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An American in Brazil

By: Edje Jeter - June 25, 2013

As a contribution to this month’s topic of “International Mormonism,” I agreed to write about my experiences as a missionary in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, 1996-1998, which agreement I now sort of regret, since I’m not sure what to say. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sends out missionaries, and a significant percentage of them go to countries other than their own. [1] I was one of them—and I wasn’t kidding about not knowing what to say. Since my scheduled post time has come, I’m going to put bullet-points on my brainstorming and pretend that this is a carefully designed exercise to provoke discussion about international and inter-cultural aspects of Mormon missionizing.

  • I find it difficult to discuss the mission and use glibness to shield my various vulnerabilities. To that end, I have constructed an easy-to-deliver set of sound-bites that, to my shame, emphasize exoticism and speak lightly of heavy things: You’ve never lived until you’ve gotten up from a toilet full of blood and not-feces! I did not defecate “like an American” until I had been home for two months! It was so hot/sunny that I had a tan line through my not-so-white shirt showing my tie and my garment “eternal smile.”There was raw sewage running in the streets in some favelas! [2]
  • Blond hair was a big deal; in the region where I worked blond hair was not common, unlike in southern Brazil. It was not unheard of to have people want to feel the hair. No barber I found knew what to do with liso—smooth—hair.
  • One of the members a few hundred kilometers from the major city said, when I showed her my family picture: “Americans are all so blond and have such big families.” On the one hand, she probably knew more Americans than any non-Mormon in her city (who had not visited the US), but her perception was very skewed by the fact that they were almost all from Utah.
  • We were frequently described as “the church of the tall Germans.” Depending on the gender and age of the speaker, sometimes there was a “gorgeous” thrown in also.
  • Kids on the street would call out to us, “Fala inglês, alemão”—“Speak English, you German.”
  • Brazilians are very friendly: even those who were “born Catholic and going to die Catholic” would invite us in for conversation and visiting; they’d offer food or a chance to shower or take a nap; and so on. Of course, saying something like “Brazilians are very friendly” is hopelessly reductive—as if all Brazilians were the same and I know this because I met all 270 million of them. What I mean is that I worked in Georgia before my visa came and there was a difficult-to-say-how-enormous difference between my proselyting experiences in Georgia and Minas Gerais, which difference I am summarizing as “friendliness.”
  • On my first visit to a favela (an urban neighborhood of densely-packed, semi-permanent squatters) my first thought was, “it’s like being in a National Geographic: there’s trash and debris and disorder and goats and everything.” My second was, “National Geographic fails to convey what the places in those pictures smell like.” (I have since traveled a fair amount and no longer think of the favela as unique: people, or at least their cities, smell like poop, unless there’s curry involved; then it smells like poop and curry.)
  • When I wake up sweating at night my first conscious thought is that I’m back in Brazil. When I have nightmares that involve screaming, it’s the voice of the man tied to the stretcher across from me when I went in for treatment for face-falling-off-mango-disease. In my first-world-meets-third-world tragicomedy spiel, I usually follow this sound-bite with some touristy wisdom: If you want to get to know a country, do two things, receive medical treatment and have a dessert.
  • Speaking of which, one time my companion and I attended a birthday party. There was what looked like a big sheet-cake decorated like an American cake with off-white icing (most of the “cakes” we ate did not have icing and were more like a sweetened cornbread than American “cake.”) I was very excited… until I figured out that it was potato sticks covered with mayonnaise.
  • I am from Texas. Multiple times in introductions: where are you from? Texas. Oh, bangy-bangy! (/’bahn-gee ‘bahn-gee/, ie, a shoot-’em-up Western movie/TV show). Where’s he from? Utah. Where’s that? Between California and Texas. Utah associates also commented on okra and beans and rice and large insects, all of which were well within my normal experience range.
  • I have lived in three countries and visited dozens; I have taught in three countries across language and culture and nationality and race barriers; I’ve been an unmarried male who wears a tie and tries to persuade often less-than-enthusiastic people to understand and act upon sometimes hard things (spirituality/religion and math/science). I think these various experiences have given me (what I judge to be) understanding about which parts of each experience were unique to it and which kind of go with me wherever I go. What I cannot do is go back and be young again. In this regard the mission is, for me, unique.

Discuss.



[1] The CJCLDS is hardly unique in sending missionaries. Other Mormon-tradition churches, other Christian churches, and non-Christian churches have formal proselyting agents. At present, however, I think the CJCLDS formal mission effort is unique in its scale, standardization, and focus on direct proselytization. I don’t know what percentage of LDS missionaries work in foreign-to-them missions. About half the missionaries in my mission (probably 400 individuals overlapped with me) were Brazilian with the balance from the US plus, if I remember correctly, one from Canada and one from Trinidad and Tobago. I knew or knew of a few Brazilians who were sent to the US and my local mission in Texas seems to consistently have from two or three non-US missionaries. I also knew a Brazilian sent to Japan. Conversations with others suggest that Central American missionaries often stay in Central America but not in their home country; ditto for Europe. There also seems to be a degree of ethnic and linguistic targeting: French-speaking missionaries from France and its overseas territories sometimes trade places; missionaries to Vietnam are (at present) ethnically/genetically Vietnamese with a Vietnamese surname.

