When Ruth de Barros went to Brazil on a short-term mission placement, she was told: “You’re going to fall in love with Brazil, and Brazil is going to fall in love with you.” Now, having served for 25 years as a missionary, a community organiser, a faith-leader, a wife and mother, she reflects on those words in an interview with Amelia Brown. During her quarter-century in Brazil she taught English, fell in love, ministered to prostitutes, got married, created community centres, started classes, ministered in the Amazon, and raised her son.
Ruth’s story starts in her early 20s, in a jazz bar in England. Raised as a nominal Roman Catholic, Ruth’s faith had faded. She couldn’t see where people of faith impacted or understood the real world. This particular night, she found herself chatting with someone who she was shocked to learn was a Christian. After assuring her that it was perfectly normal to be a Christian, have a drink and listen to jazz, he went on to invite her to his Anglican parish church.
“So I agreed to go to his church,” Ruth recalled. “It was so open and so welcoming that I thought ‘this is the family I want to be a part of.’ And that’s why I decided I wanted to do something more for the Church.” Faith rekindled, Ruth looked for ways to share it.
“I decided to go to Brazil because I had recently come back to the Church after being away for a long time and I wanted to do something useful in mission. I didn’t want to just go to church on Sundays; I wanted to do something meaningful.”
With that in mind, she signed up with the mission agency, USPG. In October 1992, Ruth found herself serving in Porto Alegre, in the Southern Diocese of the Episcopal Church of Brazil. She started out teaching English in the seminary. Quickly, Ruth’s colleagues realised that her heart longed to be outside, working in the community. She joined a ministry to prostitutes, providing health appointments and helping them apply for ID cards.
“Basically we supported them. These women suffer a lot of violence from the police and the public. It’s a lot of abuse. . . It’s the kind of job that’s never going to go out. It’s been with us for years and these women need to be treated a little better, with a little more respect.”
After nine months in Brazil, USPG and the Church in Brazil invited Ruth to extend her mission. Her immediate excitement made staying an obvious choice. So for another year, Ruth ministered in Porto Alegre, putting down deeper and deeper roots in Brazil, including marrying Saulo de Barros.
Saulo met Ruth when she was teaching English, during her first weeks in Brazil. A few years later they would have their son, Thomas.
Ruth de Barros in Pratinha favela, Belém, Diocese of Amazon, Brazil.
Photo: Leah Gordon / USPG
One of the people who invited Ruth to extend her stay was the Bishop of the South Western Diocese, in Santa Maria, who hired her a year later to run her choice of community development projects.
“I picked the one that was more challenging, because I love a challenge,” Ruth explained. Indeed, the project was a challenge. It encompassed an organic garden and a community bakery, offering employment opportunities. The facility also was home to a school and nursery, as well as literacy classes for adults. In her spare-time, Ruth worked on a suicide prevention hotline, gave English lessons, and sang in the local church choir. “Saulo had to remind me that I still had a husband at home,” Ruth laughed.
In 2000, the family relocated to Olinda in the Diocese of Recife. Two years later Ruth, Saulo, and their young son Thomas, relocated again to the Amazon, to a community called Belém. They stayed there for the next 15 years. It was during this time that Ruth learned some of her most important lessons: to slow down and to let go.
“I’ve always been that person who thinks ‘Oh! I’ve got to do this, I’m the missionary, I’m being paid, I’ve got to do everything!’ But I’ve learned that isn’t so good. I think one of the major lessons I learned was to hold back and listen more; and to just be with people rather than doing everything.”
She was candid about the struggles they faced in their ministry: how Saulo was one priest responsible for five-to-six parishes, about the poverty facing the communities in the Amazon, and about the sheer distance between communities.
In 2005, Saulo became the first Bishop of the newly organised Diocese of the Amazon, and these problems became more poignant. The distance between parishes could be thousands of miles, demanding a week of travel on the river. Diocesan clergy were stretched thin.
Communities struggled with development, literacy, and medical support. But Ruth and Saulo also saw change occur under their watch. Over time a few more clergy arrived. A course that Ruth began in 2013, facilitating discussions on topical issues such as racism, chauvinism, and leaderships skills, expanded into Río, and continues on to this day.
Ruth just as honest about the challenges she personally faced, particularly as her mother grew ill with Parkinson’s over time and she herself was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2005. “It strengthened my faith, I think. I mean, yes. At times it was wavering. When things were really difficult I often wondered and used to say to God ‘Do you want me to stay and carry on here?’”
In the face of these challenges she found strength in family, both family in the UK and in Brazil. “We know that you love your mother and that you want to be with her, but we would be so sad if you left!” the people would cry. Her family’s support of her work in Brazil, and the kinship created with the congregations there gave Ruth the resolve to continue.
Ruth de Barros, talks to people in Maria Ribeira, a quilombo (ex-slave settlement) along a tributary off the River Amazon, Diocese of Amazon, Brazil.
Photo: Leah Gordon / USPG
Ruth saw surviving cancer as an ultimate sign that she wasn’t done with Brazil and Brazil wasn’t done with her. “Because He saved me and I was still alive, it meant I still needed to do things to appreciate the fact that He saved me.”
Eventually, after facing the increasing violence in the Amazon, Ruth de Barros and her family decided to relocate to the United Kingdom. Today, Ruth and her son Thomas live in England, where Thomas works in a coffee shop and Ruth adjusts to their new life. Both mother and son await for Saulo’s arrival once visa details are smoothed out.
In a final recollection, Ruth shared that she used to keep a diary. In one entry, shortly after arriving in Brazil, she wrote “I’m delighted to be here, but I would never actually live here.” She laughed as she remembered and commented “It wasn’t where I expected my life to go. I’m quite glad it did though! I don’t regret a single moment of it.”
- This is the first in a new series for ACNS, in which we will republish a number of features that first appeared in Anglican World magazine. This is taken from the August 2018 edition.