Fearful Tales of Interlagos, Brazil

XDxRvANaHeather Collins is a convert and in-progress author of a book on patriarchal blessings she never shuts up about, but will probably never finish.  Follow her on Twitter.

The only time I ever trained a new missionary was in the most dangerous area I was ever assigned to in Brazil. She was Argentinian, and we dealt with a triple language barrier. I’d come without suitcases to take her back to our area, deep in the interior of São Paulo state. Tatuí was rural, relatively safe, and hours away from the city by public transit. We had a small branch to work with and had just baptized a child with no support at home.

I wasn’t happy about that baptism. I was tired of baptizing young kids whose parents wanted nothing to do with the Church. That was how I was baptized, and I knew the years of heartache that would be ahead of every child we did this to. The price of staying without parental support is higher than most people know.

I was frustrated with my area. I wanted to go anywhere else where I felt like baptism would be more likely. In my mind, that meant going back to the city. 

Then our phone rang. It was my mission president. There had been a change of plans.

An area had just opened up back in the city, and he wanted to know if I’d be willing to take a new area AND train at the same time.

I hesitated.

He immediately withdrew the offer. I countered and insisted we go.

It was the Interlagos ward, the namesake of our mission. Because of visa waiting and the new training curriculum, I’d spent so much of my mission being trained–first at Temple Square, then in Brazil. I was eager to prove myself, to finally be taken seriously. To contribute something that up until that point I didn’t feel able to give. To see a capability within myself I had not yet seen.

In the days that followed, we spent every centavo allotted to us by the mission traveling by bus and train across São Paulo. Our mission president decided to drive us to our new area to save us some money. The closer we got to our area, the more warning bells I could hear. In Brazil, you don’t go to the police with problems. You run away from them because trouble always seems to follow them. And on the main road that connected our area from top to bottom, there were police officers on every street corner.

That is never a good sign.

This area wasn’t the poorest one I’d ever been to. I’d walked through enough favelas to learn not to be afraid of them, to see beyond the circumstances of people I had come to love with all my heart. But this area, as it was drawn by the stake, didn’t have nearly as many favelas as some areas I’d already passed through. Parts of it were the wealthiest I’d ever seen in Brazil. It wasn’t poverty that made this area dangerous. I couldn’t put my finger on it. But the low hum of danger was constantly in the background like a dying fluorescent light.

As it turns out, we went in after some elders who hadn’t been working for several months. They’d become completely defeated by fear and apathy. That was why we were there–to clean house, in every sense of the word. That was my interpretation of the situation in the beginning. In my journal, I went on to refer to the work I did as chest compressions on an area I knew wouldn’t survive.

The reality of our situation didn’t set in all at once. As we emptied the area book, bought a map, and made the mistake of walking an hour to our ward building ina different area to get a list of members, the story began to emerge. No one had worked in Interlagos in over a year. Signs of neglect were everywhere. Our almoço calendar was empty. The bishop wasn’t even feeding the missionaries anymore. Every member we met was demotivated, sad, and lived in a constant state of fear I didn’t understand. It took almost the entire transfer to get the full story.

At the very edge of our area was a set of publicly-subsidized apartment buildings. They technically were supposed to be a part of another ward, but they were “on loan” from the stake to support our ward, which was floundering. Every time I saw those apartments, I knew in the deepest heart of my instincts we couldn’t go there. We wouldn’t be safe there. I didn’t know why at the time, but I knew it was revelation and I never questioned it.

From various church members, including the bishop’s wife, we got snatches of insight about the area. It hadn’t had sisters in at least 15 years. Even though our congregation was technically a ward, many people had since moved away because of the violent crime that existed in their midst. And Vila da Paz was the local headquarters of Primeiro Comando da Capital—the largest criminal organization in Brazil. We were warned many times that elders had been robbed there. Women went missing—victims of kidnapping, rape, and sex trafficking—and were never seen again.

I didn’t know anything about PCC until I served in that area. I didn’t mentally understand how much danger I was in every time I walked past those letters tagged on walls, doors, bridges, and street signs. I didn’t know that 2012 was the year of mass gang retaliation against the police. I added words like “toque de recolher” (curfew) to my mission vocabulary, without knowing that upwards of a hundred people would die that year in open murders across the city.

