How I Came from Bryansk Village to Brazil and Learned Portuguese with the Help of the Bible and Garlic

On the ministry of Archpriest Vasily Gelevan.


Father Vasily's path to the priesthood was not an easy one: after school he flatly refused his father-priest's offer to go to the seminary and graduated from the Bryansk Regional College of Culture in the choir conductor department. And for good reason: it was there that he seriously thought about his vocation and entered the Smolensk seminary.

"I graduated from the seminary in Smolensk in 2001, and was about to leave for Sergiev Posad to study at the Moscow Theological Academy. At the time, Metropolitan Kyrill, the current Patriarch, was the ruling bishop of the Smolensk diocese. He summoned me to him and offered to stay on to teach church singing: my abilities and education allowed it. In addition, the Bishop offered to marry me and Katherine, because at that time we had known each other for quite some time and felt a liking for each other. But I refused, since I really wanted to finish my education and realized that it was too soon to make a decision about a family. And as a result I left. Now I realize that it was nothing more than hubris. But back then I called it ambition.

I graduated from the academy, finally married Catherine, got ordained and began serving near Bryansk in the village of Novoselki. Suddenly I got a call from the Department of External Church Relations and was offered to build the Church of St. Thomas in India - I immediately agreed. My wife and I were young, had no children yet - why not go? I went to see the head of the department - and it was the same Bishop Kirill. Of course, he remembered all of my "antics," so he said at once: "I have a special obedience for Gelevan. So I became rector of the parish of St. Zinaida in Rio de Janeiro, even though I had little idea where it was on the map.

My first phrase to my wife after the news of my appointment was, "Well, Katya, now let's have some real coffee! No kidding, the coffee there really turned out great. Vladyka Kirill, on the other hand, was more realistic in his parting words. During the meal he said: "Let's wish Father Vasily a happy journey. He is going to Rio de Janeiro. His temple and the house where he will live are a bullet's flight from the favela (Brazilian slums - Ed.). One recently broke through a window and flew next to the head of the local priest. So let us wish him God's help and courage. Thank God nothing like that has ever happened in my 8 years in the country, although I did live near a dangerous neighborhood.

My first impression of Brazil was, of course, the heat. But most importantly, the people. We were still at the airport, looking for the escalator. I asked a passerby - he stops and not just points in the right direction, but leads us straight to the escalator, although he had to go in a completely different direction. And that's the way it is everywhere. Of course, I was pleasantly surprised.

I arrived in the country, but I didn't know the language at all - in Brazil, they speak the local version of Portuguese. I spoke a little English, but I decided not to use it as a matter of principle - I had to learn to speak like a local, it immediately became my goal. As the apostle Paul said, "Be all things to all people, that some may be saved. In my case, it was a language for communication and preaching. I remember when I was still in seminary going to Mormons for the sake of interest - to see how they preached. And they had a really good preacher, a talented, charismatic one, who quoted from Dostoyevsky, who was close to us - but through an interpreter. And that changed everything. I decided: if I wanted to talk to people, I had to do it in their language. At first I just read the Gospel of John, which I knew very well, in Portuguese, and then I read fairy tales - sat down and translated every word. And the language environment did its job, too.

By the way, in the supermarket, where I lived in Brazil, the local women spent a long time looking through the garlic before buying - they formed a circle and peeled it. And, of course, they chat - this is an important, if not the main, part of the ritual. I stood up with them - as if I, too, were interested in the garlic. But I had my own interest, a linguistic one. I stood and listened to the phonetics and tried to guess the words. Did it regularly, and after a few months was able to make out a phrase from one of the women about her son getting married. You can't imagine how thrilled I was! I'm actually glad I didn't start learning the language in advance - they would have taught me classical Portuguese, which is only spoken in Portugal, and they wouldn't have understood me anyway.

