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
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.
to Contents page