Ordinary Brazilians doing Extraordinary Things
by Luis Puig
A former trade unionist in Guatemala, Luis Puig represented his country at the ILO in Geneva. He met Frank Buchman in 1952, and has worked full time for Initiatives of Change since 1956. He was with Varig Airlines for 22 years. Married to Evelyn, from Austria, they have two grown-up sons.
“Frank Buchman said to us that Brazil is not only meant to export the best coffee to the world but also the best idea!”
THE familiarity with which tough, poor, hard-working port workers from Rio de Janeiro, Santos and Recife referred to Dr Buchman sounded pretentious when I first heard it. But as I got to know them and their friends, I realised that Buchman’s ideas had become part of their lives. Some of them had met and talked to him at international MRA conferences in Mackinac or Caux.
Carlos Anselmo, leader of the coffee packers of the busy port of Santos near São Paulo, astounded his socialist comrades when he admitted having used union funds for himself. He apologised and submitted his resignation. He said: “As a socialist I want to help build a new society but I cannot do it if I am dishonest”. At first there were angry cries demanding punishment and expulsion, but the mood calmed when a fiery older communist fighter intervened. “Be quiet! Who among you would have the courage to do what comrade Anselmo just did?” The resignation was accepted nevertheless. After that some wanted to know what had brought about the change in Carlos, and a new spirit began to develop in the port. Carlos and his wife were later invited to different parts of the world to talk about their new-found ideas. A São Paulo woman, wife of a top industrialist, travelled with them at her own expense to serve as translator.
Reign of terror
Rio port workers were tough. When a group of Buchman’s colleagues arrived in the city, the headline in the papers was “Reign of terror in the port”. Shortly afterwards, a group of thirty workers was invited for an evening in a flat which had been rented for the work of Moral Re-Armament. Among the group were members of rival factions at war with each other.
In the course of the evening a young man from Europe asked, “God created the world, isn’t that true?” The men nodded. “If so, he must have a plan for the world.” They nodded again. “How do you find it, then?” “We don’t know,” they said. “Well,” he continued, “we’ve discovered that if we take time in quiet, God very often puts a thought in our heart.” Then it was suggested the men be quiet. After a while Damasio, the toughest of the trouble-makers, said, “God told me, ‘Damasio, sell your two revolvers; one knife is enough’.” Others in the room felt that was a strange thought to come from God. Nevertheless, next day Damasio sold them and 18 months later most of the guns had disappeared from the port. That night there had probably been more revolvers in the room than men!
Together with people from other walks of life, the Santos port workers invited a group of their colleagues from Rio to come and hear about what they had found. The Rio men were divided and would not at first sit or talk together, one lot representing the official legitimate union, the other representing an unofficial breakaway union. The latter included extreme radicals and trouble-makers. Yet later, the two groups returned home united, having ironed out their differences. Months later the two unions merged. The largest paper in Rio carried the headline: “For the first time ever, democratic elections in the port of Rio”.
‘Frank’ instead of the more formal ‘Dr Buchman’ was the name used in other sectors of society, for instance by Luiz Dumont Villares and his wife Leonor Diederichsen Villares. Luiz was president of Aços Villares, then the biggest private steel mill in Latin America. The couple financed a planeload of port workers, trade unionists and industrialists to fly to a world assembly for Moral Re-Armament. Buchman helped them to become a purposeful fellowship of friends. “Brazil is not only meant to export the best coffee to the world but also the best idea,” he said.
Senora Villares later donated a beautiful house that for many years served as a centre for MRA in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city.
‘Men of Brazil’
Honesty with their wives, with their bosses and with each other, together with vision for their country, were the experiences brought together in what became the film Men of Brazil. In it, each man acted his own part in the true story. Highly motivated, these men and their wives, some illiterate, did something that surprised and interested other sectors of society. The film was made possible by the voluntary work of professionals and generous contributions from different parts of the world. Dubbed into 23 languages it has been shown on nearly every continent, especially in the ports. At present the Hindi version is part of a regular programme of industrial seminars for workers and personnel managers taking place in Panchgani in the west of India, at the centre for Initiatives of Change in that vast, populous country.
The legacy of Frank Buchman in Latin America crops up in unexpected places. His visits to Mexico, Chile and Peru, decades before, had given him a taste of life in the continent. I was in Mexico City some years ago. One afternoon we were visited by a taxi driver who had heard we were there. He had driven Dr Buchman around years before. He was an old, quiet man. He said, “My life has never been the same since I met him”.
