AN ADVENTURE TOLD FROM BEHIND THE LENS
As I looked out the window of our plane, 30,000 feet above what looks to be complete darkness, I asked myself "what am I doing here?" The passengers, some of which were friends, some I had never met, were all fast asleep around me. I was awake. This was about to be my third time landing in the city of Manaus, Brazil. I had actually been on this same trip twice before, both times as a student, traveling with my church, Christ Community. This trip was different, because this time, I was being asked to film the adventures of 25 students, as they traveled from their homes in Chicago, to the Amazon.
To be honest, I was scared. Not of the plane, swiftly making it's way through the night, but of the thing that anyone behind the camera always fears; missing the moment. No matter how experienced you are, no matter how frequently you hold a camera, the photographer, or in my case, the videographer, will always be chained to the moment of time you need to capture.
I looked out my window again, deciding not to dwell on the trepidation quietly murmuring in the back of my mind. I looked up, noticing how the stars seemed brighter than I had ever seen, and how they seemed to meet the earth in a sharp line of pitch blackness. It seemed that even the moon, obscured by the clouds, did not want to shed light on the jungle below. Every so often, a little anthill of lights would pass underneath, some small village or town, but there were no roads to be seen.
Then, without much notice, the plane turns and Manaus sweeps into my frame of view. The city is bright, almost blindingly so after my view a few seconds before. To me, this view is worth staying up to see. What strikes me every time is just now sharp the divide between jungle and city is. There are no suburbs, no little neighborhoods, just jungle, and then city. It's beautiful, and in many ways captures the feelings I have about Manaus, a city nestled along the riverbanks of the Rio Negro (the black river), and the Amazon.
We land, the plane doing a little jump as we touch down, and our team disembarks into the airport, which looks remarkably nicer than the last time I saw it. Hosting a couple games of the World Cup, which is far bigger than the Olympics for Brazilians, must have brought with it some upgrades.
I look down at my phone, and notice it's around 1 am. The timezone is only an hour different than home, but it feels like I could fall asleep standing up. A welcoming group from our Brazilian church partner, IPM, cheers for each member of our team as they pass through customs. I know a few of the people there, and greet them happily, but my tiredness shows, and our team makes it's way towards the airport doors, where a bus is waiting to take us to our hotel.
As I walk through the sliding doors outside the airport, I am hit with the deep humid air I remember so well. It reminds me of the air after a long hot shower, when the condensation begins to run down the mirror. This is when it really hits me.
I am in Brazil.
MANAUS: THE CITY
Somewhere I read that sunsets are more beautiful because light hitting the evaporated water in the air shows us more color. Here in Brazil, where the humidity is thick, even at night, the sunrise looks just as beautiful as any sunset I've ever seen. The light is warm in color, orange, and sharp lines of light have already begun to make their way across the floor. It's morning, and today, our team is facilitating testing for the students who will attend the English camp we are here for later in the week.
Our hotel (Hotel Monaco) is much nicer on the inside than the outside. One thing that I've always found funny is that each room is different, the layouts almost never match, furniture is different, and each room seems to have a different "theme". I've always liked this, wondering why hotels in the states don't show more creativity in what they design.
The city of Manaus in many ways is like our hotel. When you walk along the sidewalk, the tile in front of each business changes, both in pattern, and in color. Each address on the street has a different style. Sometimes architecture is modern, with long flat lines and big windows, and other times is very simplistic, with concrete painted walls, and barred windows. Looking down the street near our hotel feels like times square, only smaller. Brightly colored signs shout for your attention and telephone/electric lines hang low, making the street feel cluttered.
Filming in the street is another challenge altogether. Our translator Ricardo (spoken Hicardo) informs me that it probably isn't the best idea to have my camera out for the world to see. It seems that while the streets seem nice enough, things aren't always as they seem. For the moment, I opt for filming with a go-pro secured on a hand-hold and follow the team from behind.
The city of Manaus has a few things that stand out above the rest. Every so often, a large ornate and beautiful building showcases the deep history of the area. Around these buildings are usually beautiful city parks, with lots of well kept trees and beautiful tile. The city's crown jewel, The Amazon Theatre, is an opera house finished in 1892. When I ask to hear about it, our guide Gi's eyes light up. He tells me about how the materials used to build the theatre were imported from Italy, Scotland, Germany, and France. He also mentions that the "Jewel of the Amazon" was like a jump start for their city, with infrastructure and population following it's construction. From many places in the city, you can see it's signature tiled dome, decorated with the colors of the Brazilian flag, peeking out from behind buildings.
