It Is What It Is: The Bus, The Cruise And The UMC

It Is What It Is: The Bus, The Cruise And The UMC December 10, 2018

I managed to hold on until we got off the bus, headed to the pier edge, sat down on a fortunately placed piece of covered pipe and waited. The outcome was inevitable. After a few bouts of retching, I felt well enough to walk to the boat, but I also knew exactly what would happen when the blast of the ship air conditioner hit me. 


the sick bus
The bus which left me so sick

Our travels sound very glamorous—and to some degree they genuinely are. We occupy a lovely suite on a lovely ship that carries less than 500 passengers and a crew of about 360 who are devoted to meeting our every need.

Our suite is large enough for a king size bed with rich-feeling linens, a comfy couch, good sized table where we can easily eat should we choose to, a well-stocked bar, a workstation, make-up station, walk-in closet with plenty of wooden hangers, a small but adequate deck, a spacious bathroom with a shower, garden tub, and luxury bathrobes.

The attentive room steward exchanges our used fluffy towels for clean fluffy towels twice a day. One of the nightstand drawers is full of the “good-night” chocolates which we set aside as we both dislike eating just before bed.

Plus, we have the services of Bish the Butler whose generous, kind and professional services to us have us pretty spoiled.

Yesterday morning, we were served champagne and caviar for breakfast—and no, we didn’t order it. Just the way that particular restaurants celebrate Sunday mornings.

The bigger picture: third world realities

But there is a much, much bigger reality here. We become daily more aware that we are in a second/possibly-turning-third world country. Truly, the Brazilian economy is one big giant mess.

Although there have been some glory years that spawned a thriving middle class, things are quickly reverting to a dictator-like government and economy. The corrupted and politically connected rich hold a massive percentage of the wealth. The previously-growing middle class now slides inexorably into poverty. The already poor live with increasing desperation.

For those with indigenous backgrounds who were lured to the “big city” to “improve” their lives, there is growing interest in returning to the rivers and the rainforest and re-learning to live as their hunter-gatherer ancestors did.

For most of us, we’d call that lifestyle seriously primitive. However, for those with the necessary intimate knowledge of the forest and the required good health for the physical labor of building their huts, fishing, gathering the kinds of plants that are either not poisonous or knowing how to get the poisons out of the ones that become the mainstay of their diet, like manioc, it is a decent and pleasant life.

The passengers and crew of this ship are at the mercy of the true owners of this river: the Amazonian boat pilots AND the rain forest weather. Because there are so very few, if any, roads in this part of Brazil, river barges transport almost all goods to the cities off the coast. Plus, the waters stay fairly well populated with the smaller ferry-type boats that move people from one place to another.

Should a barge happen to be parked at one of the few ports where a ship like this one can get close enough for passengers to go straight from the ship to dock, too bad. When they do so, we have to use tenders, which, frankly, none of us like and would prefer to avoid like the plague.

Yesterday, we found ourselves “toured out” after three days in various villages, one very close to being populated by genuinely indigenous people. Having to navigate narrow, treacherous planks, several without adequate handrails, to get from the tour boat or tender to the land, needing to soak ourselves in mosquito repellants and to endure toilets that I would prefer not to describe, had taken a toll on us.

The bus ride

We decided we’d just take a stroll in Santarem, a city of about 300,000, canceling our planned visit to the rainforest, as we’d already seen several by then.

We were able to walk off the boat. The barge captain who had threatened not to vacate the spot changed his mind. We strolled in the already oppressive morning heat to the chain link fence that would get us off the pier area and into the town.

There we encountered several scruffy-looking taxi drivers who made it clear that walking was not a good idea. So we headed back to a street bus the cruise line had hired that would transport us to a shopping mall. The city had promised to have a few limited stores open for us on a Sunday but this would also be a safe place to walk in the relative cool.

The bus was not air-conditioned (keep in mind we are on the Amazon River, it is summer, the rainy season here, and it is steamy hot), had no functional shock absorbers, and sported a badly maintained diesel engine.

The 25-minute laborious drive to the shopping center took us past one beat-up barrio after another. Yes, walking would have been a poor decision. When we arrived at the shopping center, we could not get in—some miscommunication of some sort–so the 10 of us who had taken the ride decided to get back on the bus and return to port.

And that’s when it happened. Between the open windows, the diesel fumes, the endless bouncing and swaying, my determination to get some video of Santarem, and, by then, the additional fumes of the growing traffic on the roads, the mal-de-mer, something I have avoided quite nicely until now, swept to the surface.

