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Olympic opportunity

Family fun day outreach in Rio during Olympics

Family fun day outreach at Christ Church Rio de Janeiro

Alex and Jane Cacouris and Jess and Mark Simpson report

Alex and Jane Cacouris
Alex and Jane Cacouris

It was a privilege for us to be here during Rio 2016 and to gain a glimpse of how God was working in this city and in our church during August and September.

The Games

As with London 2012, the build-up to Rio 2016 was hugely controversial. Healthcare, education and security were under extreme financial pressure in the run up to the Games. For example, some state schools were suspended for six months in order to finance the Olympic construction programme. We’re only just now getting a taste of what the consequences are for an impoverished public purse. Politically, this year has been incredibly tumultuous and the recent municipal and mayoral elections saw levels of violence not seen since 1979. And the evaporated political will is leaving a stench in the Guanabara Bay; having been cleaner, it’s clogging up again. But life carries on, and the city is of course already well on its way into planning Carnaval 2017.

Jess and Mark Simpson
Jess and Mark Simpson

Having said all that, in true Brazilian style, the city pulled off an utterly outstanding Olympics and Paralympics, full of all the vibrancy, colour and life you would imagine only Brazil could do. The natural beauty of the city was rightly shown off and with excitement building and stadiums filling, there was peace and joy in the air. The ill omens of shoot-outs and the Zika virus did not take their place in the annals of Olympic history. And of course the long-term benefits from the revamped transport infrastructure (new high speed bus line, metro, new tram line) are already noticeable, as is the impressive development of the old port area.

A word particularly on the Paralympics: after lukewarm interest initially, in the end the nation really got behind the Paralympic Games, captivated by the gritty perseverance and passion of the competitors such as Brazilian Daniel Dias, who has inspired multitudes and shifted negative perceptions of the less able-bodied, and Sophie Christiansen, from the British equestrian team, whose joy at participating and winning felt almost like a taste of the joy we’ll experience in heaven. As a church it was fantastic to applaud those in our community with disabilitites and to think more about how to involve them more actively in the life of the church. There’s a man in the church, Willy, who has Down’s syndrome and is 27, and for various reasons he would never stay in the main church service, but rather head out to join the children’s church gathering. After some discussions with him, he was able to ‘graduate’ from children’s church and is now helping in the main church service. Sometimes we need help in lifting our eyes to see situations with a whole new gaze. 

The guests

It was so encouraging for us as a church community to host up to 50 new people from around the world during the Games. With coffee and cake tables at the back of church, we extended our welcome to various visitors, including relatives of competing athletes and personnel involved in cultural events that were taking place across the city. We also had the pleasure of having two ordinands from Ridley Hall, Cambridge join the team here for a few weeks and help us explore ways of reaching out to the wider international community.

The nations

Shortly after London 2012, we were contacted by St Paul’s East Ham, a church in London, who had acquired 26 international flags for the London Olympics and had displayed them in their church during the Games. They wanted to ‘pass the baton’ to an international church in Rio for 2016. And so a few months prior to Rio 2016, one of our congregation members returned to Rio from a trip to the UK with a suitcase heavily laden with 26 flags.

We hung them up, loud and proud, along the entrance drive to the church during August and September. St Paul’s maintained regular contact with us during the Games, praying for us and the city and we were blessed by this colourful partnership. So, looking forward to the next Olympics in Tokyo, we linked to a movement of evangelists from America, Britain and Japan, who came out to Rio in August.

We will look to hand the flags on to them, potentially, in four years’ time. The Church has always grown through global intersections: Priscilla and Aquila left Rome and arrived in Corinth, where they met Paul, and on they went to Ephesus and met Apollos, from Alexandria, who then headed to Corinth himself. With each meeting, followers of Jesus are built up and grow in maturity and faith.

The family fun days

On Super Saturday of the Olympics and Super Sunday of the Paralympics we hosted two separate Family Fun Days in the grounds of the church, which contain an open-air basketball court. We had the help of a great friend of ours, Mary Woods, who for the last 20 years has travelled the world, encouraging and helping churches to host festivals that they can invite their communities to attend.

At the heart of these fun days is the chance to invite the community to celebrate life, see what church looks like and, we pray, give them a glimpse of what God is like. The Christ Church family put on an amazing couple of parties with crafts, face painting, games, balloon sculpting, a trampoline, a big screen television showing the Games, candy floss and a barbeque that saw over 300 people come along, of which half do not attend church. After the first festival a lady we have got to know, who is not a Christian, texted: “Thank you for probably one of my best afternoons ever. So many lovely people, so much love, so much happiness. My boys and I loved it. My heart was so happy this afternoon. Thank you.” We can often take for granted what others gasp for in their lives – love, happiness, joy.

The path ahead

This whole experience has been a huge boost to the congregation. While there are many ex-pats and English-speaking Brazilians in Rio, the church has not been able to connect much with these folk. It’s a big city with many small social networks, so God has been kind to open unexpected doors at times to meet new people here. In between the two Games we had a Focus on Prayer week, a new venture for the church, where we were able to convert the rather drab balcony into a prayerful and creative space. We were also treated to a surprise donation of 11 DFS sofas from the British consulate, part of a total of 40 specially commissioned for the British House during the Olympics. The timing was providential as we’d been visualising how to reconfigure some of the spaces of the church to be more welcoming and disarming – it felt akin to winning the lottery.

Off the back of the family fun days we’ll be running another Alpha Course; about 20 people have signed up and we are planning a Messy Church Nativity event to reconnect with families at the start of December.