“I don’t know, Abby. Sometimes I really just don’t know if there’s really anyone out there looking out for me. I like to believe it sometimes, but I never get the guaranteed feeling that someone is going to reach out and catch me when I fall. You know?”
After discovering with much disappointment that the center was closed early on Saturdays, my friend Abby and I were discussing the probability of a higher being – a existential topic that was brought up in an unlikely place for existential debate: a city bus packed full of people. It was already 3pm, so we’d hopped the first bus out of the city back to Lagoa where we would eventually venture back to my house.
This was only one of the spiritual discussions started by me that week that involved a subject I’d always been ambivalent about before and after I came to Brazil – the existence of God. It had been triggered by simply passing a Brazilian church.
But the building alone wasn’t just any church; it was practically a God, overlooking the street in such an authoritative way that my eyes felt obligated to its golden glory. There was a distance between its monumental edifice and the buildings on either side of it, and when the sun reached its highest point of the day, the golden writing on its arches was struck by light and gleamed so royally I could hardly deny my eyes the temptation to stare.
The front of the church read: “Jesus Cristo e o Senhor.”
Sure, the place looked suited for a king, holy or not. But it didn’t matter to me. A church was still a church, and churches had hurt me in the past.
As someone who had grown up in a Christian family, I was inclined to believe naturally that a higher spirit had planned my life out from the beginning. I was spoon-fed the scriptures until biblical names were a part of dinner discussions and I no longer needed to be sat down and taught about what came following my death. My family’s friends were almost entirely composed of church goers, and most of my own friends were their children.
However, as time fast forwarded to the days of my adolescence, my faith drifted as the second home I’d come to know through religious setting bounced from church to church. I’d lost connections with some of my old friends, ties were cut, and my faith began to fog.
Following the sudden death of my brother in January, 2013, I became angry with God and impatient with people who preached about the scriptural teachings of ancient prophets. “Everything happens for a reason,” they would say, laying a hand on my shoulder, “God is doing this because he’s shaping your life and making you in his design.” I grew colder at these words, feeling a bitter disliking to the idea of my life being chiseled by the hammer and nail of something or someone I couldn’t see; at the mere suggestion of my brother being taken from my life because God wanted it to be so. That anybody wanted it to be so.
As the bus curved around the shoreline dividing the city from the coast, our conversation grew silent until both of us were staring out the window in thought. The silhouette of mountains in the distance greyed under the setting sun, which had humbled itself before a brilliant array of water color clouds as the day drew toward its end.
Beware I was aware it was happening, a gentle, strongly accented voice broke through the silence and brought me out of my daydreams, “Excuse me…?”
We turned to see a young Brazilian man, probably around twenty four years old staring back at us. In front of him, he’d extended his arm toward me and Abby in offering of two little gifts; two four leaf clovers, each healthy, undeterred by age or travel, and big enough to fill my palm. I cradled it in my hand delicately, delighted, but totally unaware of the intention in which it had been given to me.
“These are for you,” said the young man, smiling brightly, “They’re from my garden. I grow them in my home.” He dug into his satchel and pulled out two little envelopes, each containing two or three more and handed them to both of us, “You looked like you needed something to make your day better.”
Given the thoughts that had just been occupying my mind, he was right. I stroked each pedal in my hand, unsure of what to say.
“It’s a business that I’ve been working for a few years. I keep this garden for not only myself, but to meet people from all sorts of places who feel like they lived troubled lives. Working in this garden without pay gives them time to think. I’ve met so many people who come to the garden who’ve lost everything; loved ones, jobs, family, money… and by working with me and the others, they feel a sense of purpose and then become more optimistic.”
He then told us two stories, both about people who had come to work in the clover garden who were at hard turning points in their lives; a man who was going through a divorce and a woman who was having a lot of trouble finding and keeping a good job. He talked about what kind of people they were before and after their arrival and how much they’d changed as people by the time they left. The man had come to the garden with pain and fear in his heart about having to say goodbye to living a life with someone he thought completed him and didn’t think things could get worse. The woman came and started working after ages of looking poorly upon herself, convinced that she was unable to hold a job because of who she was and didn’t think anything would change in the future, no matter how much she struggled.
But there was hope. After the time these individuals spent in this garden, the man had somehow repaired his marriage and went back home to live with his wife. The woman had left the garden for a while, and when she came back, told everyone that she’d found a job as a secretary to a lawyer and was also going back to school to get a job in administration. After spending a year working outside in the garden, both of them had changed.
By the end of his story, the young man ended with something that stuck with me for the rest of the day, “Honest, hard work and gratitude makes a person happier than a person who has things given to them. When these friends leave, they feel fulfilled and proud of their honest work. They are happy. And they are thankful.”
The bus turned into the terminal halfway between the city and Lagoa Da Conceicao and the young man moved toward the doors, signaling to us that he had to catch a different bus from there.
“It was nice to meet you ladies. I hope you have a nice day. Goodbye.”
No sooner had he exited the bus, I could feel my eyes welling with emotion. Shame loomed over me. Remorse, grief, embarrassment….all came into a flustering flurry of anguish until hot tears spilled over my cheeks. I wasn’t sure where these powerful feelings were coming from, but as the bus departed from the Tilag terminal, they had come undone. Abby noticed my tears and laid a comforting hand on my shoulders, smoothing it gently as I blubbered.
“See that? That was God.” She said, “Things like that only happen when God’s trying to tell you he’s there.”
I responded with more tears, nodding slowly. I was ashamed of myself, but not because I had suddenly burst into tears, but because I had questioned the existence of the being who had blessed me with the opportunity to be here to begin with. I was ungrateful; ungrateful to the higher power that had watched over me and given me hope when I felt helpless. The creator of the incredible natural beauty that lay in the distance outside my window; mountains, crystal blue waters, a colorful poet’s dream of evening clouds, and the tropical life that awaited summer for its chance to bloom brilliant reds, pinks, yellows… All of it was in God’s design. I glanced down at the clover in my hand and was reminded of a summer years back when I worked in my mother’s garden behind the house I grew up in, digging up weeds and fresh clovers from the flower beds just at the turning point between spring and summer. I thought about my mother and father, and my late brother, and the guilt I’d felt turned into a reminiscence of all the good memories I had working in my backyard. I smelled the clover in my hand and wiped the tears from my eyes. It smelled like home.
The young man was right. Hard work and effort made those days especially happy for me and my family. I missed home terribly – sometimes so badly that it caused an ache in my heart – but it was important that I didn’t forget my purpose for living here, knowing the challenges I needed to get through to live out my Global Citizen Year fully. I couldn’t lose sight of my mission, but more importantly, I wouldn’t let myself question the existence of God. I knew then that I would not let myself become ungrateful for the experience He’s given me. Yes, I may have had times during my youth when I battled with my faith and a few obstacles have made me feel weaker. But through life’s misfortunes, He always provided me with a light at the end of the tunnel.
When I got home, I pasted the clovers in my journal as a permanent reminder; something I won’t question again in the future. Right now, I’m living a life that’s much like a clover garden. With hard, honest work and time to let my life unravel into a straight path, I will find my way to true happiness. And if I fall, I have the heavenly Father there to pick me up off the ground and guide me to true happiness.