Tarzier Memoirs

Part II   War and Awakening



The exodus from Latvia took place in the years 1922-23. In all, over two thousand Revival Baptists, men, women and children would eventually leave the country of their birth for a new life in another continent, climate, and language. The trip to Brazil was a long one, especially in those days of slow transportation—first by train to Hamburg, Germany, then freighters and passenger vessels for the crossing of the Atlantic, a minimum one month. Once in Brazil, they lodged temporarily in the immigrant facility in Sao Paulo. They then traveled by narrow gauge railroad to Sapezal, the end of the line, then by foot through the jungle, hacking their way 35 kilometers (21 miles) to Rio Peixe, Fish River. After building a bridge across the Peixe, they cut down a large tree and used the stump as a pulpit to hold a Bible for a first service in the new land. They went on to establish a colony, called “Varpa,” which in Latvian means “ear,” that is, the fruiting spike of grain.

The emigration movement was led by Janis Inkis, pastor of Matthew Street Church, the largest Baptist church in Riga. Inkis was a respected theologian as well as accomplished poet. The Latvian Baptist hymnal contains several hundred of his original sacred poems. I met Inkis for the first time in Riga, when I was a lad, before I became a Baptist. The next time I saw him was at the memorable farewell service at the Matthew Street Church, when the congregation prepared to depart. Inkis left on the first ship as trailblazer. He was accompanied by a full passenger manifest of exiting Baptists, including my brother Peteris and my mother Jüle. Thousands followed in later ships.

Few would have gone had Pastor Inkis lifted one finger against the movement. Not everyone was motivated by spiritual rapture. My brother Peteris remarked years later: “The young people went to Brazil just to see new lands and a new country. We didn’t have much faith in all that stuff. I went for the adventure, and besides, I wanted to avoid military service.” The Brazil movement was based on Revelation, Chapter 12, verse 6: “And the woman [that is, God’s select, or the church as a whole] fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.” We were mere babes in Christ, and we took everything literally, even the need to take refuge in the wilderness.

The refuge in Brazil, a plot of land beside Rio do Peixe, turned out to be, not a desert as in the book of Revelation, but rather dense jungle 420 kilometers from the Atlantic coast. ** The land was donated by the Brazilian government with the goal of populating the hinterland. The nearest railroad station was 35 kilometers (21 miles) away, with nearly impenetrable tropical jungle in between.

I still hold in high respect the pastor of the Lidere Baptist Church, Janis Skraba, one of the first Revivalists and a man capable of thinking for himself. As the Revivalists repeated their mantra— “in about one or two years, prepare yourselves to begin the journey to safety in Brazil” –-Skraba, a genuinely inspired man, kept a cooler head. He did his best to dissuade his flock. But by now the movement had acquired a life of its own. The people wanted to believe, no matter how vocal Skraba might be about his misgivings. Once in Brazil, in no time at all they scattered all over the country and never returned to the Varpa colony. As Micah says in the Bible: “I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills, as sheep that have no shepherd.” There was no antichrist in Latvia and no Bride in Brazil—only jungle rot and footworm and backbreaking labor in the coffee plantations.

I visited Brazil in 1969, and undertook to find the spot of that first service. But I was disappointed. The colony had long since moved several miles north, and neither bridge nor road remained. Forty-seven years had passed, and the jungle had covered over the vain efforts of man. A friend called Skuja told me anecdotes of those early days in the jungle. He and my brother Pedro (as he Brazilianized his name) arrived together in the first ship, the Tucuman, so they naturally made a team. Skuja told me of hacking their way through the jungle with axe and machete.

They occasionally encountered wildlife, including nosy monkeys. Peteris, still full of mischief, loved to grab a monkey by the tail, swirl it around his head, and jettison it into the foliage, where the monkey would scamper off, chattering obscenties in monkey language.

Peter’s faith was fragile, and he did not last long in the colony. Euphoria having cooled off, he gradually came to see the prophecies as but a delusion. He worked for a while on building a railroad between Brazil and Bolivia. He mastered the Portuguese language and eventually enrolled in the national university in Rio de Janeiro as well as the Baptist theological seminary. He graduated with a PhD in December of 1929, seven years after his rough first days in Brazil.

My personal tragedy was the fate of our mother. She had already lost her companion of decades. In her humble faith, she now trusted in shaky prophecies and set out, at age 55, for a strange land in the tropics. Younger people could get used to tropical diseases, footworm, snakes and fire ants, but she was too old. Peteris soon left the colony himself to attend the Baptist seminary, and eventually moved to the south, to Rio Grande do Sul, where he would be pastor until his death. Mother lived her last days in relative comfort with Peter’s family, but she never learned the language or adjusted to the new life. She died in 1942.

