My name is José Roberto Gonçalves, but I’m also known as “Melo”. I was born in 1970, in the southernmost tip of the state of São Paulo, Brazil (about one hour away from Ariri) and grew up on my father’s farm. I came to Ariri to study because we didn’t have a school in our community. Most of my friends and I only studied until the fourth grade because that was the highest grade available in our local school. Back then it was enough school for us to learn how to read and write. We never considered we would need more education.
When Ariri started to develop, a lot of people came to the area looking for work in construction. As a result of the influx of people, many drugs were also introduced to that region, especially Marijuana. I was 12 years old the first time I tried it. When I began to work and earn my own money, I picked up some bad habits — I started drinking and smoking regularly. I worked very hard, providing for myself and helping my parents with some bills at home
At age 22, I was hired by a local farmer just a few hours from my village to harvest rice, beans and to prepare the land. There were 40-50 men working and the farmer paid us in with food, alcohol and parties for our entertainment.
I found myself getting into fights often because I would become offended by any kind of insult and felt I had to defend myself. At work years ago, I got into an argument with a coworker that became physical. Before I knew it my colleague drew his gun at me and shot me! I remember feeling tiny pieces of lead travelling across my waist—things had gone too far. This farm was in a remote location. Two men had to strap me onto wooden planks and carry me for more than 3 miles towards the highway because the road was too dangerous for cars or trucks to drive on. When we got to the highway they managed to flag down a truck driver who was willing to drive me to the nearest hospital in another city. We started the trip at 4 AM and I wouldn’t arrive until 11 AM.
At the hospital, the doctors were able to stitch me up and treat me for my injury. I woke up several hours later and the doctor had to help me remember what happened. I was told that I had been in a coma for a few hours. I had been reassured that the worst was over and I would survive. The nurse told my father that I would be OK, but that I would no longer be able to work. This news devastated my father, who realized his young, 22 year old son would not be able to provide for himself and have to depend on others.
After 6 months in recovery, my wounds and their effects were miraculously healed and I was cleared to resume work. My aunts, who were very religious, told me it was a miracle to have survived without lasting injuries. At that time I still did not know who God was, but today I can say confidently that God healed me completely and enabled me to work again, despite what the physicians told me.
Growing up, our family was Catholic and I had heard about God—that Jesus died for my sins. However, I had no idea that I could develop a relationship with God; that you could talk to him and He could listen. My father would regularly attend mass but to no avail. He lived his life the way he wanted, and consequently my siblings and I followed his example. I thought it was enough to attend Mass every Sunday to justify all my wrongdoings for the rest of the week.
I attended the youth group at my church and was popular among the group, although I was not a good role model. I regret many of the choices I made when I was part of that group because I was a negative influence. I introduced and drew other members to my own vices. This was around the time that I met my wife. At this point in our lives she was a young teenager that was experiencing problems at home. Her parents separated and although her dad helped them financially, he was an absent father and the rest of the family struggled.
Not very far into our relationship, she became pregnant and because I was aware of the difficulties she had where she lived I decided to move her into my home so we could raise our child together. My family grew and our children were raised with parents that had a partying lifestyle. I would work hard and provide for my family, all while I indulged in drugs and alcohol.
Thankfully, EMAF started doing projects in our community. They had an after school program where my daughters used to attend. They really enjoyed going there! My children would play games, listen to the Word of God and EMAF medical teams would provide care. Their presence is the reason my daughters grew up knowing the Lord.
Something very interesting happened to my father one day while he was hunting in the forest. He had a vision, like the one the Bible tells us about Saul (who was renamed Paul) at his conversion. Saul persecuted Christians until he encountered Jesus. He was blinded by His light, only regaining sight after having hands laid on him, as instructed by Jesus. Saul became Paul, a devout man of God who lived to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ after his encounter with Him. My father told my family that he also saw a light so bright that he fell to the ground and was certain God had spoken to him that day. After his experience, my father went to EMAF to tell them he wanted to accept the Lord into his life.
My father’s life drastically changed after his encounter with God. I believe he always saw himself as a good man who worked very hard to provide for his family, but his excessive drinking caused a lot of conflict. After making the decision to follow God, he never drank again and started to live a life committed to Christ. He became very active in the church and was always willing to help with any project the church had. He helped Marcio (EMAF Ministry Leader) build the sports court and the EMAF missionary house in our community. My father became a man of great faith who would bless everyone around him.
