For Charles Mulemena, being a missionary in Brazil has its challenges—grinding poverty, the destruction of the rainforest, the persecution of indigenous people, rampant pornography and, most recently, the flood of refugees from Venezuela.
|Charles Mulemena and a Brazilian shaman share their care for Brazil’s indigenous people.|
But one of the best things, Mulemena says, is that people in Brazil love to go to church, and even those who are not active in church believe that God is an important part of life.
“As an African, I have realized the original missionaries came from Europe. And, now the church in Europe is dying. Churches are closing. People feel like they are too educated. God’s knowledge doesn’t make any sense. And the wealth is part of it, too,” Mulemena said. “Now it’s come to the U.S., where many churches are closing. People feeling more self-reliant than dependent on God. They don’t go to church because they couldn’t find parking. In Brazil they walk long distances to go to church.
"When you go to Africa, Asia and South America, in as much as people have knowledge, they understand the importance of God. They might not be practically involved in the church, but they have the belief that without God they are nothing. People in need grow closer to God than people who have plenty.”
Mulemena, originally from Zambia in East Africa, has been serving for three years in Belém, in northern Brazil best known for the Amazon rainforest. In Zambia he was pastor of a Methodist church and director of the New Life Center, a Methodist mission center. In Brazil, he is coordinator of the Council of Christian Churches in the Amazon Rainforest, an ecumenical group made up of Christian denominations and parachurch ministries like the YWCA, YMCA and Caritas.
|Parts of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil are being deforested to make way for palm oil plantations.|
The work involves a variety of things, including evangelism, leadership training, programs for children and youth and ecumenical activities, he said.
He is a passionate advocate for the indigenous people, who mostly live in rural areas and the rainforest. Deforestation is seen as an environmental crisis because it is the most ecologically diverse areas in the world, but it also is ruining people’s lives.
“The traditional people have been living in the forest all their lives. The government is selling the land to foreign investors, displacing the traditional people,” he said. “They are suffering and dying from the trauma of leaving the land they have known for ages. They come to the urban areas and don’t know how to live in the city.”
The Council of Churches works as their advocate, trying to protect their land and convince the government to treat them with fairness and respect.
In response to criticism about its treatment of indigenous people, the Brazilian government now gives them scholarships to cover 100 percent of a university education. That sounds really good, Mulemena said, until you consider that few indigenous people receive a basic education in primary or secondary schools.
“If they don’t have a fundamental education, how can they come from the jungle to the university? They really don’t want them in the city,” Mulemena said.
|Aerial view of the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado Mountain in Rio de Janeiro.|
In Zambia, there isn’t a big difference between people from the city and rural areas, but in Brazil the difference is huge, both racially and culturally.
And the big cities of Brazil are rough places to live, even for those who are lifelong residents.
“They sell pornography on the street like they sell tomatoes and oranges,” Mulemena said. “It scares me to death walking through the streets with my kids. It is so dangerous.”
Drug dealers recruit children to sell drugs and give them guns to protect themselves.
“The kids also abuse the drugs and shoot people without cause,” he said. “You have 13- and 14-year-old boys and girls who have shot several people already. One of the boys claimed to have killed 10 to 15 people with no remorse. He said he did it because he liked doing it.”
The Council of Churches tries to provide an alternative for children with a program every Saturday that features games, sports, crafts, tutoring and a meal.
“We make them feel like any other kid,” he said.
The Council also works to get the children into schools. Brazil’s education system is free, but not all children have access to it.
|Shacks in the Favellas (also known as shantytown) a poor neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro. As many as 300,000 live in Favelas in the city.|
“You need connections. The poor don’t have the connections, and so we reach out,” Mulemena said. “We have a list of children who need to be in school, and we go to a school and ask for 10 places. We don’t get 10 places, sometimes we only get two. But so far we have enrolled 32 kids.”
The Council also provides the children with uniforms and school supplies.
“We are praising God that things are happening,” Mulemena said. “They’re not happening at the rate we want them to happen, but we are glad that God is doing something.”
Mulemena is in the United States for five weeks telling Florida churches about his work, which is supported by an apportionment through the General Board of Global Ministries, as well as individual donations.
“The support we receive from United Methodist churches gives us great joy because we face so many challenges, but also we have many adventures,” he said. “We are not alone. We are together with the entire United Methodist Church globally. We appreciate all those who are standing with us.”
--Lilla Ross is a freelance writer in Jacksonville.