I visited Mother’s final resting place in the Baptist cemetery in Porto Alegre. The grave had no stone or marker, and Peteris had trouble locating it. In Brazil, the custom is to dig up and burn the bones after a few years have passed, unless the grave has been bought in perpetuity. I urged Peteris to do this, but I am not sure he ever did.* When we met in 1969 after forty-seven years, I could hardly recognize him. He had changed intellectually and emotionally as well as physically. He had been a lively, mischievous brother for me. Now, after decades of disappointments, he was slow to speak and to express himself. He did not want to talk of the Brazilian movement and the principles on which it had been based—“that is all behind me,” was all he wanted to say. Once out of the Varpa commune, he completely lost touch with the other communards. He scorned the teachings regarding the “Bride of Christ” that was led “into the wilderness” away from the dragon’s face to await spiritual rapture.

Mother’s life in Varpa, and later in Peteris’s household, was sad indeed. Eventually the commune came to the verge of starvation. Women worked in the coffee plantations, picking beans in the hot summer sun, to put food on the table. While Peteris studied for his degrees, Mother again worked, this time as a housemaid, to finance his schooling. After they became engaged, Emilija helped out as well.

Later, when he moved the family to Porto Alegre, her life was no easier. Peteris’s marriage was unfortunate. Emilija was four years older. She entertained strange if not false beliefs. I tried to reason with her during my six-month stay in Porto Alegre, without any success. She believed in writings other than the Bible, while Peteris accepted nothing but the Bible as the valid word of God. Peteris shared with me his journal of the early days in Brazil. In it he poured his profound sadness and longing for his native country. He had no one to confide in, though. His wife was a complete stranger to him.

In my visit to Brazil, I ran into an old acquaintance from Latvian days, a man called Skuja. When I first met him, in 1923, he was a noncommissioned officer serving in the Rezekne garrison, close to the Russian border, and I had finished my military service in the Daugavpils fortress. I happened to be in Rezekne on an evangelistic tour. Skuja and I talked at length about Brazil. He shared with me his plans to leave as soon as he was discharged from the military. My head had cleared of the Brazilian fog by that time, and I tried to dissuade him, to no avail. He left shortly thereafter. I met him again in Brazil in 1969, forty-six years later, at the Latvian Baptist convention. I accepted his invitation to visit Varpa colony and the church where he was now a deacon. He owned a cattle ranch and had constructed a small generating plant on a stream that ran through his property. He had never married, and his only commitment was the care of his mother in her old age. He was obviously doing quite well.

The colony withered eventually, like a tree whose roots have been cut off. The young generation learned the new language, went to Brazilian schools and colleges, and became part of the life of Brazil. One beneficial effect of this false movement was the revitalization of Baptist work in Brazil. Another positive aspect was the charismatic direction to work with the Ayores Indians of Bolivia, in a place called “Rincon del Tigre.” The Ayores Indians were a totally wild Indian tribe before missionary work began. They killed on the spot anyone that sought to contact them. After many years of missionary effort, in 1969 the Ayores Christian colony numbered several hundred, with a church and an elementary school. Services were held both in Spanish and in Ayores. The Indians no longer killed people, and they learned to wear clothing. A regular, non-charismatic Baptist mission exists there to this day.

I never doubted my conversion, based on the outpouring of God’s grace I received on that day on the farm, when we knelt down to pray with the evangelists from Lidere. Not so Peteris. After his arrival in Brazil he began to doubt the whole experience. What saved him from tossing out his faith altogether was the spiritual reassurance he found in the Scriptures. But his allegiance to the communal movement soon came to an end. He broke away from the colony because, he said, it was based on fallacy. He moved to Rio de Janeiro to begin his study of theology and philosophy. To support himself, he worked as a carpenter. Mother brought in money by working the coffee plantations and Emilija by serving as maid/governess with rich Brazilian families.

I had all sorts of plans for my brother. I wanted him to see my children and relatives in the States and then fly to Madrid to see Tim, from there to Lisbon and then back home to Brazil. He took the first step in this direction by applying for Brazilian citizenship, after having lived there as a foreigner for fifty years. But it was not to be. He collapsed in bed, dead of a fulminating stroke, in the early hours of June 9, 1972—a month short of his 69th birthday.

* The acreage given the Revivalists was so remote that to this day (2002) it remains thinly settled and very rural, nothing like the bustling city of Sao Paulo, population 14 million. Varpa is reached after a day-long, kidney-rattling bus ride from Sao Paulo. The town of Varpa still exists, with Latvian names for butcher shop and bakery.
** Jule’s remains were eventually transferred to the family grave, thanks to Rolf Naumann, Pedro’s son-in-law. A gravestone marks the site in the Baptist cemetery in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Alone in Latvia

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