Despite seeing the transformation of my father’s life, my life choices became worse and my wife decided to separate from me. She left our home with our children. My father and many others encouraged me and spoke to me about following Christ, but it wasn’t until later when I was in the forest cutting palm that I cried out to God for the first time. I said, “God, if you exist and are really are the Creator of everything, I need you to help me get back my family. If that happens I will do as you tell me and lead my wife and daughters in serving you.”
In less than a month my wife and children were living with me again, but that only lasted for three months. In spite of this setback, something started to happen within me. Every time I was smoking or drinking I would feel convicted because of the promise I had made to God. We were on the brink of divorce when Benedito, a National Leader at EMAF, who spoke into my life and invited me to go to church with him. I decided to go with my mother and older brother.
I began to notice that worship music would stir up feelings in me that I never had before. My mother always used to play this one particular worship CD and the lyrics began taking on new meaning. My heart was being softened to the things of Christ and it was in fact Him who was drawing me to Himself.
I was given the opportunity to accept Jesus into my life one Sunday, but was held back by my incorrect thinking that I was not ready because of the way my life looked. The following Sunday, however; I accepted Jesus! Jesus loves us all as we are and only He can transform lives.
Brother Benedito, of EMAF, and others planted seeds that grew into my understanding of the love that Jesus has for me. Ever since then I quit drinking and smoking. I quit those things because I was committed to living life differently for Jesus and that helped me break those habits even when tempted.
It took some time before my wife would believe that I had truly turned from my old ways, because of Jesus—she had suffered a great deal because of me. All I could do was pray for us and hold onto the promise I made to God. In the midst of these hard times, I made an effort to attend church and God poured His wisdom into me, changing my behaviour for the better. I also read the Word of God and got to know Him.
A new team from EMAF visited our community for a few days and my wife was interested in their social work and decided to attend church to find out more. I prayed for her. My daughters and I were constantly at EMAF events and I was sure that this played a role in her curiosity. I believed EMAF could help her in the same ways it had helped me. She eventually accepted Jesus into her life! I cannot explain the feeling of euphoria I had when she said those words! I could not stop thanking God for His mercy.
My wife grew tired of the traditional neighborhoods parties, realizing they did not bring anything positive to her life. We started attending church together and our lives changed drastically. She later on was baptized and began studying discipleship. Pastor Alexandre from EMAF taught us so much about the Bible, so we decided to remain with EMAF. We moved closer to Ariri and our lives kept improving.
Eventually Pastor Alexandre told me about his upcoming retirement. He said, “Melo, I want you to be the church leader here in Ariri”. I told him, “Pastor I can’t, because there are so many people more qualified than me. How can I lead a whole church when I’ve only completed school up until the fourth grade?” The pastor responded, “Melo, it is not me who is telling you this, it’s God”. I accepted God’s call to lead the church in Ariri and have been serving there ever since.
Today my family and I are still in church and we feel so blessed. The church keeps growing and I help disciple the youth for baptisms. As for my daughters, if it was not for Christ I do not know where they would be today. They help with the children’s ministry and worship at church. I’m thankful to EMAF for teaching my children about Jesus and God’s Word, even before I could. As a father it gives me peace to know that Jesus is part of their lives. It is Him who fills the voids we may have in our hearts, because only in Him we find happiness even in the worst moments.
God has a message for you: if you surrender yourself to Him, you can be certain He will transform you to what you need to be. I am proof of that—I used to live a sinful life with no good outcomes. Before I was enslaved to work, because every hour of work could afford me alcohol and drugs. Today I have health, happiness and peace because I have Jesus Christ in my life and I am truly happy.
Our village used to be very closed off to evangelism. I can affirm today that EMAF has transformed the community in Ariri. Pastor Alexandre from EMAF helped people realize that the church does not only serve believers, but everyone and the pastor has been an example of Godly character for those inside and outside church. Through all they’ve done in this community, EMAF is a testament that the gospel is for everyone. Jesus Christ is the Lord of all. It took one National Leader to lead the way of transformation in Ariri. We will forever be thankful to God, to EMAF and to the early missionaries who paved the way and laboured for the fruit we reap today.
With the help of Luiggi Guetti
Humber College International Development Student / Summer Intern EMAF