Buchman’s influence passed through the port workers to leaders of the favelas, the shanty-towns which have proliferated (over 600) in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Brigadier Antonio Muniz and his wife, recently returned from an MRA conference where they re-found their Catholic faith, invited some of the port workers of Rio to their home to meet with favela leaders he knew. The port workers talked about what changes in their lives meant for them and for conditions in the port. They were quiet together and one favelado leader said, “We must tell the State Governor that the favelados are not one million problems but two million hands which can be put to work.” With this conviction, and with stories to tell, they arranged to meet the State Governor. After listening to them, he said, “For the first time I’m confronted by a group of men who are united with a clear purpose. We can work together.” The State provided money and tools, and the favelados the hard work. The favelados also asked to be in charge of the work, which was accepted. Two and a half years later nearly half a million people from the slums had been re-housed in decent homes.
At the same time an industrialist and a port worker decided to go together from one favela to another, most of them spread through the hills or morros of the city, to project the film Men of Brazil.
A bright outcome if…
When Peter Howard, the British sportsman and journalist who had taken over the leadership of MRA after Frank Buchman died, visited Brazil in 1965, he brought the challenge of Buchman to a new level. He spelled out clearly what a dark future was reserved for the country if moral standards were not lived out by the men in power. But he also outlined the bright outcome for Brazil, in terms of social equality and improvement, if men and women put their lives under God’s authority. Using experiences from his own life he talked directly to those who were most feared at the time, the military and other supporters of the dictatorship that ruled the country. He was listened to and utterly respected in all circles.
Howard took seriously Luiz Pereira, a very simple man, leader of Morro São João favela. Pereira took seriously what he learned about Frank Buchman. Pereira grasped that anyone anywhere can listen to the inner voice, change, and then help others to change and work together to transform social conditions.
One day while at work, Luiz had the thought that the Minister of State in charge of social conditions should hear about his project for re-housing the people of his own favela. Pereira picked up the phone and was put straight through to the minister, an army general (the military were in power at the time). He listened to what Pereira had to say. The general mobilised materials and a work force. The result can be seen today, thirty years later, in a group of modest apartment buildings owned and managed by the former favela people.
Over the years Pereira has passed on what he learned with conviction and passion to other leaders and inhabitants of the favela communities of the city. Every month or so, he takes groups to the ‘Sitio São Luiz’, 50 miles north of Rio, a place considered by many to be the centre for Initiatives of Change (formerly Moral Re-Armament) in Latin America. Taxi drivers have often joined them, as well as industrialists, trade unionists, military figures and all kinds of people who had captured Buchman’s spirit.
Rio taxi drivers were notorious for taking tourists ‘for a ride’, as well as overcharging the locals. Their vehicles were often dirty and badly kept. They frequently quarrelled over the best parking spots to attract passengers. Some were exploited by greedy proprietors.
One man, Americo Martorelli took Buchman’s ideas seriously. He quit drinking, and he and his wife had a frank, honest conversation. He said, “I don’t want just to be a better man, I want to take these ideas to my colleagues”. He and others had earlier tried to organise a taxi drivers’ co-operative, but without success. They had wanted to do away with the unfair sums charged by the taxi owners and, eventually, to own their own cars. Now they were able to work things out.
Two taxi co-operatives were established when other drivers caught the same spirit and attitude that Martorelli had found. One of them even included the absolute moral standards of MRA in its bylaws. Each co-operative could have a maximum of 250 people, according to regulations. The news of success spread. Today there are countless taxi co-operatives with different groups copying each other, all based on the same principles as the first two, even if they never heard of Buchman or MRA. Each co-operative has an ethics committee that judges any misconduct by a member. In a city of eight million people, something definitely changed for the better.
The second generation of port workers now play their part. One of those who was in his teens when Men of Brazil had been filmed is now vice-president of the board of Initiatives of Change in Brazil. Another, the son of the first elected president of the United Port Workers’ Union, is now the only black instructor at the top military officers’ training establishment of the country, the Escolar Superior de Guerra. He lives by the principles he learned from his father. Another who grew up in the port says, “If it wasn’t for the ideas (of Buchman) passed on to me by friends in IofC, I should be a man without a future and without principles”. He has become a prosperous lawyer. He says, “People often expect me to handle their affairs in a devious way. I tell them about the right way, which I learned in MRA. They leave my office happier and I am able to take honest money and a free conscience back home”.
The port workers took their experience to Argentina, invited by the Minister of Labour; to Italy, invited by the Bishop of Bari; and to India, Canada, the USA and other parts of the world. The legacy of that extraordinary man Frank Buchman lives on!