The last place I lived as a missionary in Brazil was a city called Ceilandia. It’s about a hour bus ride from Brasilia, and it is mostly a residential city for people who work in the capital but can’t afford to live there. Laura and I decided that we would go to church there so that I could show her what my mission was like. I was a little bit afraid of of going because I wasn’t sure that anyone would remember me (it has been a while), and because there really isn’t much to see. Basically, I was afraid we’d get there, everyone would wonder who the Americsn visitors were, and then we’d return to Brasilia.
Nevertheless we decided to go. The first challenge we had was that I couldn’t really remember how to get there, or even where to go. I had forgotten what the address of the church was, and since they had been temporarily meeting in a warehouse I figured it had moved anyway. I also wasn’t sure which ward (i.e. congregation) I had worked in, as they are identified only by number (and there are three of them). Basically, all I knew was that it had been in the city of Ceilandia.
So, I looked up the different wards on the internet and made my best guess. We got up Sunday morning around six and walked 20 minutes to the bus station. It took us quite a while to find the right bus, bus eventually we were riding through the oxide-red dirt of the cerrado, a scrubby, dust-filled wilderness from which Brasilia and its satelite cities were carved.
Eventually we arrived in Ceilandia and began asking people on the street if they knew where the church was. We actually got into town just before church would have been starting, but unfortunately we walked around for about 50 minutes before we actually found the chapel. We had also checked out of our hotel, so we were carrying our backpacks and that, combined with the city’s red dust, meant that we were pretty sweaty and dirty by the time we arrived.
As soon as we walked into the church I knew I had guessed wrong. I didn’t recognize anyone and I knew the chapel was one at had had meetings in but never actually attended. I was disappointed because I figured there wouldn’t be time to look for the other chapel, but I was happy that I had at least showed Laura the general area where I had worked.
As happened in Salvador, I think everyone was really surprised to see a couple of Americans show up in church unexpectedly. Also, after talking to a few ward members we determined which ward I had served in. By this time we were at the beginning of the last hour of church. I was feeling pretty disappointed to be so close without enough time to get there before it ended when, to my surprise, a man offered to drive us over to the other chapel. En route, he filled me in on how things had changed. (My old ward no longer met in a rented warehouse but actually had a really nice, new chapel.)
When we arrived, the meeting had already begun. The doors were shut and the bishop was just beginning to give some announcements. As we walked in we tried to be as quiet as possible, but our backpacks clanked around a little bit, and we visually stood out. Unfortunately, the only empty bench was also right in the middle of the room, and as we made our way to sit down literally every single person stared at us. The bishop tried to keep announcing things but even he slowed down a bit.
For the rest of the meeting I tried to look as attentive as possible because I knew that at any given moment as many people were looking at us trying to figure out who we were as were looking at the speaker in the front. This was actually fairly hard to do, as I’d slept fewer than five hours the night before.
Eventually the meeting ended and we were immediately surrounded by people. Most of them just wanted to know why we had come. Since the mission, my hair has gotten comparatively long, I sort of have a beard, and even the shape of my face is a little different. So I wasn’t expecting anyone to recognize me, and I don’t think anyone did at first.
Quickly however, it came out that I had served in their ward and from there a few people started to remember me. However even people who didn’t (or who weren’t even members whe I was last there) were excited to see us. Within a minute or two we were literally mobbed by people asking us questions, introducing us to their friends and family, and trying to tell us everything that happened in the years since I left. It was overwhelming and at a certain point I think Laura and I figured the best strategy would just be to smile and let people take us where ever they wanted.
While all this was going on, I was trying to see if anyone I had taught or baptized was still in the ward. I especially hoped to see a girl named Eloisa, who I had taught and baptized right before going home and who had been one of the most intelligent and inquisitive people I had ever met on the mission (or in general, for that matter).
At first I didn’t see Eloisa anywhere, but then, as Laura and I were practically crowd surfing or way up to meet the bishop, I saw a woman who looked a lot like her. As I looked over at her, however, she looked away, as if she had been caught staring at a stranger. As we walked in different directions we made eye contact several more times, but she didn’t seem to recognize me at all so I figured I had just mistaken her for Eloisa. After a few seconds I was nearly at the front of the room and she was about to leave, so I mouthed “Eloisa” to her, in an attempt to ask if it was her.
And then she recognized me. She ran up and I pushed my way back through the crowd and, in true missionary form, we shook hands. (And then we hugged, because the mission was over.). There were still people all around us asking questions and trying to say things, and in the midst of the chaos Eloisa was tying to explain to everyone that I was the missionary who had baptized her.
Then, she grabbed her scripture case and began showing it to me. At first I wasn’t sure what she wanted me to see, but then I realized that it was the kind of scripture case that only missionaries get. And then she told me: she had been on a mission and just recently got back.
All of this was quite a surpirse. When I decided to go to Ceilandia I wasn’t sure if anyone would remember me, or that I’d even be able to find people I knew. Instead, however, Laura and I were received by the ward members as if we were family and I found one of the people from the mission that I most wanted to see.
By the time things had settled down it had been decided that we would spend the next two nights in the house of the former bishop. We went over there, ate an amazing lunch, and then watched Brazil’s second world cup match. We then spent the rest of the next two days with Eloisa and the bishop’s family. We visited ward members, went to Brasilia again, and ate massive amounts of delicious food.