But it didn’t matter that I didn’t understand the danger I was in. I felt it through the Spirit, every moment of every day.

I can’t tell you how many times we got the impression to go three blocks out of our way returning home at night, to cross the street randomly, or even to take off running down the street for no apparent reason. I lived in a constant state of vigilance that nearly destroyed my sanity. I was hyper aware that the promptings we were getting were keeping us alive and safe, and I was terrified of taking one wrong step. One broken rule might mean we wouldn’t make it home again that night.

In any other place, that might seem like an irrational fear or an overreaction. But our bishop had already been beaten and robbed in the street while doing his home teaching. Those fears weren’t irrational. The danger we were in was real. And it always came back to those apartment buildings. But every time we prayed to know where there were people ready to receive the gospel, the same answer always came back: Vila da Paz. The apartment buildings. The place we could never, ever go.

What were we supposed to do with that?

We did what any other person would do who has been programmed like a machine to baptize anything that holds still long enough. We went to the apartment buildings and started knocking doors.

The way the men there undressed us with their eyes is something I will never forget. I didn’t need them to speak. I could hear what they were thinking. I knew what their intentions were. And I felt with all the certainty of my soul that my companion was in mortal danger there. I never told her this and vowed to myself I never would, but I saw rape in their hearts. I needed to do everything in my power to keep her away from them. But how could I do that when everything we were trained to do was putting us directly in harm’s way?

When I say we knocked on every other door in our area except those apartment buildings, I am not exaggerating. Every part of our area I could distract her with, I tried. No one wanted anything from us. Before long, we ended up back on our knees, praying about those apartments. She was angry that I wouldn’t let us go back to Vila da Paz. She began questioning whether I was a good missionary, and she told me as much. It hurt, but I couldn’t be upset with her. If I were in her shoes, at that stage of my mission I would have thought the same thing.

That was the point when I started reaching out to the elders and to President about my safety concerns. We couldn’t stay there. No one in their right minds would ask us to stay there. That’s what I believed. And I believed our leaders cared enough about us to listen.

The elders didn’t believe me. They didn’t trust me. President had sent me there to rat on a plethora of shenanigans he knew was going on in that zone. I was in the midst of receiving the retaliation given to narcs and traitors. They were already withholding my mail from me, punishing me in every way they could. I never said anything because I couldn’t prove it then any more than I can prove it now. But my fiancé (now-husband) wrote me once a week throughout my entire mission—except in that area when the letters suddenly stopped. Based on the gaps that exist, I also suspected they kept or threw away some of the letters I never received. And because no one in my family were members of the Church and my parents didn’t even want me on a mission, those letters were frequently the only support I got from anyone. Without them, I felt completely cut off from everyone who actually cared about me.

The only person who believed me, who seemed perfectly aware of what I was telling him before I ever said the words, was my mission president. That made my interviews with him about my concerns all the more disheartening. He asked me to consider what it took for us to be safe in our area.

“Who else could I send?”

I thought about the insane levels of caution and the wacky maneuvers that had kept us safe so far. Who else did I trust to handle themselves in a situation like this without getting hurt?

I saw the truth in his face at the same time the words came out of my mouth.

“There is no one else.”

He told me to do whatever we had to do, to make whatever adjustments to our schedule we needed to make, to be safe in our area. If that meant not going out after dark, do whatever was necessary to make things work. That was the solution. There wasn’t going to be a transfer.

What that turned into instead was staying with the sisters in our zone and working in their area for a while. It was really good for us. The sisterhood we had with them was the only respite I got that transfer. But always back to Interlagos we went. Then the whole zone came to work our area with us for a couple of hours. They gave us what contacts they’d managed to find… most of them in Vila da Paz.

Suddenly, it all became clear. No one believed me. They were forcing us to go to those apartments. The elders were going to harass me about those referrals until we contacted them. They weren’t giving us a choice.

To say I snapped is an understatement. I completely lost myself and nearly lost all faith in God in the process. I stopped getting out of bed. I stopped answering the phone. I stopped talking to my companion. I contemplated going home and would have done so if my mission president hadn’t refused to let me leave.

“If you go home now,” he said, “you will never finish anything in your life.” And I believed him.

