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Erskine’s ‘Team Brazil’ flourishes through service

The Brazil Team in May, with leader David Earle (back row, 4th from left)
The Brazil Team in May, with leader David Earle (back row, fourth from left)

In 2012, David Earle had an idea.

What if he could connect the students of Erskine College, especially those heading into medical careers, with a significant and meaningful opportunity to use their skills in ministry?  And what if that mission opportunity were open to alumni as well, joining students and alumni in a joint mission of mercy?

United for a common cause

Four years previously, David spent a week on a medical riverboat in partnership with World Hope Missions Ministry, an experience he could not forget. 

As vice president for advancement at Erskine, he was used to raising funds and communicating a vision, and he had led trips before. But a 2013 Brazil venture for Erskine presented new challenges—like selling students on the idea of spending two weeks in the steaming jungle as part of summer vacation, and spending $3500 to do it.

Erskine students McCarley Lewis of Easley, S.C., and Jacob DeLuca of Hendersonville, N.C., on the riverboat

His proposed 12-day trip in conjunction with World Hope Missions Ministry would ask students to lend support to doctors and dentists on a floating riverboat clinic, organize VBS activities and music, help with worship services at local churches, and distribute humanitarian aid to three villages deep within the Amazon basin.

Student interest grew slowly until then-sophomore Jacob DeLuca signed up for the Brazil Medical Ministry team.

“Before David Earle told me about the trip, I had been praying and looking for a mission trip to join,” Jacob said. “I’d had a desire to go on a mission trip for years, but it never happened. When David told me about the trip, I had no doubt I was supposed to go.”

Determined to make the trip a reality, Jacob began recruiting friends to go with him. By the time November’s signup deadline came around, thirteen students and two alumni were committed to raising the funds and packing their bags.

Jo Ann Griffith ’56 and Jeannie Moore Curry ’64 signed up, fulfilling David’s vision that the team include both students and alumni.  “It’s vital that Erskine students make connections with alumni to begin the networking process, but even more so for alumni and friends to connect with Erskine students so they can understand for themselves the quality of student that Erskine attracts,” he said.

David’s philosophy of advancement for Erskine stresses relationships between students and among supporters of Erskine, and affirms his commitment to Erskine’s mission”to glorify God as a Christian academic community where students are equipped to flourish as whole persons for lives of service.”

“Students learn to serve by serving,” he insists.

For “the least of these”

World Hope Missions Ministry organizes humanitarian and mission efforts to provide medical and dental care and Gospel outreach to the people of the Brazilian Amazon. Founded by Brazilian pastor Jonathas Moreira and based in Orlando, Florida, the mission’s goal is “to take volunteers willing to make a difference in the lives of impoverished people and create a positive impact in their lives.”

One doctor, one dentist, and four nurses staffed the boat clinic. Here, Erskine student Robert Clarke assists dentist Gary Nelson (from Celebration, FL).

Jonathas, retired from his career as a Presbyterian pastor, has been leading mission trips like these since 2001.  He and his wife Lilian, a licensed pharmacist, take multiple trips each year visiting different Amazon villages.

The mission works in conjunction with the Presbyterian Church of Manaus—located in the largest city in the heart of the Amazon basin—to provide support and translators for the trips. The team’s medical boat J.J. Mesquita is named for the pastor of that church. In addition, Pastor Eustáquio Fortunato from the Amazon village of Anori meets the boat to travel 18 hours down the Amazon to check on smaller, remote churches downriver.

Thanks to the planning done by World Hope, medical professionals and mission teams unite to spend a week on a hospital riverboat like the J J Mesquita, piloted by “Captain Hi” (Raimyndo Nonato DeOliveira), a man David Earle describes as “always smiling, always encouraging, a man with an incredible heart for God.”

With their tickets purchased, the Erskine group was prepared to depart May 24.

Flooded yet thriving

The Erskine team visited three villages by boat, witnessing firsthand the creeping destruction of this year’s flooding in small communities that depend on the river for transportation, food, and commerce.

The village of Anori, one of the larger towns visited by the team, has been living under a few feet of water.
The village of Anori, one of the larger towns visited by the team, has been living under a few feet of water.

Since April, the water had been rising 6 cm per day due to glacial melt in the Andes, and the river was expected to crest in late June and slowly recede through late summer. “We were stunned by the level of water in people’s homes,” David said. “Families in these villages have nowhere to go, so they just adapt by laying down plank flooring above the several inches of standing water in their homes. What would be a public health disaster in the United States is daily life in these villages right now.”

Erskine student Rebecca Chesser, a rising sophomore from Marietta, Ga., said, “Two of the three villages that we visited were completely flooded. It was shocking to see yet amazing how these people manage to live with it. The sad part was seeing [livestock] stranded on dirt platforms or abandoned houses.”

