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First stop on the lay missionary journey

They met as North Americans teaching in Guam. In 1992, they returned to the United States and, in 1994, wed. Angel Mortel, now 29, who grew up in San Francisco, and Chad Ribordy, 33, of Wichita, Kan., applied in 1997 to become Maryknoll Lay Missioners. They’d talked often about a life of service, they said, as they reminisced over an Italian meal barely a month before they left for Brazil in January this year. “Finally, one day,” recalled Mortel, “we just said, ‘Fine, we’ll apply once we [have] paid off my college loans. We’ll give it a try.’ ”

Mortel, educated at Oberlin College and American University with a bachelor’s in English and Third World studies and a master’s in international development, was working as Office Manager at Bread for the World; Ribordy, with a bachelor’s in Philosophy from Conception Seminary College and a master’s in Pastoral Theology from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, was teaching high school religion.

The Maryknoll Mission Association of the Faithful, known as the MMAF, founded in 1994 as a successor to an earlier lay mission program run under the auspices of the Maryknoll fathers, prepares its missioners with four months of theological and cross-cultural studies in Maryknoll, New York. The initial obligation is a 3-and-a-half-year renewable contract as a lay missioner in a location mutually agreed on between the association and each missioner. After in-country language training, the lay missioner is at the service of the local poor and needy.

In Brazil, where Mortel and Ribordy were bound, the Maryknoll presence includes lay people, sisters and priests in São Paulo and the Northeastern city of Joao Pessoa, working in the areas of women’s and children’s rights, land issues, prison ministry, marginalized people living and working in the city dump and Christian Base Communities. Before they left, NCR asked the young couple to periodically file an account of the new life that confronted their first year in Brazil while the impressions were new and stark.

This first letter from Brazil covers their first month in the country.

-- Arthur Jones


A 10-hour plane ride from the United States, and we finally landed in the city of São Paulo, home of nearly 18 million people. It seemed that the plane took as long to fly over the city as it did to fly over the country.

For several weeks, we stayed with colleagues in Brasilåndia, an area on the edge of the city. Though not a slum by Brazilian standards, it is definitely a poor neighborhood, with garbage strewn in the streets, deep pot holes, half-constructed though occupied homes and a whole assembly of stray, mangy dogs.

In one of our first days in the neighborhood, we visited the home of a local parishioner, Lucinha. Her house is situated in a small valley among a cluster of similar-looking homes in an area prone to flooding from the frequent torrential rains. We had to step over a stream of open sewage to get to the front door of the small house. The cinderblock walls and rafters were exposed, and the cement floor was bare. The two windows in the house didn’t provide sufficient ventilation on that 92-degree day.

We were warmly welcomed (no pun intended). Lucinha lives with her husband -- who was away working one of his marathon shifts as a restaurant waiter -- and their four children. Their 5-year-old daughter has a terrible bone defect in her knees; one of the triplet boys also has a physical defect -- he has virtually no neck, and one shoulder is higher than the other. He also had open sores on his back and legs. In spite of the heat and cranky kids, Lucinha exuded dignity, maintained her composure, was very attentive to her guests and seemed not at all embarrassed by her poverty. During the course of our conversation, Lucinha, who is dark-skinned, congratulated Angel, who is of Filipino descent, for having married Chad, a white man, a telling comment on Brazil’s racism.

From São Paulo, we took a 45-hour bus ride north to visit Maryknoll colleagues in Joao Pessoa, a city of about 1 million people. Fellow passengers were mostly people who had fled the poverty of northeastern Brazil to look for jobs in São Paulo. Many were going home to visit relatives, sometimes children and spouses they hadn’t seen for years. The bus was modern, riding on roads that were surprisingly smooth.

One stretch of the journey is notorious for road bandits, and buses usually travel this stretch in convoys.

The Northeastern region -- including Paraíba where Maryknollers work -- is suffering from an intense drought. The rural population in the semi-arid interior regions, especially the subsistence farmers, is near starvation. Sufficient underground water sources do exist, but only the wealthy landowners can afford to tap into the reserves. Because hungry people have ransacked some food convoys and supermarkets, the Brazilian government has military troops accompanying food trucks. One government target for blame for the saques (ransacks) is the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, known as MST, a burgeoning movement of landless rural workers. The government accuses MST of creating social tension and chaos.

The truth is that while the MST has helped organize some saques, people are hungry and doing what they can to survive. Paraíba Archhbishop Marcelo Pinto Carvalheira has said the Brazilian bishops’ conference condones the saques in extreme circumstances -- citing Thomas Aquinas’ statement that stealing is morally acceptable if it is a matter of survival.

Brazil has tremendous conflicts over land, as many countries do. Here the majority of the land is owned by a very small percentage of the population, and much of the land lies idle. Over the past several years, groups of landless people have been taking over this idle land to work for their own sustenance.

They move onto the land, live in tents and begin to plant and grow crops. Sometimes there is a struggle with the landowner’s hired guns. If the group perseveres, and if the land is declared to have been unproductive, the group as a unit gains title to the land, and thus an assentamento (settlement) is born.

As part of our orientation, Maryknoll colleague Tom Bamut took us to an assentamento about 20 miles outside Joao Pessoa. We wound for the last five miles along dirt trails through a maze of sugarcane and manioc fields. At one point, we took a wrong trail and got lost and stuck in sand. No AAA here.

Fortunately, we were able to push the car out. At this assentamento, the houses, like Lucinha’s, were clustered together forming a small community that had no electricity as yet. The nearest water source was a 15-minute hike down a hill to a spring.

Reginaldo, a settler, gave us a tour that included the house of the former landowner, an absentee landlord for the most part, who, when he was there, was quite cruel, abusing women and torturing those who disobeyed his orders. Eventually he stopped coming altogether. In 1990, the people who had been working the land claimed the property for themselves and, after a struggle, gained title in 1993.

Currently the community uses the former landowner’s house as a school. The teachers, however, aren’t well prepared, and most only have a primary school education. Teachers receive a miserable wage of between $23 and $85 per month, though the cost of living in Brazil is as high as it is in the United States.

Brazilians have been incredibly hospitable and patient with our barely-intelligible Portuguese and our unending list of questions. It has been difficult for us to move around so much -- we’ve slept in six different beds and supped at twice as many tables since our arrival four weeks ago. We are very much looking forward to having our own space when we go to language school in Brasília, the nation’s capital.

National Catholic Reporter, July 31, 1998