When I became rector of the Church of the Martyr Zinaida, there were only five parishioners, and they were elderly and rarely attended services - all of them came from Russian immigrant families. The last paragraph of the church's charter reads as follows: "In the event that the last Russian dies in Rio de Janeiro, the church building cannot be used for any commercial purposes. Only a museum of Russian emigration in Rio de Janeiro can be made in it". It would be terrible if the temple one day became a museum of emigration! I set myself the task: to do everything to prevent this from happening. So there was only one way out: to open the doors to Brazilians. Having learned the language, I became a columnist for the local radio "Voice of Russia," where I spoke in Portuguese about Orthodoxy as an important part of Russian culture. By the way, my language studies were not in vain - for four years I served on a committee to translate liturgical texts into Portuguese - in 2010 the first liturgy was held in the local language, and now all Orthodox parishes in Brazil serve under this translation.

Our first services looked very unusual - no one was in the church, only my pregnant wife in the choir, and I served with the censer in one hand and my first son, a baby, in the other. It didn't take long for more and more Brazilians to come to our temple. There were people who had already converted to Orthodoxy, as well as those who were about to be baptized. So our parish grew. I can say that when I left to serve in Moscow eight years later, there were already about fifty parishioners, a choir, and local clergy who had been ordained on my recommendation. I knew everyone, and everyone knew me. During this time we became a large family where everyone shared both sorrows and joys with one another.

Here's a story: One of my parishioners was a police officer who was poisoned by drug dealers for not cooperating. The man, Lucas, was dying a long time without knowing it. One day he went in for surgery, and the doctors were surprised he was still alive - literally everything inside him had rotted from the poison. A few hours before he died, he composed a letter bequeathing his large library to our temple and his healthy organs to other people. "Let the blind see the world through my eyes; let those who need skin be warmed by mine," he wrote. I was with him in his last moments, and I still can't remember that day without tears.

To provide for my family, I worked as a guide, a tour guide, even a real estate agent. And I was very good at it all. Yes, it confused some people - a priest engaged in non-church activities. I explained that it wasn't like that in Russia, for example, where the parish helped. And here I have to work. Secular work even helped me: the Brazilians saw that I was not some foreigner distant from them, but that I lived the same life as they did. Sometimes my job as a tour guide even allowed me to preach - no tourist excursion with Russian-speaking tourists is complete without a climb up Mount Corcovado, where the famous thirty-eight-meter statue of Christ stands.

I remember very well the first time I saw it, on the second or third day after my arrival. I perceived the statue not just as a stone or a beautiful piece of art, but as a shrine. But something was still missing to complete my perception. Everything fell into place in 2010 when we first celebrated the Orthodox liturgy at the statue of Christ. It was an event! The bishops came and the choir of the Sretensky Monastery in Moscow sang. Since then, a liturgy has been served there every year on the feast day of Basil the Great.

I left Brazil of my own free will, although I could have stayed. In eight years our situation became good: the parish grew, the children went to school, I earned good money and was able to provide for my family at ease. In short, everything was fine. But every night I would come home and ask myself the same questions: Who am I? Why was I born, what did I study nine years in seminary and academy for? I am a priest, it is my nature. I'm not a tour guide, though I love to tell people about the city. I'm not a real estate expert, although that's what I'm good at. And I also looked at my children and realized that the very environment and the language environment would pull them more and more away from Russian culture, no matter how hard we tried to correct it. And we tried: we even made a rule to speak only Russian inside the family. And still - one day my son comes to me and says: "Daddy, Ulyana has broken the rule - she speaks parrots [Translator's note: a funny mistake made due to the similarity in Russian between the words for "Portuguese" and "Parrot"] at home! By the way, it is interesting that on 16th century Portuguese maps Brazil was marked as Terra dos Papagaios - land of parrots. Of course, my son didn't know that - he just misspoke.

As a result, I wrote a petition and returned to Russia - now I serve in the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the headquarters of the Airborne Troops. Of course, I miss Brazil, the eternal summer, my friends and my children's godparents. But now I feel at home and know that I am completely focused on my priestly ministry - that is the most important thing for me.

Source: (Russian)

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