By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — “Ola!” The Portuguese greeting came from all four corners of the room. Vitor Müller, “Junior,” who led the group of Brazilians, spoke fluent English as well as Portuguese. They had spent a week-long retreat at Jerusalem Farm, in prayer and reflection, serving the poor through home repairs, learning about Kansas City in particular and America in general, and improving their English skills.
“I am a Brazilian,” Junior said, “who in 1994 received a scholarship to a college in Norway. I learned their language, worked on my English and found the joy serving others can bring. Now I take students on trips to have similar experiences.”
Jordan Schiele, project director, said Junior had started Northway, an English language school in Brazil, with a Maryknoll missioner originally from the Kansas City area. The missioner was familiar with Nazareth Farm in West Virginia and, Jordan said, he had heard of Jerusalem Farm through the Catholic Volunteer Network. Knowing that Junior was interested in a retreat trip to the United States, the missioner told him about Jerusalem Farm.
Junior contacted Jerusalem Farm in January. Jessie Schiele, program director, said she was surprised and delighted to learn that the group, both young and not so young, wanted to spend a week of service at the urban farm, engaging in service and spending time in prayer and reflection, as well as learning and honing their English.
“We had a group of college students from the West Coast come for a week, but that’s the farthest away till now,” she said.
Jordan added that several international students from Avila University had attended retreats at Jerusalem Farm, and spoke varying degrees of English. He said communication with the Brazilians was a concern at first, “getting them to understand what we do and why. Several, like Junior, spoke fluent English, several I think understood more than they could speak and the rest were at some point in between. We learned to speak slower and enunciate more, or we let Junior translate.”
July 26 was the last full day of the retreat. The Brazilians enthusiastically greeted the Catholic Key that afternoon. Junior served as interpreter, although English words peppered the Portuguese as the Brazilians answered questions.
The group worked on three home repair projects — replacing shingles and repairing a roof; rebuilding a porch, and repairing and painting a kitchen ceiling. All “reported,” as Junior phrased it, that they were “happy helping” the homeowners. There was however, a “shocking revelation” — they detected sadness in those whose homes they worked on.
“Is it because they are poor?” It was hard to understand, Junior said, because in Brazil, poverty is a much bigger issue, as it is more widespread, but “the poor in our country may have dirt floors, but they are swept and the houses and the people are clean. We saw houses that were dirty and unhealthy!”
Jordan said the group was taken aback by some of the living conditions they saw.
“These people are not living, they are surviving,” he heard one of the Brazilians say. Jordan added that in his opinion, maybe Americans place more value on a person’s success while Brazilians place more value on the person.
The week the Brazilians spent in Kansas City coincided with Pope Francis’ attendance at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. The pope urged Catholic youth to take to the streets and be living witnesses of their faith. Did the Brazilians feel they had done what he asked while they were here? There were many responses.
“This is church here. My time here, and what we have been doing, has made me a stronger Catholic. I didn’t realize that there were underprivileged people here too.”
“What we see on TV and in the movies made the United States a fairy tale. I have seen the real thing. This week has helped make me a different person.”
“We wanted to see and do something real, not just what we’d seen in the movies. The improvements we have made to peoples’ homes made an impact.”
“Some of us worried about language differences. Parents worried about their kids being away from home for the first time, and wanted them to serve others and learn the language, learn charity. We all wanted to further our development as human beings. It’s been a very intense week.”
Junior said others spoke of the challenges, doing volunteer work outside their comfort zones of home and familiar people, learning about problems they didn’t know existed. “It was a wonderful experience for everybody.” he said.
The experience wasn’t all work. There was daily prayer, time for reflections and talk. The Schieles and other Jerusalem Farm staffers took the group to visit various Kansas City area landmarks, including Cliff Drive, Crown Center, the Blue Room, the World War 1 Museum, the African American Heritage Museum and the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art.
The retreat week affected each member of the group in some way: “it raised my self-esteem, I can’t believe I’ve overcome barriers I had;” “Team work is so important, family is everything. I realize now how little we need to be happy. We are considered lower-middle class in Brazil, but here we lived happily with even less.” Along with improving their English, several agreed that the retreat week had changed their values and the way they saw and reacted to the world.
“We altered the retreat week so they could see and learn something about Kansas City,” Jordan said. “I think it went well; they loved the Blue Room, in fact we went there twice. They wanted to do a lot of shopping for things to take back to Brazil, I think electronics cost more there than here. We spent a couple of hours on the Cliff Drive hillside, and had a reflection on the Sermon on the Mount. It was special. And everyone was in tears during our send-off prayer on Saturday morning.”
Jordan said the Jerusalem Farm staff didn’t know what to expect when the week began. “We didn’t know much about Brazil, and were concerned about the language barrier. They were awesome at learning and speaking English! We found there are more similarities than differences; we learned specifics about their culture and they learned about ours. It was an amazing interaction. I felt at home with everyone gathered around.”
The Catholic faith is a universal faith, he said. “The week with the folks from Brazil reaffirmed our faith. Language is not a barrier in friendship and work. We would be open to any group. It would be good to get an idea of how they view the Gospel message in their homeland. Here at Jerusalem Farm, we try to authentically live out the Gospel message of love and service. That message transcends languages and cultures.”
Jerusalem Farm, an intentional Catholic community providing a community garden and home repairs centered on prayer, simplicity, and sustainability, is located at 520 Garfield, Kansas City. For more information on Jerusalem Farm, volunteer and retreat opportunities, contact Jordan firstname.lastname@example.org or Jessie Schiele email@example.com or call (816) 421-1855.