They Took a Taste of Oklahoma to Brazil
The Daily Oklahoman – Sunday, June 6, 1999
Author: Bobby Ross Jr. , Staff Writer

VITORIA, Brazil – Marcus Mendes has a dream.The 8-year-old Brazilian boy wants to learn English and play soccer for Oklahoma Christian University.

It’s a dream inspired by Oklahoma missionaries, who had a dream of their own a decade ago.

In the late 1980s, as four college buddies neared graduation from Oklahoma Christian, they started talking about moving around the globe. Their hearts told them what they needed to do: Tell the story of Jesus Christ.

God, they said, showed them where: this South American city of 1.3 million, where 600,000 people live in poverty, many in flat-roofed slums built on the sides of mountains.

“Just somewhere along the way, when our Bible class teachers said, ‘Go out in all the world,’ we said, ‘OK,'” said Taylor Cave, one of the buddies.

Cave, David Duncan, Terry Fischer and Rick Sandoval persuaded their sweethearts not only to marry them – but also to learn Portuguese and raise children in a foreign land.

The couples gathered financial support from Churches of Christ, sold their belongings at garage sales and kissed their mothers goodbye. Two hundred well-wishers prayed with them as they tearfully departed Will Rogers World Airport in 1992.

As their airplane touched the clouds, reality struck.

“We all looked around and said, ‘We’re all alone,'” Duncan said.

Long Way From Choctaw

On a breezy May night, soft waves rippled over the beach as missionary Cave and his wife, Connie, sipped Antarctica Guarana, a popular Brazilian soft drink.

Relaxing on their front porch, under a banana tree with a postcard-perfect view of the Atlantic Ocean, the Caves listened as fireworks crackled after a nearby soccer game.

The screeching tires of Fiats, Kias and bright orange city buses faded into the night air as Brazilian mountain music played at a beachside cafe. Carnival lights sparkled under a half-moon, while Vitoria’s high-rise skyline reflected off the water.

“This is a beautiful place to live,” Connie Cave said.

However, it’s a long way from Choctaw, the Caves’ hometown.

Through the magic of satellite television, the Caves watched live CNN footage of the May 3 Oklahoma tornadoes. E-mail means instant communication with friends and family members.

But technology can’t cure a craving for a Braum’s ice cream cone, a Butterfinger candy bar or a piping hot Golden Corral roll. There is a McDonald’s at the American-style shopping mall around the corner. Technology also can’t replace a grandmother or grandfather. Seven-year-old Carley Cave was 7 months old when her family moved to Brazil. Camille Cave, 3, hadn’t been born.

“That’s probably the hardest part,” Connie Cave said. “Our kids don’t really know their grandparents.”

Cars and Doctors

When the Oklahomans arrived in Vitoria, they hadn’t learned the language.

A missionary from Sao Paulo, Brazil, came to help them rent apartments and set up bank accounts. For about eight months, they spent four hours a day in Portuguese classes. They also had to learn to drive – Brazil style.

“Hang on. Hard right,” Fischer said as he zipped his 1994 Fiat Tipo (pronounced “Cheap-O,” he joked) through a sharp turn. “I’ve adjusted to the driving culture.”

In this city of coconuts and traffic jams, fuel-efficient cars and an endless blur of city buses challenge people for position on roads built for horses and wagons.

One missionary joked that Brazil has two kinds of pedestrians: the quick and the dead. In U.S. dollars, gasoline costs about $2.50 a gallon.

But the roadway isn’t the only place the Oklahomans have learned about Brazilian culture.

Fischer went into the hospital for a liver biopsy. The surgeon removed his gall bladder but forgot to do the liver biopsy.

When Kelli Fischer delivered her first child, Pryce, 5, she didn’t know she was supposed to bring her own soap, towels, diapers and baby bottles to the hospital.

“Nobody told you,” her husband said. “I guess they just all know that.”

The Fischers live in a third-floor apartment with no elevator and two window air-conditioning units. In their crowded parking garage, they must leave their Fiat in neutral. That way, other residents can push their car out of the way to back out.

Dia Fischer, 2, wearing a Winnie the Pooh bow on her blondish-red ponytail, switches between English and Portuguese.

“She comes to a word she likes better in one language and throws it in,” her mother said.

For example, if she sees a bottle of juice, she’ll say, “I want esse aqui (this here).”

Love In Any Language

The Oklahoma mission team came to Vitoria, an island city that exports coffee and tropical fruits and boasts the world’s largest iron ore port, to start a Church of Christ. In Oklahoma, most every town has a Church of Christ. Many have two or three.