The darkest day of my mission was a multi-zone conference. I had to get out of bed. Without saying a word, I packed my suitcases and took them with me. I wasn’t going back to that area. They could either send me somewhere else or send me home. We got there too late for me to talk to President before the meeting started. During the break, another Elder came up to my companion. He was from the area President had promised to send us to when I had asked about a transfer for us weeks before. They loved their area and their investigators so much, they begged President not to make them leave. So, he let them stay. That was the reason we never got a transfer. Because a couple of stupid elders didn’t care about what happened to us any more than President seemed to care.

I didn’t say anything. I burst into tears and went to the only place no one could follow me: into a bathroom stall. And I sat there, staring into the abyss while my world crumbled around me. My companion, other sisters, and eventually even my mission president’s wife came to take turns yelling at me to come out of the bathroom. But I wasn’t there. I was thousands of miles and years away, thinking about how lonely the Savior was in his final moments. For the first time, in my own very human way—having been separated from everyone who loved and understood me, feeling betrayed by everyone I’d trusted to take care of me, help me, and love me on my mission—I felt like I understood some of that pain.

This was the Atonement.

This was Gethsemane. The betrayal of Christ by his friends. This was his illegal trial by night with manufactured evidence. This was his Via Dolorosa to Golgotha, collapsing under the weight of his own cross. The vinegar pressed to his already-dying lips.

Eloi, Eloi. Lama sabachthani?

I could sink no lower. There was nowhere else for me to go. Something holier and impenetrable had been instilled into my heart and I emerged from the darkness, changed.

“What more can they do to me?” was the question fixed in my mind, carrying my limp body like a life preserver.

Less than a week later, our area was given to the zone leaders at my recommendation. My trainee and I were separated, and I was sent to one of my favorite companions with strict instructions to “recover.” (I had no idea what that meant, and to some degree I still don’t.)

To see the church change, giving sister missionaries a sure voice they’ve never had in relation to their own safety, is a victory for every woman who will serve from here on out.

I only wish it could’ve come sooner for me and saved me from so much pain I still don’t know what to do with.


  1. the Other Brother Jones says:

    Awesome story! But not in a good way. I feel sorry for the experiences you had, but maybe it was all for your good. Are you doing OK now?

  2. Carolyn says:

    What’s stunning to me about this story is that the Spirit was BOTH telling you that the apartment building was utterly unsafe, AND that the people in the apartment building were beloved children of God in need of the Gospel. I don’t know what greater testament to the infinite power of Christ’s atonement there is. He wanted to keep you safe — but He also weeped for the suffering of those who would hurt you.

  3. Autumn Meadow says:

    Wow. What an amazing story. I experienced a tiny bit of that fear as a missionary in Ecuador – and an “emergency” transfer that never got explained to me – but you suffered so much more. I would have felt betrayed, too.

  4. I understand a small part of what you are saying. I spent eight months in a city in the southern Philippines that was under a curfew – those out after curfew were shot on sight. In eight months there literally were five mornings where I did not see dead bodies on the street when we went out. Bombs thrown into busses and restaurants. When I was transferred there, the airport had been bombed so I was flown to another city and brought overland to my assigned city accompanied by a man with a machine gun. When transferred out, I was put on a ship crossing the South China Sea. My companion was in a back brace – it turned out his back was actually broken when he fell down some stairs but not figured out until after he was sent home. The zone leaders were useless. All this was during the Marcos dictatorship.

  5. Anon for this one says:

    A relative of mine was hit by a drunk driver. It blew out both of his knees, one hip, and left him with extensive scars and some brain damage. The mission president insisted that he needed to be released from the hospital against advice from the doctors. He was put back in a bike area and told that he “would be healed if he worked hard and had faith”. When he returned home for surgery and rehabilitation, he was told “too bad you didn’t have enough faith in Jesus”.

    Don’t ever assume your mission president has your best interests in mind. This relative needed a neurosurgeon and orthopedic surgeon, not a bike area and nightly numbers.

  6. Angela C says:

    I love your conclusion. I am also heartened by what I hope is an inevitable outcome of the age change for women: that with more women serving, men and women in the church will learn to work better together, to listen to one another, to take women–our voices and our experiences–seriously.

    I had a few areas of my mission that felt were more dangerous than others, and I had two companions mugged when we were together, but I never personally felt in serious danger. Now when my parents came touring with me at the end and I saw some of those areas with them, when we gingerly stepped over heroin needles that were littered on the ground, suddenly I saw what I hadn’t really seen as a missionary.

