by Kristen Hiller
The teacher leans over Edinaldo's desk, glancing over the boy's shoulder as he fills in the blanks on his worksheet. The air is thick and stagnant inside the cement schoolhouse, and Edinaldo is the only child still working to complete his coursework before the summer break.
Playful shrieks abound as children play games in the grass outside the building. Even though Edinaldo is staying after school today, his education most likely will conclude at the same grade level as the rest of the children growing up in the quilombo (village)-grade four.
Unlike his students, Ivanilson Assis Costa had the rare opportunity to continue his education beyond the fourth grade. When Costa traveled 30 kilometers from his village to complete grades five through eight, he didn't plan on returning to Brazil's Quilombola people to teach in their isolated villages. In fact, when Costa became a Christian 12 years ago, he felt God calling him to the mission field.
But rather than traveling to a foreign country to share Christ, Costa soon realized God was calling him back to Brazil's quilombos to share the Gospel with his own people-descendants of fugitive African slaves in the 1600s who established their remote villages as safe havens. "I never imagined God would use me right here where I was," Costa says.
Six months after arriving in the coastal city of Recife, Brazil, Southern Baptist International Mission Board (IMB) missionary Keith Jefferson felt led to work among the Quilombolas in Brazil's interior. Two dozen missionaries were working in Recife, but none 450 miles inland. When he first set foot in a Quilombola village, Jefferson was shocked by its isolation.
Jefferson and his wife Deborah came from First Baptist Church of Houston, Tex., to serve as IMB strategy coordinators for the Quilombolas, but distance, bad roads and heavy rains prevent them from living among the Quilombolas full-time.
While the Jeffersons are the only IMB personnel working among the Quilombolas, partners such as Costa, volunteers, and short-term teams assist them in carrying the Gospel to the villages.
Pastor Edson Oleivero of First Baptist Missionary Church in the inland town of Cachoaira, partners with the Jeffersons with determination to break through the barriers of isolation to send volunteers into nearby Quilombola villages. One such volunteer, Geralda Santos Sousa, lives four days a week among the Quilombolas.
"There is no better way to reach the Quilombolas," Sousa says, "than to be with the people-to live with the people, to suffer with the people, to go through the difficulties that they go through and identify with them the same way that Christ identified with man."
After an hour-long ride through bumpy dirt roads and mountainous terrain, Sousa steps out of her cramped backseat in a pickup truck to greet the people of a quilombo with a smile. Dusk overtakes the village, but a stream of light pours from the open windows of the church where Sousa regularly meets with Quilombolas for worship.
She knows the roads back through the mountains will be difficult to travel tonight but isn't worried. "The growth of the Kingdom of God doesn't have a price," Sousa says.
For the past four years, volunteers from Hyland Heights Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., have taken annual trips to the villages, offering eye and dental clinics along with Vacation Bible Schools.
"It's exciting," says Rick Magee, administrative pastor at Hyland Heights. "You start getting to see the same people over and over again." After returning to the same three villages for the past three years, Magee understands the goal of making disciples who will lead their own people to Christ.
"The people who will have the most credibility are the nationals, not a foreigner with a foreign idea," Magee says. "So it's critical that the nationals [disciple] and [multiply] themselves."
For the Jeffersons, the time to reach the Quilombolas with the Gospel is now.
"My wife and I are overjoyed because somehow we know that God has given us this awesome task," Keith says, "and that we are His people for this time to speak to the Quilombola people."
Originally published as two separate articles.
Kristen Hiller is a former overseas correspondent with the
Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board.