Despite the heavy flooding, the J J Mesquita and its crew of medical professionals, support staff, and the Erskine team worked its way through Anori, Vila Nova, and Cuinha. Villagers came to the docked boat for medical exams and worship services. Each family received a package of donated clothes and toiletries. Some services and events were moved entirely to the boat if the village church had been flooded. Erskine students assisted with medical and dental procedures, gathered kids for VBS activities, and learned about the indigenous culture of the river villages.

It wasn't all work! The team visited famous sites and did a little shopping too.
It wasn’t all work! The team visited sites like Iguacu Falls and did a little shopping too.

A new perspective

“This experience opened my eyes to see firsthand what others are experiencing physically and spiritually,” Rebecca said. “You can learn so much more about something if you experience it. Our group met once a week during the spring semester to prepare for Brazil, but that didn’t compare to actually experiencing the people, food, culture, and language. I hope that Erskine will offer more trips like these because it is an eye-opening experience.”

Cate Cardinale, now an Erskine senior, really connected with the Christians in Anori, a village of about 11,000 people. “I remember a flood of emotions and hugging Christina [Holbrooks, freshman team member from Mooresville, NC] while tears streamed down my face,” she said.

“God showed me his love through the children of Anori from the VBS in the early morning, to ‘futebol’ [soccer] in the afternoon, to a great worship service that night at the church. Interacting with the children through prayer, song, and activities that morning was incredible. … That night, saying goodbye to the people of Anori was so hard! In that moment though, I felt such a love that I can only imagine it to be God showing his love to me through the people,” she recalled. “For whatever reason God chose to bless me that day beyond anything I ever deserved.”

Finding more ways to serve

Although the team’s primary goal was to support the riverboat mission, they also spent time with two other remarkable ministries in Brazil.

A last-minute addition to the team’s itinerary, “The Father’s Heart,” an orphanage and child care center in Manaus, deeply affected every team member. Founded in 2011 by Barry and Vania Hall, a missionary couple working with indigenous people groups, the orphanage tries to rescue babies who would normally be killed outright by their parents in a culturally embraced practice of infanticide.

Everyone fell in love with the sweet infants at Father's Heart Ministry.
Everyone fell in love with the sweet infants at “The Father’s Heart.”

The ministry’s website explains: “The main victims of this practice are children born with birth defects, twins/triplets, children born out of wedlock, children born as the result of rape, incest or infidelity and also other children who just fail to develop normally after birth. They believe that these children are cursed and will therefore bring a curse on them and their village. For that reason, the leadership, who looks out for the good of the tribe, obligates the parents to bury their children alive, believing that by doing it that way, the child will take the curse away with them. For this reason, many indigenous children are sacrificed each year.”

The Halls hope to reintegrate rescued children into their villages when they are older, as proof that the children were not cursed.  

David describes the scene at Father’s Heart: “A tiny staff of three or four people plus a few volunteers spend every waking moment tending an assembly line of needs for the 15 babies and children currently living at the home. They feed, wash, change diapers, rock the babies, play with them, and put them down for naps, then start the cycle all over again. Our students just fell in love with these children.”

No Erskine traveler was left untouched by the experience at Father’s Heart. “Each of the children was so affectionate and loving, and made me realize that even with what little they have, they are so happy!” senior Ashley Chandarana said.

Before leaving, the Erskine crew also spent a day at ACDD, translated as Christian Association to Help People with Disabilities, in Iguacu. This underfunded but much-needed local ministry offers a break for caregivers, providing sessions of education and care for adults and children with mental and physical disabilities. 

Lasting impressions

The team collected hundreds of items to sort and donate to people in the villages as needed.
The team collected hundreds of items to sort and donate to people in the villages as needed.

Team members returned home June 5 with a richer grasp of God’s work beyond our borders. Experienced missionary and Erskine alumna JoAnn Griffith ’56 remarked on “the extensiveness of Presbyterian influence, the depth of Brazilian Christians’ commitment to evangelize and serve the needy with such an outpouring of love,” adding, “Their willingness to be used by God for reaching out unreservedly in the name of Jesus to those in great need was most impressive.”

Back on American soil, Jacob reflected on the meaning of the mission experience. “This trip was essential for my life. I needed this trip. I learned so many things, I realized the importance of missions, I grew closer to God and I met so many amazing people.”

Perhaps Cate Cardinale sums up the students’ reactions best: “Even though David told us this before we went, I was shocked at how much the people of Brazil impacted my life. I expected that our team would be the one impacting and serving the people. But what ended up happening was the opposite. The people ended up impacting my life more than I could ever imagine.”

David Earle is making plans to form a 2015 team.

Visit the Erskine Flickr stream for more photos from the 2013 Brazil Mission Trip

Erskine and Due West Skyline

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Erskine College admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other school-administered programs.

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