Sunday, August 7, 2011

Good Ends and Beginnings

It's the same story every year. We begin our advertising for LST about four weeks before the initial information meeting. We have flyers printed and posted all over the city, with the biggest concentration on the university campuses. We depend a lot on word of mouth. We have never not had enough readers. Another way to say that would be we always get more than enough readers. So it's pretty silly of me to tell you that every single year, without fail, I panic. About two weeks before the information meeting I panic because we haven't gotten enough calls or emails. "This is the year," I think. "Someone who knows what we are doing and doesn't support it is ripping down our advertisements," I actually thought this time around. It's now part of the pre-LST routine for me to panic. It just wouldn't be the same without it. Except this year, God used my pre-LST panic to work in a fantastic way.

The week before the information meeting, in my pre-LST panic, I decided to put an ad in the newspaper. It would run for 7 days straight, up until the day of the information meeting. I got several calls from people who had seen our ad, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I finally became satisfied with the number of people confirmed for the info meeting. One of these people who had seen our ad was a woman named Thalita. When I talked to her on the phone, she had more questions than usual. She wanted to know why we were offering free English conversation with native speakers, what the connection was with the church, if it was a philanthropic effort, etc. Usually we try to not say too much over the phone before they come to the info meeting, so I assumed she would be one of those who "figured us out" before she ever got a chance to come see what LST was really about. I didn't have high hopes that I would ever actually meet Thalita.

The night of the information meeting I was finally able to put faces to names I had been hearing for weeks on the phone. The meeting had a great turnout, even after having been postponed 24-hours at the last minute due to the team's flight delays. At the end of the meeting someone brought me the phone and said "it's a reader, she's lost." Thalita had been wandering around our neighborhood, looking for our building for 40 minutes. It turned out she was on a street perpendicular to ours and wasn't very close. It was getting late, and I felt terrible for her having spent such a long time trying to find us, so I told her to just go home and I'd guarantee a spot in the program for her if she called me the next day. "No," she said, "tell me how to get there from here. I really want to go." So I did.

Thalita walked in a few minutes later, just as the last readers were getting ready to leave. I took her to a table with an LST worker and sat down, explaining how the program works. She stopped me and said, "before you go on, may I say something?" "Um...sure..." I said. She went on to explain that she had been a Christian many years ago, but had spent the last several years of her life far from God and dabbling in other religions and spiritualities. She had begun to see the bad effect these practices were having on her life, and had made a decision that if God still wanted her she would consider going back to him. According to Thalita, when she called about the ad in the newspaper and I told her that LST operated out of a church, she knew this was God giving her a second chance. "So," she finished, "I just want you to know that I'm here for God, I'm not here for English." I sat there, probably with my mouth hanging open, looking back and forth between Thalita and Kalie, the LST worker. "Did you know you would be studying the Bible in these classes?" I asked. A big smile came across her face, "No."

What transpired over the next few days can only be attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit. I invited her to church, she actually came. Some very evident evil influences in her life disappeared. I watched her transform emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. Whereas on the first night I met her, her eyes seemed empty and hollow, days later they were full of joy and life. She would come early and stay late after her reading sessions and we began to form a fantastic friendship.

A week or so later she and I sat down to study the Bible together. Because of her background in Christianity she already knew that she wanted to be baptized, and knew exactly why, what for, etc. (Basically our Bible studies were her telling me things and me confirming them...haha.) But she didn't want to be baptized just yet. "I see baptism like a marriage," she told me. "I think I want to date a little more." So we continued to study together and talk for hours before and after her reading sessions.

The week before FriendsCamp, Thalita's LST worker, Aimee, and I had decided we were going to talk to her more directly about her baptism. After 6 weeks of thinking and praying about it, we wanted to ask what she was waiting for. So the day we were all geared up to both approach her about it in our next conversations, Thalita walked into her reading session with Aimee and said "Do you think it would be ok if I was baptized at FriendsCamp this weekend?" Um...YEAH!!!!

FriendsCamp walking to the lake

So there we had it. The perfect activity for our Saturday afternoon at FriendsCamp. The rain, that did not let up the entire weekend, let up just enough for all 50 of us to make the 5-minute trek to the lake for Thalita's baptism.

Thalita and one of the LST workers

Fifteen other LST readers witnessed Thalita making this expression of faith, and many of them asked questions afterward about her decision. It was The. Best. Day.

Roberto and Osmildo with Thalita

Thalita has been very vocal about all of the many ways she has seen God working in her life, starting with the day she saw the newspaper advertisement. She is an elementary school teacher but been unemployed for a while. She attributes her new job and the many other opportunities coming her way to God's faithfulness. As soon as she was baptized, she commented on the fact that she had just been baptized in the lake called Bonfim. In Portuguese, Bonfim means "good end." "This is definitely a good end," she said. I'd say it's a pretty good beginning, too.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

May, June, and July in a Bulletpoint Nutshell

How many times in the last 3 months have I thought "Oh, I should blog about that!" About fifteen thousand times, that's how many. Now I'm here to tell you about why those poor little thoughts never got to come out to play on this here blog.

