Haley MillsAccording to second-year MDiv student Haley Mills, studying foreign languages is a “family thing.” “It was a family philosophy that learning new languages was important, because that knowledge put you in touch with a greater portion of the world,” the Alabama native explains.

That’s a lesson Mills taught to young children in her first-year Contextual Education (Con Ed) placement tutoring refugees at Lutheran Services of Georgia. One day, she heard a group of four young boys—two spoke Spanish and two spoke Nepali—arguing. When Mills asked one of the boys to use kinder words, making the request in his native Spanish, the boys erupted. The Spanish-speaking boys were amazed that their teacher knew Spanish, but the Nepali boys feared that the teacher was taking the other boys’ side. Mills diffused the situation by breaking out the Nepali words she had learned, which included ‘nose,’ ‘hair,’ and ‘thank you.’ It was the Nepali speakers’ turn to be amazed.

“It was one of those moments where language causes cultural sharing, rather than cultural division,” recalls Mills. “Once everyone finished laughing at my Nepali pronunciations, all of the students started sharing the words for ‘nose’ and ‘hair’ in their own languages.” The fight between the four boys was forgotten.

This semester, Mills is immersed in the Portuguese language, as she’s studying abroad in São Paulo, Brazil, at the Universidade Metodista de São Paulo (Methodist University of São Paulo). Her trip is the first in a series of faculty and student exchanges made possible by a four-year, $325,000 grant to Candler from the Henry Luce Foundation. A faculty member and student from Universidade Metodista will travel to Candler for the upcoming spring semester, and future exchanges will occur with other schools in South America, Africa, and Asia. 

Mills arrived in Brazil in June for several weeks of intensive language courses, though her study of the language ahead of time paid off when her bags didn’t arrive with her flight. Now that the school year has started, Mills is studying Latin American theologies, the influence of the church on Brazilian society, and liturgy. She still has time to attend worship services and fellowship events at local congregations, experience traditional churrasco (barbecue), and witness the Brazilian love affair with soccer.

Mills was particularly drawn to studying in Brazil because of her career interest in international development work.

“Brazil is the birthplace of liberation theology,” Mills says. “It’s the tradition I draw from for a theological basis of international development. It was like a light came on when I studied liberation theology as an undergrad [at Birmingham-Southern College] and read about how faith must be lived and address those who are suffering from injustice.”

Mills plans to combine her interest in international development with ordination in The United Methodist Church, and she says Candler has proven to be the perfect place for that path.

“I want to do ministry in a way that’s connected to The United Methodist Church, but in a non-traditional setting. What brought me to Candler were the opportunities to learn how to do that, as well as the opportunities to travel internationally,” she says.

Before leaving for Brazil, Mills admitted that taking classes and communicating exclusively in Portuguese made her nervous. During her Con Ed experience tutoring refugees, she watched very intelligent people struggle to communicate their basic needs in a new language. But now, a few months into her stay, she says that she’s able to both translate directions for lost tourists and carry on deep theological conversations with fellow students.

“Right now, praying or getting angry in Portuguese are the biggest challenges,” Mills says. “I sometimes practice praying out loud in Portuguese in my room.”

And for those of us who don’t speak Portuguese, she shared an English prayer on her blog, thanking God for an experience that includes the Brazilian blend of dance, music, and martial arts known as capoeira with local children, discussions about theology with new classmates, and strong, sweet coffee: “Thanks be to God, who creates out of chaos and breathes new life, strength, and joy into each of us.”