  7. LatamGirl says:

    This is amazing. Obrigada.

  8. I'm nobody, who are you? says:

    I served a mission nearly twenty-five years ago, and I never experienced anything this extreme. But in retrospect I’m struck by how silent my mission president and his wife were about the nearly constant street harassment and frequent groping, especially on public transportation, which the sister missionaries experienced. At every zone conference we were enjoined to take our vitamins and turn our mattresses, but no one ever had a word to say about how to handle pervasive sexual harassment. When it came to figuring that out, we were on our own.

    I deeply absorbed the fundamental rule of my mission culture, which was never to complain or cause a fuss. Sisters who complained and caused a fuss were spoken of in especially contemptuous terms–“those” sisters, the problem sisters. So for the most part I said nothing, even when I was really suffering. It would have been unthinkable to disturb the entirely male mission leadership structure with such embarrassing and female (embarrassing because female) concerns as my fears for my personal safety and my at times deteriorating mental health.

    I was struck by many aspects of the interview with former mission presidents Jim and Jeanne Jardine on Mormon Land. At one point Jim said that he thought that mission culture was exceptional for its authenticity, which could not have been more different from my experience. I found mission culture stiflingly inauthentic and the version of the gospel there promoted alien. I was also struck by how well the Jardines seemed to know their missionaries. Partly because of the size of my mission, frequent interviews weren’t possible and I never felt any personal connection to my mission president.

    Despite all that, I had a largely positive missionary experience, for entirely personal reasons–personal relationships, personal spiritual experiences. But for the most part I experienced mission leadership as an obstacle I had to work around. I would never have dreamed of going to them with any kind of problem. I knew I was alone.

    A few years ago my mission president passed away, and it was strange to read the tributes from so many of my fellow missionaries who genuinely and deeply loved him. Although I bore him no animosity, I didn’t know him, and he didn’t know me, and although I’m grateful he was relatively lax in his enforcement of rules, he also simply didn’t have much to do with my mission.

    I still don’t know what to make of that gap in our experience. Was and am I simply too cynical? Was I–am I–after all, one of “those” sisters?

    It’s pretty unlikely either of my children will serve missions, but if they do I want better for them, starting with much more proactive concern for their personal safety.

  9. Thank you sweet sister. My daughter also served there. Her experience was uncannily similar. She still suffers from it. My heart is with you. You are not alone.

  10. I have never served a mission but I have traveled many places in the world, including a couple of war zones, as a woman alone. I literally clung to the voice of the Spirit at times, assuring me I was being protected. I too have been told to get off a bus at a stop different from mine, or to turn around and not go down a given street. But my most treasured experience was one where a man bent on evil came after one of my traveling companions, a younger non-LDS woman. The Spirit clearly bore witness that the promises of protection I had obtained through fasting and prayer prior to the trip were in effect and that neither this man nor anyone else who meant me harm would be allowed to touch me, or her if I placed myself between them. I can still hear the Holy Ghost calling me by name and telling me, “He cannot touch you. He cannot touch you.” But yes, the PTSD after the experiences was something I have had to come to terms with. Fear like that creates powerful memories that change how we react to fearful circumstances in the future.
    But I will always be grateful for my personal knowledge of the power of God and the freedom it has given me to travel anywhere.

  11. “The elders didn’t believe me. They didn’t trust me. President had sent me there to rat on a plethora of shenanigans he knew was going on in that zone. I was in the midst of receiving the retaliation given to narcs and traitors. They were already withholding my mail from me, punishing me in every way they could. I never said anything because I couldn’t prove it then any more than I can prove it now. But my fiancé (now-husband) wrote me once a week throughout my entire mission—except in that area when the letters suddenly stopped. Based on the gaps that exist, I also suspected they kept or threw away some of the letters I never received. And because no one in my family were members of the Church and my parents didn’t even want me on a mission, those letters were frequently the only support I got from anyone. Without them, I felt completely cut off from everyone who actually cared about me.”

    This bullying, or should we call it “friendly” fire, makes me so mad, even madder than I am at your mission president who was sending you into such a dangerous area. *foams discreetly at mouth* I assume — I hope — your MP didn’t know how his elders were acting.