IPM: THE CHURCH
If you read any books on foreign culture, you will find that many cultures are often identified as "warm" or "cold". I have often found that in Chicago, temperatures aren't the only things that get sub-zero, so entering into a culture where the people are warm and generally happy is a really exciting experience.
Inside the church, our team walks down the isle of a large auditorium, and up unto the stage. Our main contact in Manaus, Pastor Djard Moraes, introduces our team and talks about the English Camp the church will be putting on in the coming week. The crowd is made up of students. They range in age, some are parents, but most are in high school or college.
For a couple members of our team, this is a reunion. People they haven't seen since last year's camp, or friends they've never met in person, but have talked to online are there in the church, waiting to say hello. One thing I learned quickly after my first visit here is that Brazilians love Facebook. I have over 200 friends from Brazil, and after every trip the advertisements on the side of my news feed turn from english to Portuguese for a while. Every so often, I'll get messages asking how I am, how my life is going, and when I'm coming back.
The church service ends, and everyone gets ushered into the numerous classrooms downstairs to begin testing. Students get graded on how well they can speak english, which helps the Americans to place them in the right class.
Students are incredibly friendly, and even when they don’t know how to communicate in english, they smile widely at you and pretend you understand anyway. Thats the thing about being there, everyone wants you to be their friend. Anyone will grab you to include you in their discussion, or tell you about what game they are playing, lunch they are eating, and what their group is laughing about. Its constant, and I love every second of it.
After the testing, we are bussed across the city to the church's main campus. Nothing could have prepared me for the sheer scale of the inside of the building. Our church back home is a bit larger in size than this one, but in the middle of the city, a building this large is a surprise. There is something also to be said about seeing hundreds of Brazilians gathered together praising God in a different tongue, but with the same heart.
MONTE SIÃO: THE CAMP
Early the next morning, we are ushered unto busses, luggage and all, and we begin the drive out to Monte Siáo, the church’s camp. The trip is about 4 hours, so a lot of the team sleeps, but after awhile, I get up to film a little of the ride and talk. Just a few hours outside the city, the countryside of Brazil takes on a new landscape. Jungle is nowhere to be seen, and vast hilly plains stretch out, many times covered in short crops and sparse farmland. The land looks dry, but the air is still thick with humidity.
As we get nearer to the camp, the foliage begins to take root again, and where there are plains, they are usually dense with grasses. Villages pop up every few miles, always with a few Brazilians milling about outside. On occasion, a motorcycle will zip by our bus, sometimes carrying 3 people clinging tightly to the back.
The camp itself is located on a peninsula. The river stretches around it in a sort of rough U shape with dense jungle on all sides of a massive clearing. The camp sits within the clearing which is covered in rough cut grass and palms.
As we pull up, it suddenly begins to rain as it often does here in the right season. The rain comes down in thick marble sized droplets, almost as if you are taking a shower. Anyone outside for more than a few seconds is soaked, but it’s a nice change from the hot sun. A few of our team members play around and allow me to record slow motion droplets hitting their faces.
Shortly after we arrive, 5 or so large busses pull up the long stone driveway, each filled with Brazilian students. The students unload and within the hour people are zipping through the sky on the zip-line cables and backflipping while playing soap soccer.
After class, there's lunch, usually a pasta with a side of chicken or beef. The Brazilians light up at mealtime, each table loudly proclaiming it's worth to the rest in the hall. Brazilians are very competitive it turns out, and they are also competitive over people they know. The Americans are pulled one by one into a different table, and when you look down the long line of the open-air dining hall, every so often you see an American face peeking through the tables. Often, the face that I glimpse upon my team members is a mix between confusion and delight. They aren't quite sure what is happening in front of them, but it's always funny, and it's always interesting.
Each day at the camp begins with a student testimony. Several of our team members stood in front of the long dining hall and shared about their faith journey before the camp. After breakfast, which consists of fresh fruit, bread, and scrambled eggs of some kind, the students break off into their English groups to learn for the morning. Each group plays a number of games, sounds out different words and practices speaking together. This camp is called an "english immersion" meaning that hardly any Portuguese is spoken from stage, and when there is, it is always accompanied by an English translator.
Each afternoon, the camp goes wild. Games begin everywhere, and everywhere you turn something exciting is going on. The camp has a 300 ft waterslide fashioned out of incredibly long tarps, running into the Amazon river tributary that surrounds the camp. Soccer and Volleyball games begin, and those who are not playing are usually watching or cheering for their team. Tug-Of-War games begin over giant mud patches, and friends sit in chairs together talking and watching the fun. Every so often a student will zip across the giant clearing, hundreds of feet above the ground, and bystanders will laugh or point.
If all that isn't enough, each afternoon the church hosts one giant game or activity. Tournaments are held between opposing teams, and winners collect points that give their team a chance to beat the rest.
