28 3 / 2012
LaVera Betts was an American missionary from Wycliffe Bible Translators. She was short in stature, short in hair but large at heart. She was almost 80 years old and had lived in the jungles of Brazil for more than 45 years when she had had a stroke in her small wooden house in Amazonian city of Porto Velho. She was transported for treatment to São Paulo, 4,000 miles away. For a few weeks, accompanied by her fellow worker in Bible Translation and best friend Helen, she fought for survival.
Meanwhile in Porto Velho a party was taking place. It was a crazy conference/party that our local mission had decided to host. Indigenous Indians from more than 50 tribes came to enjoy a week of fellowship and good food in my back yard. A big tent was set up for 2,500 people. Several cows were killed and donated to us by friends of the mission. A lot of indigenous preachers, singers, dancers came from all over to enjoy the fellowship. It was during the days of the party that Helen called with news from Sao Paulo. LaVera had die the night before.
Alan Lea came to me and asked: “Could you say something about her during the meeting today?” Mr. Lea was the director of Wycliffe Bible Translators, our next door neighbors in Porto Velho, and co-hosts of the party.
LaVera was not married and did not leave any close relatives. She had outlived everyone close to her. In a few months, she would have to go to compulsory retirement in a home for missionaries somewhere in the US. She would have to live there among complete strangers until her death. LaVera and Helen, her dear Canadian work partner for many years, were dreading the eminent separation from each other and from the missionary field they called home.
“She is gone, dead, and now what?” A single missionary lady whispered to me in great pain; “Braulia it is so sad, what do we do with her body?” This was more than just a question, it was an outcry. LaVera had dedicated almost her entire life to the Tenharim Indians of the south Amazon basin. She lived in a simple wooden house without any extra comfort other than a hot shower and a fan when she came to town. Now she would be buried in an unknown cemetery in Sao Paulo, far away. And after Helen returned to her home in Canada, no one in Sao Paulo would know who LaVera was. No one would ever honor her grave with flowers, or recite poems or Bible verses to the wind in memory of her.
I thought to myself that it would not be difficult to gather some money to get her remains back here to the Amazon, so the people who loved her would have a chance to remember her. Before I had a chance to suggest that somebody remembered that LaVera had left clear instructions. She had said that if she died in Sao Paulo, she wanted to be buried there. She did not want to disturb anyone and be a burden after her death. I was a little put off by this cold pragmatism, but it came from somebody who always knew who she was and what she wanted. LaVera was a citizen of the kingdom. She had no earthly ties, nor belonged to any people group. When she embraced the missionary call, she understood that God had called her to give up everything for Him. And that’s what she did.
It was not because she loved the Brazilians, that she lived in Brazil. What moved her was her love for Jesus. It was not because she loved the Tenharim people that she had spent an immeasurable amount of tiresome hours translating the New Testament into their language. She did it because she loved Jesus. Her love for Jesus was reflected in her love for others.
As Christians we believe in eternal life. But loneliness scares us. LaVera’s grave was going to be lonely like she was in life.
I walked slowly to the tent, and just before the end of the meeting somebody asked me to talk about LaVera. Even though I was not very close to her, I was asked to speak because most of her American friends felt too emotional to say anything. So I stood up on the wooden platform, staring out at the tent filled with indigenous faces to pay a last tribute to LaVera.
The short and dark Tenharim Indians gathered around me singing in their language. They sang a song that LaVera would have understood had she been here. They finished in tears, reminding everyone they had the Bible now only because of the effort of that short lady.
I started my piece, mumbling some nonsense between tears, thinking to myself, that to be a Christian after all is to be able to say: “We enter this world with nothing, and can take nothing with us. We are not from here. This is not our home, it never was nor ever will be. He is our one and only gain.”
Without a Land
Without a people
Without a family
Her legacy: Jesus