  12. This is devastating. Thank you for sharing.

  13. Curious says:

    Thank you, Heather. It took me a long time to process the pain of dealing with improperly behaving mission leaders and I had faced nothing as difficult as what you survived.
    Question: When I was a missionary “transfer” was a verb or as a noun it meant only the act of moving someone/directing the move of someone from one place to another. In Mormon-speak it now seems to be a noun carrying some meaning like a length of time. Sometimes here it has been used as meaning a 3-month period, as in “I was in _______ for 2 transfers.” Sometimes it seems to refer to the length of time a missionary is assigned to the same area, regardless of how long that time might be. I am unconvinced that I have yet learned what its meaning is in Mormon-speak if it has a clear meaning. Maybe I’m just too antediluvian to get it. Does it have a universal Mormon-speak meaning? If so, what is it?

  14. @ Curious,
    In most missions these days, missionary transfers are timed to occur at 6 week intervals (the daily missionary planners are also for 6 weeks, presumably as a consequence rather than a cause). Hence “two transfers” ~3 months. It’s typically scheduled to correspond with the cycle of when new missionaries arrive from the MTC so that the addition of new missionaries can be simultaneous with the normal shuffling needs. My mission fed from two MTCs on different clocks, so our new Elders would arrive up to 2 weeks apart (and our 2 years dates could be up 2 weeks apart too), but we still used the word to signify 6 weeks.

  15. Michael says:

    This is horrible. Absolutely. My son’s friend served in Russia near Ukraine. His very buttoned down straight-laced father told me he would have brought him home if he knew what was going on.

    I served in Japan in the ’70s where the most dangerous people around were the rowdy American missionaries pranking each other. One ZL and his side kick (6 ft 4 in and 6 ft 10 in) dressed up like Frankenstein monsters on Halloween, which is not celebrated there. People were running away from them in mobs screaming in terror. They went into a food store and the place emptied out.

    After awhile as they were walking back to the apartment in the unusually empty streets, a police officer ran up behind them. They both suddenly jolted around growling like monsters. He was unarmed and he so scared that he tried to run and fell on the ground begging for his life. Then he calmed down and asked them who they were and what they were doing. They explained that they were Mormon missionaries and asked him if he would like to hear the gospel message. Very funny.

    They got arrested and I tried to get them out of jail so the mission president would not find out. But no such luck. We had to call him and we were thankful he was a native Japanese guy and understood what to do. That was not the only stunt, just a simple one I happened to remember. We drove our mission president nuts.

  16. Thanks Jenna for your input. It is not just missionaries in danger through their experiences. I too have had some very frightening experiences while traveling outside the US (and a couple within the US). While I would gladly have missed being so frightened, even terrified at times, much of what I know about hearing the voice of the Holy Ghost has come about from these experiences. And I am always surprised when people choose not to travel to places I consider to be quite safe because a terrorist attack took place in that country. All I can think is, “Can’t you trust the Spirit to keep you safe? He does me and I am nothing out of the ordinary. Have you simply never learned how to do this?” Maybe we need to send more people in the Church on missions to third world countries where they can learn first hand the power of God.

  17. Carolyn says:

    I just feel the need to say in response to Barb and Jenna: I’m really glad the spirit helped keep you safe, and I believe the Spirit can and does help keep people safe.

    …but not always. The Spirit is not a magic protection cape. If you get hurt, it’s not somehow your fault for not having the Spirit with you or not being righteous enough. Extremely faithful children of God can and do get hurt all the time. Just ask the missionaries who got blown up in a Belgium airport.

  18. I'm nobody, who are you? says:

    Thank you, Carolyn, for saying that. I find the theology posited by Barb’s and Jenna’s comments pretty disturbing.

  19. The theology posited by Barb and Jenna’s comments? Whatever is that supposed to mean? I thought they were just testifying of their personal experiences with God and His spiritual and physical protection, exactly the same way the author did.
    What bizarre inferences you Carolyn and you I’m nobody make.

  20. carolyn, I thought the missionaries in Belgium all lived. I never heard of any getting blown up. When was that?

  21. Carolyn, the reason I no longer share stories from my travels is because of the reactions of people like you and I’m nobody, who are you?