The afternoons are hot. That's really the only way to say it. Even in the blazing sun, your shirt seems sticky with sweat or humidity. Cold water can be found at the dining hall or a 10 minute walk down the road to the American dorm (an open air building with 4 rooms). The camera gear around my neck and back means that I can't partake of the usual water-drenching activities the students use to keep cool, so I find myself drenching my shirt in ice water every chance I get. I walk between different activities, strapping go-pro's unto students, and filming from a safe distance while soccer balls fly and water gets sprayed in all directions. I love it.
Around 4, a strange lull occurs. The camp momentarily clears out and only a few championship games take place throughout the clearing. Students head back to their dorms to shower up and change for dinner, which usually consists of pasta, a large amount of rice, and some meat, which is always good. Everything here is delicious (unless you're gluten free) and dinner is relaxing.
After dinner, is where the real fun happens though. Over 350 students and volunteers pack into a cone shaped chapel, lining the edges and filling the pews on the cement floor. The American-led band begins to play and the room erupts into a sea of people worshiping and praising God together. Brazilians jump, swing hands, and sing loudly as the familiar English lyrics echo off the rafters above.
A Brazilian or American shares a testimony, and then Josh launches into his message, assisted by his translator Gui. The messages are centered around a theme, but always pointedly proclaim the gospel. In the past few years, over 350 people have surrendered before Christ at this very camp, and this year, over 70 students made that decision. Outside the chapel, Americans and Brazilian translators wait to pray with the students that emerge, sometimes crying, sometimes just following the feeling they cannot ignore inside their hearts. The scene outside is amazing, students praying in groups with my team members. I try to film for a few minutes, but end up getting sucked in and praying with a few groups. Each night, this repeats itself, new students making a decision, God working in the hearts of those who are here.
Truth be told, I found it hard to be out of the action. As someone who lives and feels my heart constantly pulled toward ministry, I found it difficult not to be swept up into the action every time I saw God working. This year I have felt that emotion often, many times feeling as if I was watching from a distance as others moved ahead, or took action. The thing that I never considered about this vantage point is that you get to see what God is doing more clearly. I got to see God work through each of our high school team members, and in the hearts of the Brazilians they came to serve.
GOODBYE: THE INEVITABLE END OF A SHORT-TERM TRIP.
I have been to Brazil now three times. Each time I have gone, it has been for the same trip. Each time I am there there is has been one moment that stands out to me most, and that is the moment you have to say goodbye. I am amazed each time just how connected you can feel from such a short period of time spent with others who share your faith. When I look at the picture above, each face looks familiar. My teammates making faces at one another, the students in the background talking and laughing.
This is at our celebration/goodbye service. Our team leads worship, and we offer up an opportunity for students to share how this camp has impacted them between songs. A number of students share how their hearts have been changed. A young boy comes up and tells about how he has accepted Christ, his father cries proudly from the second row. We worship God together, happily, knowing that what comes next is inevitable but also significant.
So many hugs. All around me, I try to capture as many as I can, but I keep getting interrupted. Everyone wants to take a picture, everyone wants to say goodbye. The best friends give you a real hug, the kind you give when you won't see someone for a long time. The room feels full, and not just of people, of emotion, of spirit. When I interview a student the next morning, he reads the letters he has been given by his friends and cries as he attempts to explain how he feels.
We head to a catch a late flight home, with a stopover in Miami. The next morning, boarding our plane home to Chicago, emotions, and patriotism run high. There is just something unexplainable about the feeling of pride I feel going through customs. I think I'm not the only one, but if I am, that's ok too. My teammates joke between the rows. It's been a good trip, and everyone is ready to see the skyline of Chicago appear through their sunny windows. We touch down without an issue, and after our shuttle home, family and friends greet us warmly. I watch students experience a new reality, one changed by their experiences, and I hope their excitement will last.
FINISHED VIDEO: 6 MONTHS LATER
I'm not going to exaggerate. This video was a lot of work. Evidentially, when you are a little worried you may not get enough footage, you end up with more than you could ever use. That being said, I am really proud of this. I enjoyed re-living every moment of the trip that I had captured, and it was incredible being able to show and share my experience with others.
Perhaps a short-term mission trip will always be just that, short term, but the inevitable end of such trips is just the beginning of a lifelong ambition and appreciation for outreach for those involved. Looking back, now 6 months removed, I have watched and at times have had the pleasure of leading these same students into our own community. As I see the same motivation and understanding in their hearts as I hold within my own, I cannot help but be excited and overjoyed at where God may lead them.
Thank you for reading, and may God bless you richly as He works within and through you.