“To think I was coming to a place that was nearly 500 years old, and there had never been any significant mission work – that was just about more than I could imagine,” missionary Duncan said. “It was just overwhelming.”

About 70 percent of Vitoria residents claim to be Catholics. Pope John Paul II visited the city in 1991. Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians and Seventh-day Adventists also have a presence here. However, most people in Vitoria are not religious, Duncan said.

“They believe in God, but the overwhelming majority of people – they don’t practice anything,” he said. “Our target is the person who has no religious background.”

People like Antonio Silva.

Before he was baptized, Silva, 31, spent most of his money to satisfy his drinking habit. Friends joked that his car trunk, always filled with liquor and ice, was a “bar on wheels.”

Then the Oklahoma missionaries converted Silva’s sister and brother-in-law, Rosana and Jose Carlos Mendes. Their son, Marcus, the boy with the dream, kept asking his uncle to go to church. Finally, Silva agreed.

“If I wouldn’t have become a Christian, I wouldn’t have been able to afford bricks for my home, because I would have spent my money on alcohol,” Silva said in Portuguese.

Fifteen family members reside at the stucco house where Silva and his sister have lived their entire lives. Chickens peck in the back yard, while a coconut tree provides shade.

Behind the main house, Silva is building a home for his family, including his wife, Dalva, and their son, Tiago, almost 1.

A family photograph of Duncan, his wife, Barbara, and their daughters, Anna Beth, 5, and Emma, 9 months, rests on the Mendes family stereo.

“They have been excellent examples for us,” Rosana Mendes said of the missionaries. “They taught us how to love, how to be good friends and how to care for other people.

“We want to thank them for their sacrifice.”

During a recent visit, David Duncan hugged Marcus before playfully lifting him over his shoulders. Marcus laughed loudly and grinned adoringly at his missionary friend.

When Silva arrived home from work, he smiled like a lottery winner when he saw Duncan at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and eating homemade bread made from corn and coconut. Silva gripped Duncan’s hand firmly, bear-hugged him, then backed up, looked at him and bear-hugged him again.

“Our purpose for coming here was to help people learn to praise God,” Duncan said later. “But I can’t imagine anything more self-fulfilling than being a missionary.

“I don’t think we can be any more loved than we are here.”

Planting Roots

In nearly seven years, the Vitoria Church of Christ has grown to about 70 members.

This is a culture where Christianity is more than a social club. Converts don’t keep their new life a secret.

In one of Vitoria’s poorer neighborhoods, an Edmond Church of Christ campaign group recently distributed 25-pound boxes filled with rice, pasta, cooking oil, flour, cookies, beans, coffee and salt. Church member Izonel Rezende lives in the neighborhood, and everyone knows he’s a Christian.

“There’s no better advertisement than a changed life,” Terry Fischer said.

The church meets in a former furniture store on a six-lane street. Rent, paid mainly by Oklahoma and Texas churches, is about $40,000 a year.

However, the church has bought land for its own building. With donations from Oklahoma churches and others, the missionaries raised about $400,000 last year to buy the land. The church will need an additional $300,000 for construction.

Vitoria land is expensive, but the missionaries said they couldn’t have found a better location. The weedy lot is on a busy street near a large federal university and not far from a planned McDonald’s.

Sandoval, who majored in business at Oklahoma Christian, handled the land negotiations and related city paperwork. Sandoval and his wife, Monika, have three children, Hannah, 8, Luke, 6, and Julia, almost 3.

The building will give the Vitoria Church of Christ a permanent presence.

“A building in this culture gives people root – stability,” Sandoval said. “It says, ‘We’re here to stay.'”

For the Oklahoma missionaries, the new church could symbolize something else: mission accomplished.

Concerned about some older family members’ health, the Duncans recently became the first of the four families to move back home. David Duncan is serving as evangelism minister at the Edmond Church of Christ and will be Oklahoma Christian’s missionary in residence. The other families could return in a few years or decide to stay much longer.

“In a way, it’s kind of a closure,” Connie Cave said of erecting church walls. “It’s what we came to do – to get that building and have it full of Christians.”

Caption: Photo 1: Missionary David Duncan, center, greets Brazilian children in one of Vitoria’s poorest neighborhoods. A group sponsored by the Edmond Church of Christ distributed 25-pound care packages throughout the neighborhood. – Photo by Rachel Guess Photo 2: (Map) – The Oklahoman Graphics

Edition: CITY
Section: NEWS
Page: 1
Dateline: VITORIA, Brazil
Record Number: 2073602
Copyright 1999 Oklahoma Publishing Company

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