“Miracle” houses, in São Paulo and Pittsburgh

“What’s with the rocks?”

“Do you have a few minutes? Pick a rock and I’ll tell you a story.”

#5 gold: Miracles

Our first year in São Paulo, 1990, we lived in an apartment near our mission office. This was handy for Dave, but difficult for the rest of us. From a big house and yard in the quiet town of Port Huron, Michigan we were suddenly plunged into skyscrapers, never-ending traffic, a small living space on the ninth floor of a huge building, elevators, underground parking, and three levels of security just to enter our new home. The rent was more than we had expected, and no matter how I pinched pennies (or rather, cruzeiros, at the time), for the first time in our marriage I could not make our ends meet.

Worst of all, though, was the hour-plus bus ride to school through traffic and fumes over bumpy pot-holed streets. It was a rough kindergarten beginning for our five-year-old Rachel, who threw up on the bus almost every morning. I determined we should buy a house, to get out of paying the exorbitant rent, and that it should be a spacious house in a real neighborhood, within a ten-minute walk from PACA, our children’s school. Dave’s brother agreed to loan us money for a down payment. I figured out we could spend $39,000.

When I found a realtor and described what I wanted and how much money I had, he laughed. “Lady, what you want simply doesn’t exist. And in Brazil right now, you can’t buy a house on credit. The economy is too volatile. You’ll have to buy with cash.”

The realtor was right. The type and location of house I wanted cost at the time over $200,000. The “houses” we could afford were tiny cracker boxes that made me claustrophobic just walking into them.

The realtor didn’t believe I could only spend $39,000. We were Americans, and in the common Brazilian perception, all Americans are rich. He kept calling me, wanting to show me more houses of the $200,000 variety. Finally I said, “Don’t call me again until you have found my house—the one I described to you, close to PACA, for the money I have.”

I went back to prayer, trying to be happy with our apartment, and with always having to send extra clothes for Rachel to change into each morning when she arrived at school.

About six months later when I answered the phone, my realtor said, “I found your house. But it’s not a house; it’s a palace!” The location? A ten-minute walk from PACA. The price? They were asking $39,000, if we could pay in cash and in dollars. Dave’s brother secured a loan for us in the U.S. for the full amount, which we were able to pay off in two years with the money we no longer had to spend on rent.

We moved in on June 19, 1991, exactly one year from the day we arrived in Brazil. (That day, the electricity was out in São Paulo so we had to hand carry everything down nine flights of stairs—but that’s another story!) We lived in this miracle house with four bedrooms, four bathrooms, a dining room, an office, etc. for the rest of our time in Brazil. It was large enough to host any number of people, and our personal ties to that neighborhood are still strong. I could talk for a long time about all that God did there, but instead I’ll fast forward twenty years to Pittsburgh, where again I found myself looking for a house I was told did not exist.


Left: Rachel, Karis (holding her dog Buddy), and Valerie with neighbors and PopPop Kornfield in the street outside our house in São Paulo (the house is on the left). 

Middle: A neighborhood Christmas party in our living room, late 1990s.

Right: Teens in our home for Karis’s 15th birthday party, May 5, 1998.

This time we needed a house with at least one bedroom and one bathroom on the main floor. We wanted to be within fifteen minutes of Karis’s hospital, with no tunnels and no bridges to slow us down in emergencies. We had a small inheritance from Dave’s parents to use as our down payment. Based on that we figured we could spend at most $120,000. Our realtor and everyone we talked to in Pittsburgh about what we were looking for told us there was no such thing.

I went back to prayer. For a whole discouraging year I looked at houses and apartments, finding nothing that would work for us. Meanwhile, Karis was becoming more and more debilitated, and maneuvering her up and down the stairs to our flat was becoming frighteningly difficult for me. Something had to give!

I watched the multi-list like a hawk. One Monday morning while Karis was still asleep I saw a house newly posted, just a mile uphill from our apartment, in a neighborhood called Stanton Heights. I jumped in our car and drove there. The For Sale sign wasn’t even up yet. I walked around the house, thinking, hmm, this actually looks like there’s more to the ground floor than just a kitchen and living room. Boldly I walked up and rang the doorbell. “There are two bedrooms and a bath on the main floor,” the woman told me. “Thanks! I’ll call my realtor,” I yelled back to her as I ran to my car and back to Karis.

My realtor couldn’t show me the house until Wednesday afternoon. When we drove up, she informed me we had to wait for a few minutes because someone else was seeing the house. My heart sank. Someone else might buy “my” house?!

I hardly cared about seeing more than the main floor of the house, so anxious I was to get back to the realtor’s office to make an offer. They countered, but by Friday afternoon we had a signed agreement. The owners of the house were in shock—they had expected to spend the whole summer trying to sell their house.


Friends at Karis’s Garden Party, in the back yard of our house in Pittsburgh

The price for us? $117,000. Ridiculous. Much smaller houses in our new neighborhood were selling for significantly more money. The distance to the hospital? Exactly fifteen minutes most days—though at two or three or four in the morning we could do it in eleven minutes, faster than waiting for an ambulance.

I give you thanks, O Lord, with all my heart!