Brazil São Paulo South: Ten Years Later

Ten years ago, I got home from my mission to Brazil for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

I served in the São Paulo South Mission, in cities including São Vicente, Ribeirao Pires, São Bernardo, and the Zona Sul of São Paulo itself, speaking Portuguese. I had previously studied Spanish and Latin and was actually enrolled in Russian when I received the call, but had no previous experience in Portuguese.

When I got back, I was so deep into Portuguese that I’d reflexively say “que?” to my mom instead of an English equivalent. I hadn’t had a laptop or a personal cell phone for the two year duration. I had put on a tie literally every day in the previous year. For two years, I hadn’t read the news, hadn’t read fiction, hadn’t read history, and instead read scripture forwards and backwards. (Backwards by chapters is actually an interesting way to read the Book of Mormon once you’ve read it forwards a dozen times.) In two years, I had spoken to my family about five times.

Looking back, the return almost feels like a second birth. It was a truly radical life change. I came from the southern summer to the northern winter, from poverty to wealth, from teaching scripture to learning engineering.

Since then, I’ve gotten married and had three kids. I’ve studied for and received two degrees. I have worked for Valero full-time for almost eight years, and I’ve driven towards refinery fires, painted cut lines, sketched for fabrication, ordered vessels to sail, and blended millions of barrels, not to mention pushed a small mountain of paperwork. I’ve read hundreds of books, run the Mormon Texts Project, written a bit here and there, and served in a variety of ways in the Church.

(I actually got back on February 9, 2012, flying into IAH and going home to my family in Houston. I intended to post something like this on the exact 10 year anniversary, February 9, 2022, but that was the day my moving truck arrived in Houston for my new Valero assignment. Sort of an odd life rhyme.)

So looking back, how does the mission look?

It’s hard to know where to start talking about such an all-encompassing experience, and one that must be so alien to those who haven’t experienced it. I’ll discuss day-in-the-life stuff, then things I miss (and don’t miss!), then some general reflections.

Broadly, mornings had a couple hours of gospel study, and the rest of the day was devoted to the missionary purpose – to “invite others to come unto Christ by helping them receive the restored gospel through faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement, repentance, baptism, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end.” In practice, this involved talking to people on the street and at their doors, and visiting any who were interested to teach lessons. A typical lesson would be around an hour long, starting and ending with a prayer.

There would be one day a week of preparation (laundry, shopping, errands, occasional recreation) with proselyting only in the evening. Training and mission meetings occupied one morning a week and occasional full days. Members generously fed us lunch (the main meal of the day) most days, and we shared spiritual messages with them. There were some opportunities to serve, notably by teaching weekly English classes. But the overwhelming majority of time ended up being proselyting.

I miss the core missionary work itself. Helping change a life for the better is wonderful. There are a couple of people I helped teach who then went on missions of their own, and have since married other members of the Church; their lives would be radically different if they had not ended up in the Church of Jesus Christ. Outside my influence on my family, I’m not sure anything I’ve done since my mission has had that much impact on an identifiable individual.

It is also bittersweet to know, with certainty, that you gave someone else a solid opportunity to change their life. Sometimes you can clearly see the roots striking out before the seed is choked (Matthew 13:1-9); that is less fun than seeing someone transform their life, but still gratifying in a way.

I miss the people. I served with some really good missionaries and taught some really nice people.

It is hard to miss many of the afternoons. In Brazil, many houses have gates facing the street, rather than accessible doors to the interior, and the cultural standard is to clap your hands, not knock. On a typical weekday, the people we’d most like to teach would be at work or school between lunch and dinner, but nevertheless we would be out clapping at doors. Odds of catching a breadwinner, a student, a head of household, etc. would be slim, but we were odds takers, not makers. So we’d clap, and clap, and clap.

I miss the freedom of not caring what people thought of me. In Brazil, every stranger on the street was a potential saint, and it was cheap to tell them what I believed. If they thought I was loony, I would almost certainly never see them again, and regardless of social opinion, I’d still get on a plane back to the Land of the Free at the end of my two years. In the U. S., my interpersonal relationships last longer, notably at work, so there’s a higher cost to voicing beliefs. I’m also “playing for keeps” whenever I write anything on the internet. In practice I think people are virtually never offended by a heartfelt religious invitation, but the potential cost still feels higher here than it did in Brazil.