At the end of May we received our first LST team. A team of six wonderful women from Michigan. Three weeks later, we received our second LST team, a team of four wonderful people from Oklahoma Christian University, which so happened to include my parents. Three weeks later, as we dropped that team off at the airport, we picked up our third LST team, a team of nine individuals from Texas, and of those nine, four were boys aged eight and under. Then, because we not only like to keep things interesting around here but we like to really see how far past the limit we can push ourselves, while that team was here we also had a team of seven (five adults, two kids) arrive to host a FriendsCamp (weekend retreat for readers and church members, focused on building relationships with a little Bible study thrown in.) Did I mention my parents also stayed on for two weeks of vacation?

Since there is no possible way I could sum up two months of Let's Start Talking on a blog in such a way that many would want to read it, I've decided to give you an overview in my favorite writing style: bullet points.
  • I say this every year, but every year it's true: this has been, BY FAR, the best year of LST we've ever had.
  • Our teams have met and read with over 100 people this year. That's 100 people learning about Jesus, talking about Jesus, and making new friends from a far away land.
  • I would never say I've had more than my fill of brownie mix brownies, but this year I've come close. The LST parties this year have been stellar and the food has been to die for. After having participated in so many parties it's unusual that I would see something that hasn't been done before, but the Texas team served rice krispie treats at their party, and they were a HIT! All of the Brazilians looked at the trays with a weird expression and I told them "It's delicious, trust me." Good thing they trusted me. I think someone stayed behind to lick the pan.
  • This was our first year hosting a FriendsCamp so it was uncharted territory for all involved. (Except the FC team, obviously.) The highlights from the organizational side include our location falling through a month ahead of time, God providing the most fantastic location via Google search two weeks ahead of time, and rain the entire weekend. The highlights from the FC experience include fifty participants, a baptism, and people not really even noticing it was raining/half of the activities getting cancelled because they were having so much fun!
  • We told the FriendsCamp team that if they did nothing else at FriendsCamp, they had to make s'mores. Actually, Roberto, my co-planner, told them that. So bless their hearts, they all came with endless packages of graham crackers and marshmallows packed in their suitcases to give the Brazilians the s'mores experience. We tried to build a bonfire but the wood was soaked from the rain, so we had a piddly little fire that we quickly roasted the marshmallows on before it fizzled out. It was mayhem getting all the s'mores put together and teaching Brazilians how to roast marshmallows enough without catching them on fire, but it was all worth it when one of our Brazilian church members said to me, "Cris, all of us are realizing a dream right now. This is something we've only ever seen in movies. We never imagined we'd have the chance to make s'mores." Rumor has it they roasted the rest of the marshmallows that night over the gas stove in the kitchen.
  • Our LST workers and readers this year have been cream of the crop. I've been so impressed with our workers from the US and how committed they have been to befriending their readers. They came here to do a job, yes, but they have also continued to do that job via Facebook and Skype even after returning home.
  • Speaking of impressive LST workers, I have been blessed by their example this year and know that the readers and church members have, as well. They have been so loving, giving, generous, interested in Brazilian culture, and prepared for the curveballs that inevitably are thrown their way during a missions experience in another culture. The strongest example of this to me, that will stick with me for a long time, was during FriendsCamp. The LST team that was already here, as well as the FC team, came prepared to camp out for the weekend. This means they brought tents, sleeping bags, etc in their luggage. The rain was not expected and really threw things off, especially when the "waterproof" cover on one of the tents turned out to not be waterproof at all. One of the families walked into their tent the first night to see all of their belongings standing in 2 inches of water. Their bags and clothes were soaked the whole weekend, and got soaked again when they happened to store their things in a corner where a shower was leaking. I did not hear a single complaint the entire weekend from them. They had great attitudes, participated 100% in every aspect of camp, and did not let this extremely frustrating challenge get them down in any visible way. I'd be surprised if any of the campers even knew this was going on. I learned a big, BIG, lesson about complaining at FriendsCamp. :)
  • Oh, did I mention we still have an LST team here? It's the last one for the year. And they are every bit as wonderful as all the other ones. I couldn't ask for a better group to close out this experience.
Later I will blog about the baptism we had at FriendsCamp, because it deserves its own post. I will also hopefully tell you about the other exciting things that have been going on here at the church in Natal. I say "hopefully" because, well, let's be honest. I'm not very good at keeping my promises. But I'll try. I'll really, really try.