I recently went on splits to Diadema, a suburb of São Paulo. I’d heard of places like Diadema–returned missionaries are always willing to talk–but I’d never believed people lived that way, that people could live that way. The roads were unpaved, symbols of poverty. There were no trees, no grass, only dirt and unpainted brick. Diadema was the play city I used to build in the mud for my toy soldiers, only the houses were not pretend. The people were not toys.

The tiny dwellings were completely unorganized. One stood at street level and another right below it, accessible by a steep, tree-house staircase. I descended those stairs and traversed a narrow passageway, passing by a four-year-old who sat in the twilight gutter, hidden from the road by the houses above, hidden as if the world didn’t want to remember what I would never forget.

I climbed and gazed at the terrain. Sharp hills rose and fell as far as the eye could see, juxtaposed against a large, polluted river in the distance. The scene was from the Hudson River School, though painted in browns and grays instead of greens and blues. Gray were the houses of tens of thousands of impoverished souls–souls like mine–stretching dismally off into the distance.

Children danced with dirty street dogs, riding rusty bikes and flying pipas–kites–with smiles on their faces and dust on their feet. They were happy–poor, yes, but rich, for they understood some mysterious principle, some elusive doctrine. Perhaps I’ll never understand. A man and his grandson gazed at flirting chickens. I gave the little boy a sticker with Jesus on the front. A smile appeared on his soiled face, and I saw Jesus in his countenance, too, somewhere beneath the mud and the muck, the dirt and the dust. He placed the sticker on his grandfather’s leg and smiled at it, for he recognized the man depicted thereon. He remembered a time when he was clothed not in rags of grime but in a robe of glory, a time when he stood next to the man in the sticker, brighter and purer than I will ever be, His most cherished friend.

As I walked the dusty streets of that foreign land, I felt the same spirit I’d felt back home in a chapel or in a temple. The brown-faced children didn’t notice the feeling that permeated the dusty air, for they had spent their entire lives walking and playing on that holy ground. But for me this place was sacred. This was the mission field, the place where I would bring souls to Christ, where I would labor in the vineyard.

These are real people, not characters in a story or actors in a movie. As I write, they wash their clothes. They try to feed their children, try to find work and clean water. A mother sits in one of those tiny brick houses right now nursing her little boy while her husband stands quietly in the corner watching her, trying desperately to figure out how he’s going to make ends meet. And God gave me, an awkward boy, the mandate to teach these real people the gospel of Jesus Christ, to save these real souls. Their clothes are dirty, my suit is clean and neatly pressed. I’ve attended a university; many of them are illiterate. I come from a middle-class American family, but many of them cannot afford the tiny shacks they call homes. I am unworthy to latch the sandals of their dusty feet. What an opportunity, missionary work! What a blessing to show these choice souls how to return to live with their Father, how to dwell forever at His right hand! I am humbled to serve, humbled to try, however inadequately, to be a type of Christ, a savior for the people I’ll be privileged to teach, privileged to love.

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