Brazil's Rio Negro, a left tributary of the Amazon River, is the largest black water river in the world. In the wet season, the Rio Negro causes widespread flooding in the country. Six OBU students and one faculty member employed creativity and flexibility to navigate the flood waters to take the Gospel to two communities in early summer.
Unexpected experiences add to Global Outreach Trips, sponsored by OBU's Avery T. Willis Center for Global Outreach, and create a unique connection among the OBU team members, said Dr. Alan Bandy, Rowena R. Strickland Assistant Professor of New Testament and the team's sponsor.
"We bond very tightly as a team, as brothers and sisters, and as members of the OBU family," Bandy said. "We leave as acquaintances and return as family."
And as any family trip goes, students on mission quickly learn to expect the unexpected. To begin the May 15-June 6 trip, the OBU team took a balsa (ferry) across the Rio Negro and the "meeting of the waters" - the place where the black Rio Negro meets but does not mix with the silty Amazon River. Because the rivers reached a high flood stage, the team's plans changed from a further excursion to minister to a community one-day's journey up the river.
Instead, they drove until they reached a place where the river washed out the road, and then they waded across the water-covered road, transporting their supplies by canoe. They paid for a ride to the community where they would minister, cramming 10 people and twice as much luggage into a small Volkswagen bus for the hour-long ride to the community.
About 80 people lived in the community, where Southern Baptist representatives have worked for two months to plant a church. While the team had access to electricity, they drank filtered river water and contended with swarms of mosquitoes. They fished, caught a couple piranhas and swam in the river.
Their mission tasks consisted mostly of playing soccer and Frisbee while building relationships, with the intention of creating opportunities for Southern Baptist representatives to follow up on their initial contacts. The team also visited homes, prayed and shared the Gospel when an opportunity arose. The team led a church service which attracted most of the community, and Bandy led a Bible study on marriage attended by about 30 people.
The second community the team visited, an hour away, was larger and more developed. The team stayed with Southern Baptist workers who have a new strategy to share the Gospel in their area. The team helped by mapping the community, working on a floating house, conducting a Bible study and playing soccer and volleyball. They also swam in the river, tried to catch fish and hunted alligators after dark.
"The time we spent in each community - approximately five days in each - wasn't enough time to do a lot of work, but it gave us enough time to speak with people, present the Gospel, and tell them why were there," said team member Jeremy Smith, a junior religion major from Crowley, Texas.
"No matter the location, we played a lot of soccer while there! The soccer field is a place that everyone comes to at the end of their day, so it is a great way to get to know people and build relationships."
And the efforts had eternal consequence as a 15-year-old girl accepted Jesus Christ as her personal Savior in one community, and a man proved the power of God's leadership in the other. Three weeks before the team arrived in Brazil, the man had accepted Christ as his Savior and received a Bible.
"This man not only gave his life to Christ, but he has spent hours upon hours reading his Bible," Bandy said. "His knowledge of the Bible was astounding, and we were all amazed to see God move in this man's life so powerfully. God may be preparing this man to take the Gospel to his people."
The team planned to work with three translators to bridge the barrier between English and Portuguese, but on site they had one translator who did not remain with the group for their entire trip. Simple communication was challenging, but rewarding.
"The greatest thing I personally encountered was the people and their value of relationships," Smith said. "In America, our days revolve around time, but in Brazil, people will drop whatever they are doing - even if it is their way of receiving income - and have a conversation with you.
"It was so beautiful to see the amount of joy that these people have because they place their value in people and relationships instead of 'stuff' or money."
Returning to the city proved equally as challenging as the team's trip up the river. The boat driver altered his plans, abandoning the team to an hours-long ride on a small, crowded bus to reach the point of the washed-out road. The team took a small boat across the water, then another bus - filled with lumber - back to the ferry port. They chartered a small speed boat which concluded their trip to the city. What should have been a two-hour trip turned into an eight-hour adventure.
"We had to be flexible and innovative to find ways to minister to the people," Bandy said.
"Travel in the country was constantly difficult, uncertain and unexpected. We never knew how we were going to get there, but we trusted God to get us there."
Team members said the experience was invaluable as they lived out OBU's mission to engage a diverse world. They saw one another grow in faith, broaden their horizons and gain a personal passion for the Great Commission - Christ's mandate for his followers to share his Gospel.
For Smith, it was a real-life reminder to enjoy the little things of life.
"When everything you have for three weeks is contained in a mere duffle bag and backpack, you really begin to live life to the fullest," he said. "You begin to place value in the important things in life: friends, community, Scripture and more. Suddenly, jumping into a green, dirty river is refreshing. Climbing an açaí tree by only using a burlap sack is fun. Sleeping in a giant tree house in the Brazilian afternoon heat is relaxing.
"When you're living a minimalist life, the important things are brought out, and you just become a happier person."
More than 60 OBU students, faculty and staff embarked on Global Outreach (GO) Trips during the summer 2012 semester, sharing their faith around the globe under the leadership of Dr. Joy Turner, director of global mobilization. The GO Trips took OBU teams to South America, Asia and Africa during the summer.
Click here to learn more about the AVery T. Willis Center for Global Outreach at OBU.