[2] Nowadays I usually follow that one up with a discussion of heat in Bahrain, which would spit on Minas Gerais heat, except that it’s conserving fluid.



12 Comments

  1. Edje, Thank you so much for this! I found the comment about medical care and the favela. I haven’t spent nearly as much time abroad as you have, but one of the things that always makes me feel conspicuous, white, and despicably wealthy is walking through foreign neighborhoods. I never know what to do and usually just end up folding my arms.

    Comment by Amanda — June 25, 2013 @ 1:59 pm

  2. “face-falling-off-mango-disease” ?

    Comment by WVS — June 25, 2013 @ 2:21 pm

  3. Thanks, Amanda.

    WVS: contact dermatitis, type 4. Mangos are cousins to poison ivy and there is a chemical in the oil on mango skin and in the pits (urushiol; I think I’m spelling that correctly) very much like that in poison ivy. If you peel mangoes with your teeth (as I did) and you are sensitive to urushiol (as I am but did not know at the time), your face swells up, cracks open, and drips yellow stuff. Also, you wish for sweet annihilation.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — June 25, 2013 @ 2:42 pm

  4. Amanda, cont’d: one of the things that I skip over in my sound-bite narrative of the mission is that for much of the time I was in wealthy areas and was, by orders of magnitude, the least wealthy person around.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — June 25, 2013 @ 2:45 pm

  5. Thanks, Edje. Really enjoyed this.

    Comment by J Stuart — June 25, 2013 @ 8:42 pm

  6. Not the stereotypical mission homecoming, or tourist travelogue, or exchange student report, or … or anything else. Completely unique. I loved it.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 25, 2013 @ 9:24 pm

  7. I’m reassessing my love of mangos.

    Comment by John Turner — June 26, 2013 @ 2:57 pm

  8. I’m never going to try and peel mangoes with my teeth. Thanks for the warning.

    Edje, thanks for the post and a quick glimpse into the kinds of memories that stay behind after a mission.

    Comment by Saskia — June 27, 2013 @ 6:23 am

  9. Thanks, Edje. My own experience as a missionary shares little in common with what you’ve laid out here, except for the inevitable tan line/sunburn through my clothing provided by the Arizona sun.

    Comment by Christopher — June 27, 2013 @ 9:00 am

  10. Thanks for this. A lovely mixture of stories that brought back so many memories. We visited Ouro Preto during 1996, but I don’t think we went to church there. Blond brasileiros were very common where we lived, as there are a lot of German descendents in the south of Brasil. Indeed the church was brought to Brasil by a German woman whose husband was not yet a member.

    We brought a small photo album along, and people were stunned to see pictures of our modest cinder-block house, small cars, and that we commute by bicycle a lot. They tended to think that all Americans live in fancy houses like in the TV shows, so it was a learning experience all around.

    Comment by Naismith — June 27, 2013 @ 7:58 pm

  11. The bleeding was very alarming to me. Where was the medical treatment, or am I being naive?

    Comment by Kris — June 28, 2013 @ 8:56 pm

  12. Thanks, J Stuart, Ardis, John, Saskia, Christopher, Naismith, and Kris.

    John: I, too, love mangoes. I’ve had to expand my theology to allow for the possibility of karma, or maybe fence-sitting in pre-mortality, as explanations for why something so delicious hurts so much.

    Naismith: it was my observation also that TV-based expectations of the US did not match my memories of the US.

    Also: I visited Ouro Preto in 1997. One of my clearest memories is of browsing in a cafe/tourist shop, looking at turista kitsch made in Peru, while a Rod Stewart song played on a speaker. An Italian tourist asked me (in English) “Of where are you from?”

    Kris: medical care was available and I had a healthy companion (and another companionship of house-mates) that could have arranged transport to a doctor or hospital. Further, the mission kept files and contact info on local doctors and there were medical professionals on staff at the regional office with whom the Mission President could consult in severe cases.

    As I mentioned, gastro-intestinal distress was a common issue (pun intended) so we tended to take a this-too-shall-pass (pun, again) approach. In many ways, the story with rectal bleeding is a tale of youth and being ‘tough’ and learning how to care for ourselves more than a tale of South-American-micro-fauna-will-eat-your-lunch-and-your-intestines.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — June 28, 2013 @ 11:18 pm