The tropical mountains’ green was so deep it could be smelled even more than seen. Dark granite pinnacles thrust upward as if they had been created by a father of alabaster sands and a mother of glistening blue saltwater, then raised up to witness all that transpired at their feet.
It’s a vivid memory and one I recall from time to time. One never forgets a turning point in their life that puts them on an entirely different course.
I remember breezes making temperatures more tolerable earlier in the morning. They also rid the view below of hazy pollution. But as I stood observing the glistening city below, the wind had expired. A few translucent clouds were fixed motionless in an azure sky, their lack of movement or shape-changing being a testament to the fact that it would only get hotter as the day wore on. My white dress shirt was already stuck to my skin from sweat—which also dotted my face—as I took in the view. Rio de Janeiro. It’s one of the most beautiful cities on earth.
I was a missionary living in Brazil that morning when I stood at the foot of one of the most famous religious statues on earth. As I observed the dichotomy of wealth and poverty stretched out before me I pondered. Then I questioned. I wondered if any god cared about the things I had witnessed.
Adnan Khashoggi, the infamous middle-eastern arms dealer, was considered the richest man in the world while I was in Brazil. He often had his world-famous yacht anchored in Rio. I couldn’t have cared less about him or his money. In fact, my white dress shirt, dark pants, and conservative tie were extremely above my comfort zone.
I had grown up a C+ student in a small town south of Salt Lake City, where you could hunt pheasants in the field behind your house. I spent my pre-mission years working in my father’s yard-care business and Saturdays playing in Utah’s majestic and scenic rock-hewn mountains or its forsaken dust-blown and brush-covered deserts. I actually had a count-down chart so I constantly knew how many days I had to wait until I could burn the white shirt and tie. Still, Rio was littered with people who loved to show off their money, while bursting with those who had none.
Brazil’s middle class lumbered much closer to its squatters—who had built their shacks on rodent infested landfills—than to Adnan Khashoggi. More correctly, middle class in Brazil, at that time, was virtually nonexistent. To say I was having difficulty accepting the contrast between the classes would be a gross understatement. I couldn’t even comprehend the privation.
I grew up in the United States, where poverty and obesity were bed partners. Before my time in Brazil, I thought poor meant overweight white trash, who knew how many more kids they needed to birth in order to cover an increase in rent or cigarette taxes. In Brazil, kids starved to death. That was the subject of my mental torment.
Several weeks earlier, three of my peers and I were at home, cleaning our apartment, when a faint but fateful knock sounded. I answered the door and found myself staring down at a dark skinned, black haired boy of about eight. His gaunt face was only the first sign of malnutrition. His hair was falling out and his stomach was bloated. Parasites.
“Do you have anything I can eat?” he asked.
My mouth fell open. It wasn’t because of what I was seeing—I saw it all the time—it was where I was seeing it. Agora Magazine, one of the shock periodicals of the day was filled with stories and photos of nothing but blood and guts. Some of the articles and ghastly pictures were no more than tragic accidents or industrial disasters. Those stories were few, though. The vast majority of the magazine was filled with photos of two halves of a body divided by a train rail, corpses hanging from trees with hands tied behind their backs, and contorted bodies lying several feet away from bashed in heads. Everybody in Brazil knew the poor were not to venture into higher residential neighborhoods, begging. Police and vigilantes were paid well to make sure such unpleasantries did not interfere with people who could afford to ignore them. The methods for dealing with those who refused to conform to the unwritten law were regularly documented in Agora. The kid standing in front of me was risking his life.
“Yeah, we have some food. Come in.” The rag that was his cut-offs and white dirt on black skin entered the house cautiously while the child carefully examined the room for threats.
“Somos missionarios. Sabe? Homens de Deus. No se preocupa. Entra.” We’re missionaries. You know? Men of God. Don’t worry. Come in.
At that time, our mission was not typically engaged in feeding orphans, but we made this an exception. My companion and I cooked up pancakes, ham, eggs and potatoes. Then we served it to him with glasses full of orange juice. The urchin ate like I had never seen a kid eat before. Then he exploded. Vomit sprayed across the table. He turned and spewed again—like a fire hose—covering the floor. The retching didn’t stop when there was nothing left but dry heaves, and those continued until I thought we might need to take him to a clinic. Finally it stopped. The child staggered into another room—the only place in the house with carpet—wilted to the floor, and was soon in a deep sleep. I kept checking on him, in between cleaning up in the kitchen. The rising and falling of his chest showed he was breathing fine. He just appeared to be exhausted so we decided to wait and see how he felt after a nap. A couple of hours later, the urchin woke up and walked through the house until he found me.
“Estou com fome. Tem algo para comer?”
He was hungry again and wanted something to eat. I was livid. Not at the decrepit kid, turned ancient in his first decade, but with the filthy other extreme of Brazil’s residents. Adnan Khashoggi and those like him couldn’t even spend the interest on their money. And here was a kid I couldn’t feed good food to even if I wanted it more than anything else in the world.
Realizing the mistake we had made before, my colleagues and I took him into the kitchen, gave him two pieces of bread, a half a glass of milk, and filled him up on water. Then we put a few pieces of bread into a brown bag and sent him on his way. I never saw him again. Then again, I didn’t have a subscription to Agora.
That was 1985. It was then when I decided there were some things only money could fix. Consequently, I became obsessed with the idea of money used as a tool. The injustices I witnessed while in the womb of Brazil’s fertile tropic climate had given birth to the foundation of who I would become.
Twenty years later I picked up one of the little girls who had become my daughter and I walked away from children who had made me their friend. I left them there, alone. I knew there was a limit to how many children we could take into our own home without turning it into a de facto orphanage.
But I vowed to remember those children, to champion their cause, and to gather resources to assist them and those like them in transitioning from orphanage life to the real world.
My Portuguese is weak, now, brought on by decades of neglect and lack of use. Still, every time I hear, or speak that language, I am reminded of the place where I learned that those who have, need to share; the place where I learned that it’s not statistics that suffer, but children. And then I remember Russia, and the children I left behind.
In Portuguese, Ele Lembra means: “He Remembers.”
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