LOCATION: Outside Imbituba, Brazil
“Can I help you?”
The voice seemed to whish from the blue flames of my camp stove. It was an authoritative yet timid voice, as if from a father who doesn’t want to believe the boy on his stoop is taking his teenage daughter to the movies. And it seemed suspiciously genuine, as if it could see with night vision that I had lost my spoon and was stabbing at soup with a spatula.
In the dim lamplight that cut the black night, I saw his khakis first, then his white, striped button-up shirt. It was perfectly pressed and tucked into the Dockers that creased naturally into his wide stance. His arms hung awkwardly at thigh-level, neither tensed nor relaxed. There was no weapon in either fist.
Within the five second silence in which his voice entered my ears and words left my mouth I had decided he was not a threat, at least not in the traditional hunter-gatherer sense in which his violence would be met with mine. The man was local, I thought, a simple rancher who lived on the bordering pastureland. This made sense: my tent and grass-scattered kitchen, couched between two barbwire fences that acted as property lines, were too far removed from the highway’s stream of movie-like good and bad guys, the rogue cop and scarred villain, the witty cowboy and masked bandit, the sacrificial boyfriend and psychopath always outwitted by the sole surviving girlfriend.
Knowing my audience, I broke into an alpha male response that, in the most respectful foreign accent possible, emphasized all the key phrases: American, sir; biking to Argentina, sir; neighbor gave permission (she’s now sleeping, sir); leaving at sun up, sir. I laid it on thick, like a German spy speaking Mandarin to the communist guard. It was my first day back on the bike after six-months of little more than samba and gentle strolls on the beach. My legs were taunt and throbbing from this thing called exercise; my mind sleepy from movement. I was in no mood to uproot camp and go bump with bulls in the night.
“Good, good” his shadow finally said, followed by a silence that wouldn’t go out of style. As I dumped half a bag of spiral noodles into boiling water and plopped a bacon bouillon cube on top, I began to wonder just what the hell he wanted.
“Maybe you’ve heard of us,” he timidly mustered in a poor show of salesmanship while extending one neither flexed nor limp arm in my direction. In Portuguese, the pamphlet read: “HOW TO KNOW GOD,” with an implied question mark above a man graphic the way ideas become light bulbs above cartoon heads.
He was an Evangelist, and sweaty and smelly and lonely in a field I must have looked in need of some old fashion saving. I told him I had seen his organization all over South America, but I didn’t mention that only the poorest, most desperate regions seem to grasp onto the salvation idea, or that in a remote Bolivian village I had stopped my bicycle at the barn-style doors of a house converted into a church to watch a small troop of people speak in tongues and collapse to the floor, or that a skeptical Peruvian once told me that his priest drove a better car than the town’s mayor. I didn’t say any of this. I just stirred my pasta with a spatula.
He mustered other things too, and I even tried to listen to them, but soon lost interest as his original thoughts faded into the recited verse of pamphlets that some headquarter envoy dropped off in bundles with a note, stating simply: distribute.
All original ideas about the religion he claimed to love, to which he offered his money in devote humbleness, to which his caloric intake was burned in animated prayer, to which his Wednesday nights, apparently, were spent in soul search-and-rescue missions in remote fields, were but a practice in the routine machine of God, an omnipresent being that thinks about his toils and triumphs and occasionally sends standardized letters in New Times Roman to his address.
It was this last thought that was my last straw. A small voice inside me grew from the faint whisper of apathy to the loud roar of eco-injustice just imagining the forests cleared to fuel this mass mailing crusade, the postage money that could have patched Evangelists’ rooftops through which water drips into buckets during the rainy season.
Until this last thought I fought silence with silence and tried to make the lick of the blue flame a pointed tongue beneath my dinner because past experiences with Evangelists had taught me that any feint of interest incites a fire of memorized lines and jumbled Biblical poetry that barely made sense in the Motherland, let alone in a 21st century Brazilian backwater with dirt streets and steel window shutters.
Ah, but a compassion suddenly and inexplicably filled me. I became interested in who this man was and why he thought it appropriate to approach me, an armed hobo junky vampire for all he knew, in the thick of night. Mostly though, I wanted to know what compelled this Evangelizing, a desire to fill his own emptiness or to fill the void he sees in others? I wrapped my inquiry in precise parameters, the way a diver is briefed before entering a shark cage.
“I’m very tired and need to sleep,” I said in all honestly. “Before I do though, I’d like to ask a quick question. Could you respond with just one sentence?”
He claimed he could.
“For you, what does the Evangelical church represent?” I asked, bracing for the after-shock.
A more intense silence than his natural disposition blanketed his face. Deep thought became him. This went on for probably less than a minute but I became anxious as if it were an hour, as if I had singlehandedly turned a factory line moment into a custom design. This, I thought in my gleeful surge of humanity, is why I pedal for days what could be easily be driven in hours. I leaned in close, I turned off the stove….
Then the man sterilely recited, word for word, what I later read in the pamphlet to be Step Three: “Believe that Jesus is the only savior.” Trying not to show my disappointment, I thanked him again for the tent space and said goodnight.
With rain on the horizon, I unlidded my dinner, balanced noodles on my spatula, and watched the clouds morph from puffy soft to an uniformed flatness that pressed against sky. I felt a lesson went unlearned, that we were robbed of a conversation that could have been a bedtime story for my grandchildren or dinner party anecdote to inject some realness into an otherwise posed and postured evening.
I saw one last image of this timid Evangelist before he disappeared the same way he appeared, silently. Below a street light several blocks away he skipped twice like a child, then bounded into the air to slap the leaves of a tree that hung over the street, as if high-fiving Jesus himself after swishing the winning basket. Maybe, just maybe, I thought while unzipping my tent, realness is only as real as we make it.