves,” Graber said, “because we had enough mastery of Portuguese that we could go from Brasilia to Paraguay with all the stops and transportation changes.”
The group used some of their free time on weekends to travel to various national parks and sights in Brazil. Travelling by themselves offered them the opportunity to make and change plans as they went. “We were headed on a boat to Ilha do Mel [an island on the coast] and we met some Germans who were with their Brazilian capoeira coach,” Graber said. “They invited us to stay with them and gave us free lessons on the beach. Here we don’t travel without a set plan, but there I really enjoyed the spontaneity of travelling without a plan.”
Host families were one of the things that made the year in Brazil meaningful for Graber. They treated him like he was part of their family and made him feel at home for the Christmas holidays with gifts. He also enjoyed learning from the families. “My host mom in Samambaia ran a shop out of her house, and I would help her out with the shop and she would teach me how to cook a lot of Brazilian food,” Graber said. “That would be the highlight of my day, and now I can make a mean rice and beans.”
Moving away from each service location was hard because of the attachments the travelers would make with their community and host families. They would often go back to the cities of their previous assignments on weekends to visit their friends. “It was nice to see how much we would be missed; it made us feel like we made a little bit of a difference in their lives,” Graber said.
Now that he is back, Graber has had to readjust to life in Goshen. “I miss my friends a lot,” Graber said, “but also the food and weather of Brazil.” Even returning to the stateside way of worshiping has been an adjustment after getting used to the energetic church services in Brazil.
Graber is already planning his return trip to Brazil. “I wasn’t paying attention in class today because I was calculating how long it would take until I would have enough money to go back,” Graber said. “I would encourage everyone who has even the slightest inkling to do service to look into it more. I’m definitely glad I took a year off, and even though it’s strange now to be a class behind my old classmates, I would not take back the decision.”
Anyone interested in participating in the Radical Journey program can get more information from http://www.mennonitemission.net/Serve/RJ/Pages/Home.aspx. For a three-month service option, information about the Inquiry Programs can be found at http://www.goshen.edu/cmin/Inquiry_programs.