I inferred in a few earlier blogs that we might be participating in a rather adventurous service opportunity Friday night, and we did! Following the amazing Zoe church service, about a dozen from our group – and another dozen or so of Zoe’s members – left for that project… and we wouldn’t return back to the hotel until 2am! So I wanted to share about our adventure to the heart of the city – not simply because it will make me feel better about staying out so late, but because it provided another excellent introduction to São Paulo, Zoe Church, and the ways the two are able to intersect.
Annually, São Paulo hosts Virada Cultural, a 24-hour, multi-site arts & music festival that spreads throughout the downtown area. Dozens of sites host various cultural productions, bands, and other activities through the night and most of the following day. (Though it’s in Portuguese, I encourage you to scroll through the list of locations / events at the Virada Cultural 2010 site, to get an idea of the massiveness of this event.)
For Zoe Church (and its somewhat rag-tag North American co-laborers), it was a great chance to connect to and serve the city.
After over an hour of walking… bussing… subway-ing… we ultimately arrived near Downtown. Our first sight after ascending from the subway station was a big floating (though tethered) hot air balloon, occasionally glowing with fire while an acrobat dangled underneath the basket, performing in mid-air. Other examples of radical showmanship were planted throughout various spaces. These were connected by streets that wound between the enormous buildings, allowing attendees to stumble upon each activity as they rounded the next corner or came into a new public square.
But even more noticeable than the events were the throngs of people, which, not surprisingly at that time of night, included mostly jovens (youth and young adults). Most of these simply milled about or stood with groups of friends – in the streets, underground on the subway platforms, on the steps of large buildings, and at the event sites. The only comparable American activities I know are the occasional celebrations that break out spontaneously following various sports championships; the mood was celebratory, certainly, but mostly in the sort of determined way that indicates the party may last the entire night. (Some celebrants were certainly wilder – or more intoxicated / “influenced” – than others.)
Our project involved two-pronged service: offering free sandwiches, and offering free hugs (the latter advertised with “Abraços” signs). Many of us wore Zoe Church’s “Z ♥ SP” shirts. Of course, the Brazilian Christians bravely led the way, but the rest of us gradually warmed up to the idea of immersing ourselves in this rather unique (and personal space-less) service opportunity.
Importantly, the Free Hugs initiative has been a regular activity of Zoe, and their shirts and service activities are becoming (slowly but surely) more recognizable to the citizens of this city. (We’ll be participating in some of the same things later this week, in fact.) So this wasn’t simply “something neat to do” but a real chance to meet felt needs in the middle of one of the city’s great cultural events, while sharing about Zoe with the interested.
An interesting theme of this trip has been recognizing that we are called to serve all kinds of people. We pretty easily recognize that this includes the “down and out,” such as the homeless people huddled out of the way of last night’s festivities. But we’re also called to serve those the so-called “up and out,” those materially successful individuals who still lack the life that is truly life.
Reflecting that opportunity, we had the chance to give sandwiches (and hugs) both to those who clearly needed those things, as well as those whose needs weren’t as evident. But even (or especially) a hug can strike a dramatic chord; one Zoe member described once seeing a lady simply begin to cry as she was given a hug. The Virada Cultural crowd was indeed quite receptive to all of the above, even as many expressed surprise that we would be offering something truly for free.
Sure, this kind of service sometimes leads only to smiles, “obrigado” (“thank you”), and little else – but even that’s part of loving the city. But in many cases dialogue begins. When conversations do get started, they often result in sharing information about the church or its several activities around the city – all in a way that is both purposeful and rather natural. (And as one Zoe member described this morning, the “Gringo Factor” didn’t seem to hurt last night, as the Brazilians were intrigued by the presence of Americans offering these surprising free gifts.)
Last night, quite a few individuals seemed very open to connecting with the church later on. Others may simply have noticed a group not only claiming to “heart” São Paulo, but actually putting feet (and arms and sandwiches) to our claim. As one member of our team noted this morning, the whole project also revealed to the city the community that is such a pillar of Zoe Church. He’s right – anyone who noticed our laughing, connecting, serving group will find the very same friendly community when they attend a Zoe service.