In March of this year, I traveled to the northeastern coast of Brazil with my husband’s family. We didn’t embark on nearly 20 hours of travel (each way) for an off-the-beaten-path, exotic vacation. We went because there were two church communities in Fortaleza, Brazil that loved my late mother-in-law so much that they wanted to honor her life; and they wanted us to be there. I knew that I was blessed with an incredible mother-in-law, and I knew that Penny’s work as a minister and leader within the Presbyterian Church was impactful. She was a force to be reckoned with, and she was truly best friends with more people than I can count. What I didn’t know, or perhaps underestimated, is the indelible mark that loving people can have. I came home from Brazil with a whole new perspective on leaving a legacy.
First, a little background: nearly two decades ago, Penny decided that her sons were old enough to go on an international mission trip. Around the same time, a pastor from Brazil named Aureo visited Atlanta. When Penny heard him speak about the people in Fortaleza–one of the most dangerous cities in Brazil–she felt convicted to go. So, in her role as a family minister at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, she organized a mission trip. For nearly a decade, she led intergenerational groups to northeastern Brazil to do physical labor, lead vacation Bible schools, and love on the people in Fortaleza.
The last large group that Penny took on a mission trip to Fortaleza was in the summer of 2007, about a month before I met my husband–her eldest son–Nick. The next trip, scheduled for the following summer, was canceled due to quickly escalating airline prices and a worsening exchange rate, so I never got to go. Instead, I spent more than 9 years hearing stories about this place and the people and wondering what it was like. I knew that Nick’s family built incredible bonds with folks down there, but he and his brother hadn’t returned to Fortaleza in 10 years. When we planned our March trip, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t know if they could just pick up where they left off.
My fears were quickly diminished when we were greeted at the Fortaleza airport by two Brazilian families with whom the Hills stayed in close touch, including Pastor Aureo, who inspired the first trip. We were all enveloped in hugs, and excited introductions were made to my sister-in-law Jessica and me. From our first moments there, I was truly overwhelmed with the fondness with which I was treated. Not only did the boys pick up where they left off, but I was also welcomed as a family member by people who had never met me.
Fortaleza is a large city of a few million residents, and our hotel sat across the street from the beach in an area largely filled with tourists from other areas of Brazil. We experienced many of the city’s best aspects: acai bowls, tapioca pancakes, wide beaches, the Dragao do Mar Center for Arts & Culture, shopping, and Brazilian steakhouses. We also spent a few days at the end of our trip at a bed & breakfast down the coast in Cumbuco (more on that here). But the two memorial services for Penny, which landed squarely in the middle of our trip, provided some of the most memorable moments for me.
Photos from our friend “Becky” via Facebook
The first church we visited was in Pirambu, the poorest and most dangerous neighborhood in Fortaleza, and the original neighborhood Penny and her group served in Fortaleza. To put in perspective just how dangerous Pirambu is, we heard that it has an estimated 20 murders per WEEK. We arrived at the little church in Pirambu on a rainy Sunday morning in a rare moment of complete disconnectivity–we were strictly instructed not to bring any phones or cameras with us. The walled, gated, and electric-fence-surrounded property didn’t look like any church I’d ever seen. Inside the small sanctuary, we were once again enveloped with hugs, tearful greetings, and excited introductions. Though very few of the churchgoers spoke a word of English, the gratitude for Penny’s life and sadness from her passing were evident. The tears, hugs, and gestures–like our friend’s t-shirt with a tribute to Penny–said more than words ever could.
To our surprise, the Pirambu church oriented their entire Sunday-morning worship service as a memorial and celebration of Penny. They played a slideshow with photos of her and the other Atlanta groups visiting their church. The youth performed an interpretive dance for us. Pastor Aureo spoke about Penny’s ministry there, and then members of the community took turns speaking about the way Penny impacted their lives. The most moving anecdote came from a man who is around the same age as Nick and his brother. He told us–via a translator–that he wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for Penny. Her coming back, year after year, was evidence that he was loved. He didn’t get that anywhere else.
After the service we went to a downstairs courtyard, where we planted a tree with some of Penny’s ashes. Friends spoke about how they felt so indebted to Penny’s life and ministry. And then the most amazing part happened: they dedicated their entire building to her! They unveiled a large plaque inscribed with Penny’s name and gave us a replica to take home. It’s difficult to express what that unveiling was like. I was in a small, concrete courtyard in the most dangerous neighborhood of the most dangerous city in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language, and people were praising God for the life of my mother-in-law. I couldn’t pull out my phone to video or photograph it. I couldn’t attempt to capture it in any way. I could only be present in that incredibly moving moment. (Some friends posted photos of these special moments on Facebook, as you can see above.)
The second church that held a service for Penny was in a middle class neighborhood called Messejana on the other side of town. We arrived there on Sunday night for their evening service. Everyone had dressed up in their Sunday best. The women’s group sang a special song in honor of Penny, and my father-in-law, Richard, delivered a sermon. They, too, had a slideshow of photos from Penny’s time there. Afterward, we spent time with several families whose children were part of the vacation Bible schools Penny led, and we heard tearful stories of how much she meant to them. They were so grateful that the boys came back after many years, and they were thrilled that Jessica and I could be there, too. Again, they embraced us as part of their family, even though most of us could barely communicate without a translator.
The other days in Brazil were punctuated with meals and visits with Brazilian friends, filled with reminiscing and laughter and catching up. Fortunately for us, during most of that time we had bilingual friends with us who could translate. The last night, however, we were on our own with a couple of friends who spoke as much English as we speak Portuguese (basically none). They offered to escort us to our resort in Cumbuco and then back to the airport on our last morning, but they lived about an hour from where we were staying. So we invited these friends–two boys around Nick’s age who grew up in Pirambu–to stay with us at our bed and breakfast. We started dinner together with some awkward silence as we realized the magnitude of our language barrier. We communicated some through our bilingual waiter but quickly decided we had to figure something else out. So we looked up translation apps on our phones, and began a hilarious game of trying to communicate at the mercy of internet translations. Our conversation included plenty of jokes and lighthearted banter, and then it moved to more serious professions of how much our family meant to them and their community. It’s a night I hope I never forget.
Critics of mission trips wonder if the trips really help the community that is visited. I don’t know that answer in general, but I know the answer for the trips that Penny led to Fortaleza: YES. It wasn’t the physical work they did or any specific activity they led. It was the way they loved the people of Fortaleza. It was coming back every year that showed so many Brazilians God’s love incarnate. In a world obsessed with “likes” and followers and paychecks and retirement accounts, I want to remember that loving people leaves the greatest impact. Penny’s legacy most certainly is one of living and loving well–so well that people half a world away feel indebted to her.
I went into this journey to Brazil hoping to put names with faces and places with stories I’d heard. I left with all of that and a deep gratitude for the way I was generously welcomed and loved. Though we may not all be called to serve people far away in remote cities, we can show up for our friends and coworkers, for our cities, for our families and our neighbors. And we can try live everyday with the kind of love that transcends barriers, like Penny did.