I also miss talking to strangers. Brazilian culture is friendly turned up to 11, the folks willing to talk to a random gringo are even friendlier than average, and it’s just interesting to have serious small-group religious conversations with lots of random friendly people whose backgrounds are quite different from your own. This is not an experience that’s on the menu for me often in the U. S.

I miss how easy it was to know I was in the right place. The Holy Ghost tells me I’ve been making the right calls on major life decisions, so I’m in the right place now too. But it doesn’t take a lot of spiritual effort to know you’re in the right place when God’s prophet tells you “go to Brazil” and you go to Brazil.

It is harder to be a missionary now. Just getting to mediocrity as a member missionary feels harder than living most other gospel standards on a basic level. I try to be open about my beliefs, and I have some opportunities to talk about them at work. I’ve adopted a practice of often leaving pass-along cards (little missionary cards inviting the recipient to get a free copy of the Book of Mormon) with generous tips for waiters, hotel cleaning staff, etc. I’ve put a fair amount of work into disseminating already-extant gospel writing through the Mormon Texts Project. I try to write things that put my beliefs out in the world, and I hope to do more of this in the long-run. None of that is quite as direct as showing up on someone’s porch with a Book of Mormon and an invitation to Church.

I’ve directly invited a few friends from work to meet with the missionaries, which is as direct. It is a bit socially uncomfortable for me, although I’ve never had anything other than gracious responses and certainly need to do more of it. (If anyone reading this has any interest at all in learning more about the Church, help me help you by letting me know!) I guess I’m saying that member missionary work is harder to do well than full-time missionary work, I’m not fully satisfied with what I’ve done so far, and I miss easy mode!

I used to miss the food more. The Brazilian staple meal is rice, beans, and meat for lunch—almost every lunch, literally 5+ times/week, and often prepared extremely well (practice makes perfect!). I developed a taste for that meal. But Elissa now has an outstanding feijoada recipe, and I have recently got a pave recipe that is working for me (this one, with Maria cookies, raspberries instead of bananas, and a whole bag of mini chocolate chips on top). I also stock farofa from Amazon and occasionally get Guarana Antarctica. And quality American churrascarias are every bit as good as anything I had in Brazil, and the American diet has far more variety than I got in Brazil.

I don’t miss being considered a member of the racial category “alemão” (German). Mediterranean complexions are common and unremarkable in Brazil, but blue-eyed Nordics are not, at all. So regular Mediterranean people are “white” and weird pasty blue-eyed gringos are “German.” “German” missionaries presumptively know how to speak English, thus the common non sequitur request from kids on the street: “Hey German, speak English!” It’s nice not sticking out quite so much everywhere I go.

I do not miss social stress between missionaries. As a missionary, I worked with many other missionaries, some American and some Brazilian, often for relatively short time-frames. Working 80+ hour weeks side-by-side with someone who you’ve never before met, from a different culture and native language, is inherently difficult. I was also more compliant with rules & procedures than most missionaries, and pushing against a very flawed compliance culture carries its own stresses. Being married to Elissa, with a wealth of shared background and experience, and as long-term and stable of a relationship as we can possibly have, is incomparably better than being assigned a succession of missionaries to work with.

I emphatically do not miss the living standards. Every place I lived in São Paulo was worse than any place I have lived in the United States. I did not have air conditioning when I slept, and that was miserable. When I want to feel grotesquely wealthy, I sit in my Texas-sized air-conditioned house and convert my current monthly salary into a multiple of the Brazilian minimum wage (which currently works out to around $218/month).

So much for things I do and don’t miss.

Reflecting as I close, I am grateful for the impact serving a mission had on me. Inviting others to come unto Christ was my purpose, and no missionary should embark with his own benefit as a first-order concern, but Christ said “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt. 16:25). The first-order decision to give up two years (losing a part of my life, in a small way) resulted in second-order blessings (finding life) that have defined my life afterwards.

The level of comprehensive physical, mental, and spiritual effort involved opened me up to more-than-commensurate blessings. I knew the gospel before, and I knew it was true, but on my mission the truth of the Book of Mormon and the reality that Christ is my Savior got carved down into my soul, “written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart” (2 Cor. 3:3). The Lord can do His own work; the people I worked with could have been taught other ways. But I certainly learned from the experience.

The mission was the foundation for everything I have done since, and I am grateful that the Lord called me and gave me the opportunity to serve.

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  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts about this part of your journey, Tom. With your permission I would like to share some (or perhaps all) of your article with 6 young men your grandmother and I are about to begin preparing for their Temple and Mission experiences. I think the perspectives you gained would be of value to them.