BELA VISTA, Brazil (Mennonite Mission Network) — The scene was familiar to community members of the Deni and Paumari tribes. The 17-year-old, still looking every bit a boy, was drunk again. He bellowed threats at them, but mostly at the chief, until fatigued. They had peace for a while until the next episode.
Each time it got worse. The last time he had a machete.
Anger convinced the boy—nicknamed Balala—that the Bela Vista community was against him. As his anger accumulated, drink gave him the courage to release it.
But Balala never killed, and his anger was met with forgiveness. Catalyzed by the work of various evangelists and mission workers that began this January, Balala would become the embodiment of God's transforming power.
Colleen and Pablo Fast and a group of Illinois Mennonites witnessed the result of this transformation at his baptism on May 24.
The Fasts work with Project Amazon in Manaus, Brazil, and are mission associates with Mennonite Mission Network. Since 2004, they have supported Igreja da Paz de Tapauá (Peace Church of Tapauá). They provide pastoral care and support in addition to Biblical and technical training for the church’s various church planting efforts.
The Fasts credit João Ramos, a policeman and evangelist of Igreja da Paz for the majority of Balala's personal growth.
Ramos first met Balala during the Bela Vista church planting effort. Ramos, along with his wife, Maria, their two children, and his 20-person outreach team, arrived in Bela Vista when the village was ready to incarcerate Balala for his violent threats.
“[Balala had anger] against enemies that weren’t really his enemies,” said Colleen Fast.
Ramos cited Matthew 18—“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault”—as an alternative to incarceration. The team decided to confront Balala privately. They met with him, listened to his story and then shared the gospel.
A few weeks later the team returned to hold the first church service in Bela Vista. Balala and six others accepted Jesus as their Savior and began Project Amazon’s eight-week program to disciple and support new believers.
Balala’s desire to follow the Lord was intense. Fast explained that whenever the team returned to visit, Balala would follow them around to listen and inquire about faith issues.
With the help of Ramos and the team, Christ transformed and dramatically altered Balala’s life. Since becoming a Christian, Balala no longer drinks or bears resentment against others. In addition, the chief—who was at the center of Balala’s anger—forgave and reconciled with Balala.
Four months after Ramos' first visit to Bela Vista and after completing a new believer's class, Balala underwent believer’s baptism in the river Ipixuna. Among those baptized with him were the chief of the village and a 70-year-old man, the oldest in the village.
Present at the baptism were nine friends of the Fasts from First Mennonite Church in Morton, Ill. The group traveled to Brazil on a vision trip as a part of First Mennonite's aim to become more proactive in its mission work locally, nationally and internationally.
Bela Vista leaders even asked Reg Smidt of First Mennonite to participate in Balala's baptism. Balala's transformation touched Smidt, as did the strength of commitment shown by the believers who were baptized.
Smidt recognized that for residents of Bela Vista, following Christ meant a change in lifestyle.
“That was a challenge to me, a heart-check for what [baptism] really means," said Smidt.
One of First Mennonite’s connections to Brazil came through the efforts of Ben Crocker, one of the nine who visited Bela Vista.
In 2000, Crocker established a boat building venture in Brazil to provide pastors and mission workers with accessible transportation to remote villages in the Amazon Basin.
Crocker's connection to Brazil began when he was vacationing with his three grandsons. They got caught on the Amazon during a storm and had to approach a nearby village for shelter.
Residents warmly welcomed Crocker and family, giving them protection during the storm.
In return for their hospitality, Crocker provided the members of this tribe with a wooden boat and motor, drastically changing their lives and his.
Soon, Crocker began his business and his life-long relationship with mission workers and the indigenous people of the Amazon Basin.
Enriched by their partnership with missionaries and mission efforts in Brazil, First Mennonite members are exploring ways to continue strengthening it. They helped build a retreat center to aid in the Fasts’ ministry and met with Mission Network's Dean Heisey, networking/partnership coach, before departing for Brazil.
"I see God's hand through this whole [partnership] process," said Kathy Smidt, Crocker's daughter and evangelism and outreach chair at First Mennonite. "There is no other way to explain how we got where we are."
Members of the group from First Mennonite in Morton included: Roger Allen; Ben Crocker; Liz Koch; Dave and Linda Neuhauser; Reg and Kathy Smidt; and Dan and Leona Yordy. Project Amazon’s mission is to plant one church in every village in the Amazon Basin and make disciples by “minister[ing] to the whole person: spirit, mind, and body.”