I managed to hold on until we got off the bus. There I headed to the pier edge, sat down on a fortunately placed piece of covered pipe and waited. The outcome was inevitable. After a few bouts of retching, I felt well enough to walk to the boat, but I also knew precisely what would happen when the blast of the ship air conditioner hit me.

I was right. Made a beeline to the men’s room, because I could get there before I heaved. My sweet husband kept guard.

After a few minutes, we slowly made our way to our room where I spent the next hour retching. I then crawled into bed for a couple of hours.

As we had said to one another at breakfast yesterday, “This ain’t no comfy European tour.”

It is what it is: The coming UMC sadness

But with each “interesting” happening, we turn to each other and say, “It is what it is.” Rolling with the punches transforms travel adventures from possible frustrations into “Oh my, what will happen next?” moments of wonderment and relieves all possible tensions.

Which brings me, (FINALLY, my readers say) to the situation in the increasingly agitated United Methodist Church.

As I prepare to cover our called General Conference 2019, I spent a month this summer reading Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind

The fight between Luther, the prototype fundamentalist thinker, and Erasmus, the prototype liberal thinker–both with unshakeable roots in the Christian traditions, both with a kind of classical knowledge most of us can’t even dream of–nearly completely parallels the fight between the Traditionalists and the Progressives in the United Methodist Church.

I found it a fascinating and tragic read, full of blood, hatred, intolerance, destruction, “fake news,” mud-slinging, and character assassination, all coupled with an inability to listen to the other points of view with generous and kind ears.

For me, the book was particularly fascinating because the writer is not someone who was aware of current UMC issues. The author, Michael Massing, is a Jewish historian. He took ten years to research and write the book, reading the entirety of the voluminous writings of both Erasmus and Luther in the process.

He had no idea how his words would hit someone like me who is seeing the same fight from 600 years ago destroy United Methodism now.

Luther won and Erasmus and the Jews lost

I wish everyone would read it. It’s exquisitely researched and well written, although long. And it reveals our souls.

Ultimately, Luther won—and it was his influence and his extreme hatred of Jews that sowed the seeds that eventually contributed to the German-led Holocaust. But John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, most definitely made the most of both Erasmus, with his use of classical literature to lead to wider views of God and grace, and Luther, who helped Wesley gain a greater understanding of how God goes before us and does the work leading to our salvation.

Wesley put them together, part of his patchwork but functional theological base. Our current crisis will tear them apart. John Wesley’s legacy of holding both sides in tension will likely soon disappear.

But, to go back to the cruise, “it is what it is.” We must take the bad and problematic with the good.

This “is what it is” comprises the history of human—and religious—conflict. It is not likely to change.

Nothing stays the same

By Fama Clamosa - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67001070
The continents before the great geological upheavals that brought about the present configuration.

We have a geologist on board this ship who has delivered a set of fascinating lectures. His good work reminded me of our physical reality: nothing stays the same; nothing stays stable; we are all in a state of flux.

Some people, some species, survive the changes and become stronger and better adapted to the new realities. Some do not.

It’s the same with institutions. Some adapt and thrive in new realities. Some just do not.

In our case, we are dealing with an institution dominated by people who are used to being captains of their particular destinies and expect a say in all decisions. That group represents the US portion of the church. No decision can go unchallenged. No one is really worthy of trust because it seems to be part of our national psyche that we all think we can do a better job than the people appointed to do a particular job

The discussion is also dominated by those who are tired of not being captains of their respective destinies, i.e., the African portion of the church. They are rightly determined not to be oppressed by white people’s mandates again. They will indeed do what is right for them.

I think we all need to take a deep breath, get ready for a wild ride at GC 2019, and also be prepared for the kind of cataclysmic changes that separated the South American continent from its mother continent of Africa.

It’s going to be hard, but it is some will survive and will, by their hard work and faith, bring forth many new kinds of life founded on the everlasting hope of grace. Some will just go down screaming. Some will, and this we must face squarely, be mortally wounded by the battle. But we are all like grass, growing today and tossed in the fire tomorrow, and it is time we face that reality.


Photo by Christy Thomas © December 2019, all rights reserved.

Fatal Discord Book Cover, From Amazon.com

Photo By Fama Clamosa – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

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  • Linda Coleman Allen

    There is a stark resemblance between the government in Brazil and and the government in the US at this time. It is much sadder for the people of Brazil as there doesn’t seem to be anyone who can help them. As for the UMC, only God can help them, and only if they let Him.

    • The Pentecostal support of a nationalistic, fascist “law and order” el presidente in Brazil in many ways mirrors the evangelical support of our nationalist president in the US. Because democratic socialism has failed in so many South America countries the result of corruption in government, evangelicals there are willing to table social justice and reform for stability at any cost.