A slideshow of the photo essay accompanying this story is posted online.

A blood-red moon rises slowly into the black sky above the Amazon jungle. The low rumble of a riverboat's engine and the clatter of birds in the distant trees break the silence.

The Southern Cross hangs above us as we make our way up the Rio Negro, the largest tributary of the Amazon, the world's largest river system. This water highway provides a missions team of 25 American and Brazilian Christians an avenue to reach the small communities clustered along the shore. I am here to witness and record the journey.

About half of those aboard are medical professionals and boat crew. Among the others are a youth leader, the president of an airline company, and a contractor with his son. Some have been on this river before. Most have not. They are getting to know each other for the first time. But just 24 hours into the trip, there is a warmth and camaraderie despite the tight quarters. Their goal is to bring villagers a message of God's hope, along with urgent medical care. As they cruise through wide, dark waters and the vast rain forest, their sense of purpose as a team grows stronger.

There are an estimated 33,000 villages in the Amazon basin. Shallow-draft riverboats provide one of the few ways to reach these villages, most of which have fewer than 100 people. Jesuits built the pioneering missions in the region in the 1600s. Protestant medical missions began here in the 1930s and the efforts have been steadily growing.

Village families live in utter simplicity with few possessions. Their homes are bare wooden structures on stilts sitting high on the riverbanks for protection. Yearly floods raise the river level by as much as 30 feet.

The people wake before dawn. While it's still cool, they fish, tend their yuca fields, or build boats. Children might seem to have it best here. The water, sand, trails, and trees provide a perfect playground. But the children also suffer. Their diet lacks essential minerals and vitamins, and they are exposed to disease without the full benefit of modern medicine.

During a typical visit, the boat docks on a village's shores at 9 a.m., just as the day is heating up. While the community's men are fishing or tending fields, mothers and children make their way from their homes down to the water's edge, climbing a plank onto the first deck.

The medical staff greets the patients, evaluates their conditions, and then directs them to one of four tiny rooms on the boat. Gary, a dentist, and his daughter Amy fill cavities all day long, while Brazilian dentists extract teeth that are too far gone and in danger of infection. Peter, the airline executive, comforts a young boy as nurses prep him for an operation to relieve a leg infection. Nete, a Brazilian nurse, leaves the boat to make a house call to an elderly blind woman.

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During one exam, the concerned looks of nurses monitoring a fisherman with chest pains change to smiles and then laughter as the man reveals how his problems began. Fish can grow quite large in this region and one of them jumped from the water hitting him squarely in the chest as he attempted to pull it in.

While the medical staff treats patients, another team strolls up to the village, greeting the people house-to-house and passing out Christian literature. An enthusiastic Brazilian woman teaches children with a flannelgraph in a small church built by Presbyterians. Although most of these people have heard the gospel and many are believers, many respond to the invitation for prayer after a screening of the Jesus film.

The catalyst for this trip is Jonathas Moreira, a 71-year-old pastor with family roots in Brazil. Moreira travels frequently to Brazil from his home in Orlando, Florida. Outgoing and enthusiastic, Moreira has found that leading medical mission trips perfectly combines his background in health services and his gifts in discipleship and evangelism.

It was on a business trip to Brazil in 1998 that Moreira first met José Mesqoita, a Brazilian pastor known as the Apostle of the Amazon. Through him Moreira caught a vision for sending Americans with critically needed skills to serve short-term alongside Brazilians in the region. Mesqoita leads the 4,000-member Presbyterian Church of Manaus (the major city on the Rio Negro, located near its confluence with the Amazon). Its river boat ministry--Amazon Vida Mission-- is assisted through support from World Vision as well as partnering with teams, like Moreira's, from the U.S. and Korea. Together they care for 60 villages, and every two months a medical boat visits each of them. Their combined efforts, though, can meet only a fraction of the overall need in the region.

After the journey, Moreira spoke passionately about the unfinished work as the group headed back to the Manaus airport by bus. "We had a chance to do very little. But we had a chance to do something."

Gary Gnidovic is the design director for Christianity Today. For information write to jmoreira@amazon-mission.org.

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Related Elsewhere:

A slideshow of the photo essay accompanying this story is posted online.

For more information, visit the Amazon Mission Trip web site.

Other CT articles on Brazil include:

Inheriting the Cracked Earth | In remote Northeast Brazil, evangelicals are extending their outreach despite extreme poverty. (April 02, 2003)
Brazil's Christian Roots | Since the 1600s, the number of protestants has risen to more than 27 million. (April 02, 2003)
Evangelicals Grow as Political Force in Brazil | New interest in public policy fuels election wins. (Nov. 15, 2002)
Jesus for President | A Brazilian election judge sues Jesus for early campaigning. (July 22, 2002)

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