Being an American missionary in Brazil, I tend to do one of two things when it comes to holidays. I either remember the American date for the particular holiday in question, or I forget both dates entirely. In this case, I completely forgot it was Father’s Day here in Brazil because it falls a month later than the American Father’s Day.
I was abruptly summoned out of the classroom where I was teaching English to teenagers. Time for a Father’s Day party. I walked into the small church, which smelled of sweat already. It was 4 in the afternoon and in the slums of our city, deodorant is never very high on anyone’s shopping list. I noticed a large group of men, most looking uncomfortable sitting in the one place they try desperately to avoid: church. What made it doubly uncomfortable was that this was the Father’s Day service, a chance to honor the fathers for loving and blessing their children. Unfortunately, many of these men were not doing that. Several had been dragged there by wives or girlfriends, forced to sober up and participate. The common sentiment among these men was a desire to not be singled out.
The next thing I noticed was a group of little girls sitting in the corner. They were despondent and inconsolable. Their tears had soaked their faces, and they were desperately looking for someone they knew. Oh, man. This group of children had no one there. No father showed. No boyfriend of the mother. No uncle, no grandfather. These girls were being crushed right in front of my eyes.
As I stepped into the church, Mikaele (mee*chi*eh*lee) came running up to me and jumped up into my arms. Mikaele is a 5 year old girl who has seen more than a girl her age should have to. She was soaked from her tears and sweat. Her hair was matted to her face. Now it was being matted to mine. “Would you be my daddy today?” she begged between sobs. My heart broke. “Your daddy didn’t come today?” I asked. I knew the answer, but if didn’t say something quickly, I would have lost myself in her little eyes and turned into a complete mess in front of everyone.
When my wife and I moved our young family to Recife, Northeast Brazil in June of 2003, we knew what we wanted to do: work with children. Specifically, we wanted to work with children who were poor. We have spent the last 5 years running a daycare in one of the most dangerous slums in the city. During this time, the word poor has come to mean a lot more than just a shortage of money. Sometimes, it is a shortage of love, health and even fathers.
It is almost inevitable that when you serve in the mission field, whether short term or long term, you will be blessed even more than you can imagine. This is especially true with short-term missions. You travel to another country to give a shot-gun blessing to everyone with whom you come into contact. But in the end, it is the short-term missionary who ends up leaving on a plane, covered in their own snot and bawling like a toddler, wondering how they will ever survive the 20-hour plane ride home. Short-term missions are a high. A quick emotional shot of some spiritual drug that can leave you buzzed and exhilarated for months.
The same is true for the long-term missionaries. However, there is a big difference between the two. Serving long term can be so tiring, that every once in awhile, you can forget why you are there. It is hard to remember the “emotion” of the call. Your call never leaves you, just the warm and fuzzy feelings associated with it. The sense that you are going to “do what God has set out for you and never lose faith” fades, and your goal drifts out of sight. The difference is that long-term missionaries need this emotional and spiritual shot to survive. It is like insulin to the diabetic, or Digoxin to the heart patient.
It had been a while since I received any type of high while here. It had been a long time since I was “blessed more than I could imagine.” I was busy with runs to collect miscellaneous donations and weekly forays to the grocery store to shop for 95 kids. My wife and I were endlessly battling the local government, which seems determined to maintain their pre-WWI standards of operation, just to complete what should be simple tasks. Suffice to say, I was not prepared for Mikaele.
I told Mikaele yes, I would be her daddy today. As I held her, another little girl came up to me crying and smiling, all at the same time. She held a gift for me. It was a t-shirt. Nothing expensive. (There is no such thing as an expensive gift around here.) This girl’s daddy hadn’t come either. She gave me a hug and all of the kids who were present said thank you to me for being the “daycare daddy.”
All I ever needed to know about love was in these little girl’s eyes. The look on their faces was the shot I needed. I knew that this would sustain me for a long time. I still remember the wetness of Mikaele’s face on mine and realize how important it is to love and be loved. Unselfishly. I had forgotten what it was like to be needed, but I was remembering. What a rush!