Monday, April 26, 2010

São Paulo Vivo

The Wanderings and Delusions of a Gay Mormon Missionary

Through the crowd, a small herd of Mormon missionaries came into view—“herd” being the appropriate metaphor because we all had a collective semblance of terror, arriving in a new country mostly unfamiliar with the language and culture. The small man who had shouted “Welcome to the jungle!” as we made it through customs approached and explained in his broken English, “Stay with me. Soon we will go to the CTM (pronounced Say-Tay-Emmy) in the van.”

Sao Paulo airport

We all stood there with our mounds of luggage and taking in the atmosphere of the airport. This hub of international travel brought together our group of missionaries, some nuns, well-dressed businessmen and women, Charlie Brown, Jr. (a popular, nationally-recognized rock band), and a hoard of their fans. In that moment, I realized that my life as a sheltered, rural Utah boy would not continue. Everything had been so ordinary, expected, and usual to me at that point and now (though my life was still mapped out for me in a way), and now that was all going to change. Everyone has their growing up moment—the moment in which you realize you’re not really a kid anymore and that you’re meant for bigger and better things. That moment came as I hoisted my bags over my shoulders and made my way to the van.

It was a march into epiphany as we walked from the cement terminal to the bay of vans and taxis. The brilliance of the Brazilian sun became more and more apparent as the train of gringo missionaries cautiously rolled along. It peeked through the tinted windows on the doors clearly labeled “Saida” and appeared almost white as we squinted to see beyond the shade of the terminal of vans.

Excited and loaded up, we made our way into the vans—the drivers eagerly awaiting a journey they’d clearly made several times before. The more eager missionaries tried using their scant Portuguese skills to ask their names and explain that they were missionaries, to the amusement of the Brazilians watching out for us.


Skyscrapers of glass and steel, insular slums, smatterings of urban litter and graffiti art of Che Guevara, Bob Marley, and George W. Bush, the enormous concrete river of black sewage. Brilliant red and blue banners signaled the beginning of an election season reminding me that 2004’s US election was just around the corner. Groups of twenty-somethings in shirts with golden yellow lettering “SERRA” stood on street corners shouting slogans.

The city was alive, as I’d had a glimpse into the passion São Paulo and Brazil had to offer. I suppose middle school civics had twisted me into thinking that American politics was superior somehow, but suddenly I noted that it was nice for people to believe in something enough to take to the streets and show it, and as I looked around at the other missionaries with their faces pressed to the glass in their white shirts and ties, I realized that we had a lot in common with our Brazilian brothers and sisters.


We arrived an hour later at the CTM exhausted from travel, anticipation, and the sewage river’s overpowering smell (I’d describe in terms of smells emanating from outhouses, highway construction, and the sulfurous hot pots of Yellowstone). The Centro de Treinamento Misionario (CTM) is a center for training all Mormon missionaries that serve in Brazil and perhaps the largest conglomeration of American citizens in all of Latin America, which is why the first thing you notice as you arrive are the tall fences lined with sharp tips and a booth occupied by a severe-looking guard. The thought of prison immediately came to mind—a funny side note in the moment.

Again, we filed our way in the gates before closing them behind us and offering our Thank Yous to the driver without thought that they might go lost on his Portuguese ears. Unexpectedly, as I stumbled through the gate with my clutter of luggage, I spotted a familiar face.

Wednesdays CTM

“GMB. E ai, cara?”

It was Jim Toone. As I later learned, he’d been here a month and tried to impress me with his knowledge of Brazilian slang. We grew up 2 miles from each other and went to school together, though we’d hardly spoken. He was a snowboarder I’d always considered a slacker and wondered if these two years would change him.

“Nice to see you… a continent away. I wasn’t really expecting any familiar faces for a couple of years.”

Conversation was left to a minimum because we didn’t have much to talk about, and I had a lot to think about.

A few instructors who greeted us at the gate gave us some helpful instructions in English and helped us to our rooms.

“Elder Gay Mormon Boy” I heard called from across the courtyard.

“Yes,” I said as I made my way.

“You’re in District 37-D and your companion is Lindley. Follow Irmão Henrique to the fourth floor with your things. Oh, and don’t forget your blue dot.” And with that, he removed a sticker from his clip board placed it on my name tag, and pointed me in the direction of Irmão Henrique.

“There are only two times you use this elevator,” Irmão Henrique pointed out the group sternly as a small group of four or five of us rode up the shaft with our luggage. “When you arrive and when you go.”

We turned right outside of the elevator as he grabbed a stray bag of mine. Thankfully, he instructed us all to take a good nap and be ready for orientation in a few hours. Eager to throw my bags down and pass out on my bed, I thanked Irmão Henrique, then taking a deep breath, I opened the door. It was what you’d imagine for a dorm. Three bunk beds and three desks all in brown and white tones. I rolled my suitcases in, taking in the coolness of the open window and the tile floor. As I turned around to shut the door, two missionaries popped out from behind it. “You must be Elder GMB,” they shouted as I jerked away in shock.


Horizon said...

My experience was almost exactly how you described it. You brought the memories flowing back. The blue dots, the river of sludge, the sights, the smells, even being herded at the airport, all with the aptly described “collective semblance of terror.” That phrase just about nails it.

I, too, remember the guards, the cool tiled floors, the bunk beds and the large windows. It is amazing how such a short stay can create so many memories.

There are so many missionaries in Brazil, I think it is impossible to not run into someone you know at the Say-Tay-Emmy. (Seeing that spelled out phonetically just makes me smile.) I ran into three people I knew over the course of my stay there.

Needless to say, I look forward to the rest of this series with eager anticipation!

My growing up moment came saying goodbye to my family at the airport.

naturgesetz said...

Those missionaries are quite the cut-ups! Hiding behind the door and startling you like that!

But it really is quite the adventure to be in entirely new surroundings like that.

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El Genio said...

They let you take a nap!?!? Not once in my two years did I ever get permission or receive encouragement to take a nap.

A Gay Mormon Boy said...

@Horizon: I see this series continuing for another couple of months. I have to eventually get to the field. I'm glad you're enjoying the observations.

@naturgesetz: They proved to be even more fun as I spent more time with them.

@El Genio: Yes, we were spoiled after a long plane ride.... and most Sundays in the CTM.

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