  22. Anon for this one says:

    We’ve got this nasty Theology of the Elder’s Quorums.
    If you’re righteous, the Spirit will keep you safe. If you weren’t kept safe, you weren’t righteous.
    If you keep your temple covenants, your temple garments will protect you from harm. If you got burned in a car wreck, it must have been because you don’t keep your temple covenants.
    If you pay your tithing, you will have financial success. If you go bankrupt, it must be because you didn’t pay tithing on your gross income.
    If you magnify your calling, your family life will be successful. If your family life is suffering, it must be because you aren’t fulfilling your calling(s) like you should.
    If you have the Spirit, you won’t be afraid. If you are afraid, you aren’t living worthy of the Spirit.
    People who fast and pray don’t have mental health issues. If you are depressed, well, despair comes from sin, so you *obviously* have some serious unresolved sins in your life. Do you need to schedule an appointment with the Bishop now?
    If you really understood the Restored Gospel, you’d run, just *run*, to get to the Temple. If you aren’t in the temple for every available session, you just don’t understand the Restored Gospel.

    It’s the classic case of bad things don’t happen to good people. If something bad happens, you must not have been good enough for God to love you. This is a pernicious heresy, and anyone who even hints at it needs to go clean the bathrooms in the church while they think about what they’ve done.

    We had a talk on Sunday about Eliza R. Snow praying to know where to go find her lost oxen. Two men on horses told her that they saw her oxen wandering to the north, but she continued to go south. She found her oxen tied to a tree. The explicit message from this was that mothers are entitled to revelation for their families. That’s great, but we also have the implicit message that men who know better, who presumably hold the Priesthood, are often jerks and bullies. There were people traveling with Sister Snow who had been charged with looking out for her and her family, but who were hell-bent on getting her to give up, to stop along the way and go no further. Their message was “There is no place for you in Zion. You are unworthy of our love, and of the love of God.” That is the same message Heather’s mission president and fellow missionaries offered. That was the message given to my relative who was put on a bike with two shattered knees and told to pray more. That is the message we give to single mothers when we move away from them in Relief Society. That is the message we give to the guy with tattoos and dirty jeans when he shows up to church for the first time in a decade. We are very good at giving this message – we have special Sacrament meetings to teach it, we plan how to give it in our ward councils, and we instill it in every Primary child with special needs when she gets treated differently.

  23. I did not find anything in either Jenna or Barb’s comments that said they felt that those who were not protected by their faith were unrighteous. I think you are reading your own ideas into their comments. They were bearing witness to their own experiences, just as valid as those of others. Why do the people who post here have to constantly jump on others whose experiences differ from theirs? And why do they regularly put words in others’ mouths that were never in their posts?
    Margie, the missionaries in Belgium did all live. No one was blown up. But hey, Carolyn must feel it is okay to exaggerate. I will not speculate why because I do not want to develop the habit of jumping to conclusions about others, something so common on this website.

  24. Several times prior to traveling, I have fasted and prayed and specifically sought a promise from God that I would be protected while there. When I received that promise and was trying hard to listen to the Spirit, I was protected from people who meant me harm. Sometimes in ways so miraculous I find it hard to tell the stories. The spiritual direction I received sometimes required me to change my plans, to turn around, to get off at a different stop, and once to step forward and physically confront an evil man, something I could only have done because of the promise I had received. I have traveled in some very dangerous places, places so dangerous Doctors Without Borders had pulled their staff out saying they could no longer protect them. Places where the guns were real and the so was the tracer fire, where not long after I left, people got their heads cut off.
    So I can testify that God can and does protect people. I think that testimony is important. I know it is for me and I hope sharing it can help others. I know that having these experiences where my faith turned into knowledge taught me much and has allowed me to move forward in other situations in life that frighten me. Those experiences have given me something to hold onto in dark times when I need to retell them to myself in order to find the faith to move forward.
    There are specific times when we can know that we will be safe. That does not mean we will not be frightened, even terrified. In the middle of that terror, God can teach us lessons we simply would not learn in safer places. And if we ask, he can send unspeakable peace.
    This does not mean that God will always promise us physical protection. It does mean when He promises He has the power necessary to deliver. And when He does not choose to promise, we are still safe in His hands.
    We can take from life’s experiences what we choose.

%d bloggers like this: