December 18, 2017

Stranded in the Brazilian Desert

Bill Griffin

Brazilians call the semi-arid desert of Brazil its “wild west.” Cowboys ride horseback, and oxcarts squeak along at their slow pace. This area, known as the Sertao, is populated with a large group of small towns and is fanatically Roman Catholic. The people show great respect to the priest, bowing before him and kissing his ring when they encounter him on the street. All landowners pay two sets of taxes a year — one to the bishop for church tax and one to the municipality for property tax. Brazil’s Sertao is an area of poverty and starvation. Huts have dirt floors, people go barefoot, and children go naked. Because the Sertao is only five degrees south of the equator, the heat is unbearable.

After finishing language school, my wife and I settled into this parched mission field as young missionaries. To the best of our knowledge, we were the first to bring the gospel to the Sertao towns. Early opposition started when the priest informed the people that I was Lucifer. He excommunicated the man who rented us our house and any who would attend our meetings. He also instructed the people to stone me as a service to God. Townspeople interrupted our street meetings by throwing rocks, bricks, eggs and fruit. In spite of the opposition, we would travel to nine towns a week and hold open-air meetings. More than 200 people attended these meetings, and many accepted Christ.

One night during the most dangerous period of the persecution, I drove to Cruz do Palhano alone to conduct their weekly service. Because of the danger, my family stayed home. As I played my accordion that evening, I listened to the Brazilian believers sing the old hymns. It renewed my joy. I preached from the running board of my jeep. I always left the motor running in preparation for a quick getaway from any of the priest’s fanatics. When I invited unbelievers to accept Jesus Christ, fruit and vegetables started flying from the back of the crowd. I felt led to close the invitation, jumped into my jeep and quickly left. I was dead tired, and sweaty and sticky from the fruit and vegetables. The road across the desert was just an ox-cart trail of rock and deep sand. My headlights did little to illuminate the trail on that dark moonless night as I headed out for the two-hour journey home.

Suddenly the motor quit. I tried to start the jeep, but it was useless. The engine would not even turn over. I sat for a few minutes trying to figure out what to do. The closest ranch house was a few miles away, and the desert was laden with jaguars, boa constrictors, and scorpions. To the north lay the ranch of a man named Leonardo, who had taken English lessons from me many months ago. I decided to try to reach Leonardo for some help.

After walking for hours, I finally reached the ranch. When I arrived I proceeded with the typical Brazilian greeting by clapping my hands and calling out in front of the house. Reluctantly Leonardo opened his shuttered window, then greeted me with glee and invited me to spend the night. I told him about my stalled vehicle and asked him to lend me a horse. I knew I had to get home to alleviate my wife’s fears concerning my safety. He had his cowboys saddle two horses, and Leonardo rode with me to my town of Russas. I figured if I was going to spend the night riding through the desert, I was going to take full advantage of the opportunity; so as we rode together that night, I used the time to share the message of Christ’s grace and salvation with Leonardo.

We arrived at my home at daybreak. I stayed only long enough to assure Doris and the children that I was all right, and then headed back to repair the jeep. I feared that the jeep and my accordion would be damaged if I did not return right away. All the way back I discussed salvation with Leonardo. I talked of the sufficiency of the blood of Jesus, of the one Mediator between God and men, and of grace without works. Leonardo listened to everything I said.

When we arrived back at his ranch, Leonardo had about fifteen ranch hands follow us back to the jeep in case we had to push it to safety. We found the jeep right where I had left it and I got in and tried to start it one more time. To everyone’s surprise, it started like a new car. I thanked Leonardo for his help and drove home, wondering what God’s reason had been for all of this. The reason soon became obvious. A short time later Leonardo discontinued his studies at the Roman Catholic seminary, accepted Christ as his Savior and Lord and left the Roman Catholic church. God put this missionary in the middle of a dark desert so Leonardo could trade his black seminary gown for a robe of pure white!

Bill and Doris Griffin retired from the mission field in 1988 having spent 21 years ministering in the mission field of Brazil.

(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 1991. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

Editor’s Note: This article comes from one of the earliest issues of FrontLine, recently scanned and digitized. We hope to feature articles from other older editions as they become available.

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