A letter from Josh Vis in Brazil
Vulnerable, worried, excited, happy, sad, frustrated, content—we are all these things after five months in Brazil. Kim and Mahalia spend half of their days in school. Mahalia attends a pre-k class in the mornings, where only Portuguese is spoken. Kim studies Portuguese in the mornings and then picks up Mahalia at noon. They spend their afternoons at parks, at home, in São Paulo, and meet new people everyday. I study Portuguese in the mornings and work on my dissertation in the afternoons. By evening we are all exhausted, but Brazil is beginning to feel like home.
We have been blessed by all of the kindness and generosity we have received since moving here. We have made many wonderful new friends. We have struggled day in and day out with Portuguese; we are making progress, but it is painfully slow at times. We make so many mistakes every day. I continue to work hard to finish my dissertation, which is also painfully slow. We miss our family and our friends in the States. Mahalia has experienced the ups and downs of cultural assimilation. She is somewhat of a star in our bairro (neighborhood). Many people know and love Mahalia, from shopkeepers to students. She makes friends easily and kids and adults alike are curious about the little girl who speaks English. But some of the gleam has worn off. At school she and her good friend, Mariah, struggle to communicate, and Mahalia senses that Mariah has grown tired of the new girl who can’t speak Portuguese well. She feels like she is losing this friend, and she may be. The truth is, we’re not good enough at the language to be entirely sure. At the park she is a bit overwhelmed by the large groups of children who will sometimes surround her, begging her to speak English. After January Mahalia will have to switch to a new school because she will be too old for her current school. Like the old school, everything will be in Portuguese. She will have to make new friends and learn a new routine with a new teacher. This is good for her, but hard.
We have all become better acquainted with vulnerability and humility over the last five months. I’ve come to realize that vulnerability and kindness go hand in hand. So many people have helped us in so many ways, be they friend or stranger. A young girl at a bus stop helped my father and me find the right bus, and then walked us to our destination. Another woman befriended us at a bus stop. She teaches English and was actually going to the same place we were headed. She guided us there and doted on Mahalia. Then we went our separate ways. Our friends have made phone calls and taken us to so many places, I can’t even begin to recount all of the instances. It has made an impression on me, and has changed me, I think. Our vulnerability has allowed us, forced us even, to receive the kindness of others, and we have been overwhelmed.
I had a meeting this past Monday with the faculty of the Sciences of Religion Department, where I will eventually teach, in Portuguese (this still seems impossible). I can’t say I understood most of what was said. I had told my friend Carlos that this meeting would almost certainly be both very tiring and very depressing for me because I would be confronted with the harsh reality of how much Portuguese I still have to learn. And indeed it was those things. However, I was also presented with another harsh reality, the reality of education in Latin America. There are, I was told by a colleague, two places in all of Latin America to get a Ph.D. in religious studies—our university, the Methodist University of São Paulo, and another Lutheran university in the south of Brazil. That’s it. And the Sciences of Religion Department within the Methodist University has almost no money of its own to give to students. It is common in the United States for Ph.D. students to not only pay no tuition or fees but to receive a generous stipend to live on as well as medical coverage. In the U.S. alone there are at least two dozen schools at which you can get a Ph.D. in religious studies at no cost. So many bright, capable men and women of Latin America have no real access to this level of higher education. Imagine the riches of theological wisdom the world is losing because of this imbalance. My friend Carlos (a Colombian) is struggling to survive here in Brazil as he pursues his Ph.D. in theology. His wife, Maryuri, who also wants to pursue a Ph.D. in theology at Methodist University, is currently teaching in Colombia in order to raise some money for them to continue their studies here. Both have successfully completed their master’s degrees in theology at Universidade Metodista, living hand-to-mouth to do so. They are both wonderful and bright. Carlos can speak Spanish, Portuguese, English and French. There is no reason that they should have to struggle in this way (financially and even linguistically, as they both had to learn Portuguese in order to pursue a Ph.D. in theology), while I was able to pursue my Ph.D. in my mother tongue and without any financial concerns. I was born and raised in the U.S. while they were born and raised in Colombia. It’s as simple as that. It becomes critical, then, that I do my part to help to put Universidade Metodista on the map within the scholarly world of biblical studies and theology. This will be my task. It is the only way, small though it is, that I can help. There is no telling what the voice of one student could do.
The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, Brazil, pages 304 and 306