A recent letter from a girl called Adna brought back a flood of memories, 50 years ago, of our missionary adventure in the Amazon region.
Adna had grown up in Manicore in Brazil and was now in the last year of theological studies. For her senior term paper she had chosen to write about the arrival of the first missionaries to Manicore. She particularly wanted to write the history of the First Baptist Church of Manicore, which her father pastored from 1994-2001.
Having asked the only surviving lady from those days for help, she found Idemilha could no longer remember the details. ‘As I have no one else to turn to for help’, she wrote, ‘I am contacting you’. The following is taken from the account I sent her.
My parents’ home was always open to visiting missionaries, and it was no surprise when my father accepted an invitation to minister for a year in China following the end of World War II. He lived to preach the gospel.
On his return from an extended visit to South America, he shared with my wife and me a vision to take the message of Christ to the unreached inhabitants of the Madeira River region of Amazonas, Brazil. A new mission was formed and in 1952 my wife and I sold our few possessions, purchased air passage and accompanied my parents to Manaus, a city 1,000 miles up the Amazon River.
Shortly after our arrival, we bought a small launch that had been built during the war for the Rubber Development Corporation. It would serve for transportation and lodging while we surveyed the field before us.
Through a missionary contact in Parintins, the next town downriver from Itacoatiara, two local couples, Jose Luis and Senir, and Daniel and Idemilha, joined us in the proposed ministry. Jose Luis accompanied me on an exploratory trip up the Madeira River.
In Manicore we were warmly received by Orlando Cidade, the town mayor, who helped us rent a house. A vacant shop front which belonged to Sinhá, a respected widow, was also rented. Initial steps were taken towards the acquisition of a small property one half-hour upstream, to serve as a place for Daniel and family, and a site for a future conference centre.
Our first night in Manicore, Maria, a local prostitute, appeared at our door. Providentially, God used our rejection of her advances to change the direction of her life. Years later I was speaking in a church in Parintins when, to my surprise, I saw Maria seated in the audience. Beside her sat a man and a little girl.
After the meeting she shared with us how her life had been changed. Though she had felt too ashamed to come to us for help at the time, she had left Manicore determined to ask at every port where the boat stopped for someone who could share the Bible with her. In Parintins, several hundred miles downriver, God led her to believers who lived by the Bible. God had changed her life and given her a family.
One Sunday morning, shortly after, we had begun holding meetings in the shop, when a mob approached the building shouting threats at us. We later learned that they had previously gone to our rented accommodation intending to break in and destroy our belongings. The mayor’s mother heard the commotion and confronted them, demanding that they leave the property immediately. Her rebuke took the fire out of the mob, sparing our belongings as well as averting possible physical harm.
On another occasion, a large crowd gathered in the city square to hear the local Catholic priest denounce us. Having heard we were encouraging people to heed the Bible, he sought to use Christ’s words to condemn us. After reading aloud Jesus’ warning concerning false teachers, he told the people that we were the wolves in sheep’s clothing, of which Christ was speaking.
A sign was then placed in the entrance to the Catholic church which read: ‘Our Lady of Fatima deliver us from the heresy of the Protestants’. Another time, we were likened to Judas. Later, dummies representing us were hung on a public street and then taken down and burned.
Feeling our lives were in danger, we wrote a letter to the police authorities in Manaus asking for protection, which was duly given. We also gave a copy of the letter to Major Jovelino Carvalho, the acting police chief.
On a trip to the city of Manaus I sought for a Catholic Bible to offer to this police chief. Though I was shocked at the price, I purchased a copy and presented it to him. He refused to accept the gift at first, but thanked me when I showed him that it was a Catholic Bible.
I often observed him reading from that red Bible as I passed by the police station and hoped to have an opportunity to discuss what he had been reading. Unfortunately, he left town without that opportunity to speak with him.
Several weeks later he reappeared in the town. To my astonishment, he turned up at our Sunday meeting the very next day. When I asked him why he had come, he replied that he wanted to see if what we were teaching was the same as he had learned from reading his Bible.
In the days that followed, it became apparent that God had opened his eyes to see that salvation came through the redemptive work of Christ and not through any church. He had become a brother in Christ.
Sinhá, the widow from whom we rented the old shop, also began attending our meetings. She had been scolded by the priest for involvement with us and had decided to hear for herself what we were teaching. After several visits she asked us to call on her at home. We were expecting her to try to turf us out of her building, but instead we sat in amazement as she told us she wanted to confess Christ as her Saviour.
Domingos was another life touched by God’s grace during those days. One Sunday, he appeared at our meeting carrying a Bible. He showed unusual eagerness to hear the Word. Never before had I seen someone so anxious to obey what the Bible taught. The story of his life explained why.
As a poor uneducated youth, he had been given the opportunity to operate the small light plant the village had acquired to provide light from 6-9 o’clock every evening. All had gone well until one night his friends invited him to attend a party upriver. They persuaded him to turn up the clock an hour, shut off the motor and hurry to the party so he wouldn’t miss the fun.
The next day he blamed it on the clock, but nevertheless lost his job. As I listened, he told how he had never had another opportunity to make anything of his life. A stranger had given him the Bible he now carried, assuring him it contained God’s plan of salvation.
Since he couldn’t read, he had spent his life hoping to meet someone who could explain it to him. He had lost one life-changing opportunity and didn’t want to miss a second. We were thankful for another proof that God had sent us to Manicore.
Only one life
After leaving Manicore due to my wife’s poor health, we opened a Christian bookstore in Manaus in 1959. When her health failed again, we moved to São Paulo, where we started publishing books and the magazine Fé para Hoje, which is currently sent to some 20,000 Christian leaders in Portuguese-speaking countries.
For the past 24 years, FIEL conferences have been held in Brazil. Yearly conferences are also held in Portugal and Mozambique. In 1985, we had a part in founding the Grace Baptist Church in Sao Jose dos Campos, which plays a supportive role in FIEL ministries.
After all these years, it was a joy to visit Manicore again recently and witness what God is still doing there. I have been reminded of the famous line: ‘Only one life, ’twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last’.
Life is short. What a privilege to invest in eternal values!