Members of a Canadian and Brazilian delegation that visited Belém, Brazil, were robbed at gunpoint November 23.
Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, and Archdeacon Paul Feheley, his principal secretary, had just gotten into their car after visiting the Anglican church of St. John the Baptist when a group of young men holding guns surrounded them and began rifling through their pockets for wallets and phones.
“At one point I was in the back seat with Paul, and they had my left arm out one window and my right arm out the other window trying to pull my rings off. They got my bishop’s ring, but they didn’t get my wedding ring,” Hiltz recalled. After getting as much as they could, “they were gone as quick as they came,” he said.
Hiltz and Feheley had visited the church with the primate of the Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil, Archbishop Francisco de Assiz da Silva, Bishop Saulo Mauricio de Barros and his wife, Ruth, and the church’s rector, Fr. Marcos, as part of their trip to the diocese of Amazonia.
Located at the mouth of the Amazon River in northern Brazil, Belém is one of the nation’s largest cities, and the neighbourhood in which St. John the Baptist Church is located, Terra Firme, is one of its poorest. The church is an established presence, though, and is in the process of finishing a building project to replace its rotting wooden structure, with a new brick-and-concrete building. Da Silva and de Barros wanted to show Hiltz some of the ways in which the Brazilian church is present among the poor.
“They were excited to show us the church, because that church will represent for that neighbourhood a sense of hope-a place [where] they can worship and gather and do some social-action work, a little place for the children to play safely,” said Hiltz. “It helps us to have a deeper appreciation for the context in which the church tries to minister faithfully there.”
While the robbery left the group quite shaken, Hiltz was quick to acknowledge that for many priests and lay leaders, these are risks that must be faced every day-the bishop of Amazonia’s wife, Ruth, for example, said she has been robbed five times in the past 15 months.
“As I step back from that moment, which was terrifying, I think: ‘Yes, I lost my watch; I lost my wallet; I lost a ring; some folks lost phones. But you know, we all could have been shot,’ ” said Hiltz. “[And] we’re going to get on a plane and fly away, and these people-this is what they live with.”
Hiltz said it also reaffirmed for him the importance of the church’s role among the marginalized.
“It just helps me understand even more why the church needs to be present in that community, to bring a sense of hope and calm in the midst of just a lot of chaos.”