May 15, 2013 - Nathan Woolley was in a boat on the Amazon River in 2008 when he saw two boys sitting on a cliff watching him leave Brazil.
"I remember thinking, 'This isn't the end,'" said Woolley. "This isn't the last time I will be here or the last time I will see my friends."
It wasn't. Woolley returned to Urucurituba, in the state of Amazonas in Brazil, last summer for two weeks on a second mission trip with members of Hadley Community Church. When he left, however, he again had the same feeling, compounded by depression he'd felt since having surgery in May.
Woolley also had what he calls a "spiritual attack, doubting himself and what he believed." A doctor recommended anti-anxiety drugs. Concerned about the side effects of medication, the 2011 Goodrich High School graduate decided the best course of action was counseling from his pastor. His depression lessened and eventually stopped and he found a new purpose.
"I decided God wanted to use my life and my experiences to help others," Woolley said.
With this goal in mind, he e-mailed John Larrabee, an American missionary pastor who lives in Urucurituba with his wife, Joyce. Woolley told them of his desire to assist them in their mission to educate and serve in ministry. On Dec. 17, having raised enough funds from members of the Hadley congregation to stay in Brazil until May, Woolley left Goodrich for Urucurituba for his third and lengthiest visit.
"It was a real blessing from God," he said of the amount of funds raised. "I was speechless when I counted the money I had received."
Woolley missed Christmas with his family, as well as New Year's and Easter, but made it home in time for his 21st birthday, May 7.
He left Detroit Metro on Dec. 17 and two days later, after flying into Manaus, the capital city of Amazonas, then a roughly 5-hour bus ride from a Brazilian port city and an hour-long boat ride on the Amazon River, arrived in Urucurituba, located in the heart of the Amazon jungle.
"We have highways and expressways, they have the Amazon," laughs Woolley.
The interior area in which the Larrabees serve with Christian ministry is not commonly served by other denominations, he noted, as they don't believe it's profitable.
"It's a dangerous trip to reach such few people, but we believe that if we can lead one person to Christ our trip was worth it," he said.
The missionaries in Brazil are different than in many other parts of the world, he acknowledged, in that the Brazilian people are educated about religion (the majority of Brazilians are Roman Catholic), and are not necessarily impoverished. Woolley noted there are many business owners in Urucurituba that are in fact fairly well-off.
"As a people, Brazilians are very content with what they have," he said. "Many of the people in the area have some kind of cell phone. They're not poor, but they go without many of the things Americans need."
Woolley was in Brazil during the rainy season. Upon his December arrival, the Amazon River was at its lowest level. When he left two weeks ago, it was up nearly 30 feet. Daytime temperatures were around 90 degrees and nighttime temperatures were around 80, he said. It rained some every day, some days all day long, although that was not a regular occurrence.
"It was definitely beautiful, the plants and trees and everything is totally different than what we have in the U.S. and in Michigan," Woolley said. "The jungle is very thick because it is untraveled. In order to get to one of our interior churches, you have to go along the road, and in just the past year, they have constructed roads that go to the interior. Depending on the day and if a pickup truck is working, you might have to walk 10 miles to the interior church."
Woolley stayed with the Larrabees at their home in Urucurituba, helping them around their home. The couple was hired in January by the local municipal school district to train teachers and Woolley also assisted them in putting books and packets together. Every weekend he traveled with them to Mt. Horeb, an interior church on the tributary, where they held services.
They traveled on motorcycles occasionally and by vehicle when they were available and working, but they also had several times when they walked the distance, 20 miles round trip.
"I saw many different types of fish and snakes," he said. "And it's not every day you get to see toucans and parrots fly over your head. There are many different types of monkeys, but the animals are afraid of humans so you don't see them often."
He also spent time working at a local camp, where games, crafts and other activities were hosted for children.
"That was an experience in itself, not knowing the language and totally surrounded by people you can't communicate with," said Woolley. "I did that on purpose because it would force me to learn the language (Portuguese)."
"Brazil is a beautiful country, people love foreigners, they love to see Americans," he said. "World travel is something everyone needs to experience. They are a very lively, passionate people. There is a lot of national pride and they absolutely adore their country."
Woolley said the local diet consisted mainly of beans, rice, and chicken or beef. In the area he was in, not many vegetables were eaten, but fruit is in abundance. He particularly enjoyed cupuasu, as well as cocoa beans.
"As a man who loves food, it's an experience," he said.
The entire experience is one he won't forget.
"When you're not around the people you love, you love the people you're around," he said. "Even though I was not around my family from the U.S., I made family in Brazil."
During the April 28 church service, as Woolley prepared to leave Brazil, he told the Mt. Horeb congregation it wouldn't be the last time he will be in Urucurituba.
"I know that God is using me for his service and I know that I am encouraging people and I can't help greatly there, but I can help in the little things," he said. "It's through little things that you change a life. Courtesy when it's not expected, love when it's not expected. It changed me because you don't know when a person is hurting or sick or having a bad day, but God is good all the time and we can affect a person's life in whatever we do. That is the lesson I learned."
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville