First Stop on the Lay Missionary Journey

Article excerpt

Couple will spend next three years at the service of the poor in Brazil

They met as North Americans teaching in Guam. In 1992, they returned to the United States and, in 1994, wed. Angel Mortel, now 29, who grew up in San Francisco, and Chad Ribordy, 33, of Wichita, Kan., applied in 1997 to become Maryknoll Lay Missioners. They'd talked often about a life of service, they said, as they reminisced over an Italian meal barely a month before they left for Brazil in January this year. "Finally, one day," recalled Mortel, "we just said, `Fine, we'll apply once we [have] paid off my college loans. We'll give it a try.'"

Mortel, educated at Oberlin College and American University with a bachelor's in English and Third World studies and a master's in international development, was working as Office Manager at Bread for the World; Ribordy, with a bachelor's in Philosophy from Conception Seminary College and a master's in Pastoral Theology from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, was teaching high school religion.

The Maryknoll Mission Association of the Faithful, known as the MMAF, founded in 1994 as a successor to an earlier lay mission program run under the auspices of the Maryknoll fathers, prepares its missioners with four months of theological and cross-cultural studies in Maryknoll, New York. The initial obligation is a 3-and-a-half-year renewable contract as a lay missioner in a location mutually agreed on between the association and each missioner. After in-country language training, the lay missioner is at the service of the local poor and needy.

In Brazil, where Mortel and Ribordy were bound, the Maryknoll presence includes lay people, sisters and priests in Sao Paulo and the Northeastern city of Joao Pessoa, working in the areas of women's and children's rights, land issues, prison ministry, marginalized people living and working in the city dump and Christian Base Communities. Before they left, NCR asked the young coup& to periodically file an account of the new life that confronted their first year in Brazil while the impressions were new and stark.

This first letter from Brazil covers their first month ia the country.

A 10-hour plane ride from the United States, and we finally landed in the city of Sao Paulo, home of nearly 18 million people. It seemed that the plane took as long to fly over the city as it did to fly over the country.

For several weeks, we stayed with colleagues in Brasilandia, an area on the edge of the city. Though not a slum by Brazilian standards, it is definitely a poor neighborhood, with garbage strewn in the streets, deep pot holes, half-constructed though occupied homes and a whole assembly of stray, mangy dogs.

In one of our first days in the neighborhood, we visited the home of a local parishioner, Lucinha. Her house is situated in a small valley among a cluster of similar-looking homes in am area prone to flooding from the frequent torrential rains. We had to step over a stream of open sewage to get to the front door of the small house. The cinderblock wails and rafters were exposed, and the cement floor was bare. The two windows in the house didn't provide sufficient ventilation on that 92-degree day.

We were warmly welcomed (no pun intended), Lucinha lives with her husband -- who was away working one of his marathon shifts as a restaurant waiter -- and their four children. Their 5-year-old daughter has a terrible bone defect in her knees; one of the triplet boys also has a physical defect -- he has virtually no neck, and one shoulder is higher than the other. He also had open sores on his back and legs. In spite of the heat and cranky kids, Lucinha exuded dignity, maintained her composure, was very attentive to her guests and seemed not at all embarrassed by her poverty. During the course of our conversation, Lucinha, who is darkskinned, congratulated Angel, who is of Filipino descent, for having married Chad, a white man, a telling comment on Brazil's racism. …