How The Gospel Has Not Saved Brazil

In 1997 I made a fateful mission trip to Brazil. Though it was only two months, it changed the course of my life. Since my late teens I knew I was going into ministry, but in the year prior to that first mission trip I had begun to drift. What I felt lacking was a personal vision of how my career should unfold. The inequality, crime, corruption, and social injustice I saw in Brazil contributed to what I believed was a calling on my life to help usher in a transformation of that country. I had no grandiose notions of single-handedly ‘saving’ the entire nation, but I did come to see myself as one small part of that greater initiative. Little could I have imagined that the evangelical revolution in Brazil would make matters worse for many people.

Despite its image as a sexually liberated country, Brazil is actually profoundly traditional on the topic. Men are expected to be ‘manly’ and women to be feminine, and anyone who falls outside that norm are subject to discrimination. Gay men in particular have suffered violence simply for being who they are, even just walking down the street or waiting for a bus. Rather than combatting violence against the lgbtq community, evangelicalism in Brazil actually demonizes them. They are treated at best as having an illness, and at worst as being literally demon-possessed. As a result, gay conversion therapy has apparently been given the green light to continue in Brazil, while elsewhere in the world it is being banned as abuse. More on that here:

As a starry-eyed young evangelical I believed that violence and crime would abate as ‘the gospel’ spread through a population. What I didn’t realize was that evangelicalism is still a religion, one subject to the preferences of those who adopt it. It would have shocked me then to learn that now, in 2017, there are entire gangs in Brazil that identify as evangelical and/or Pentecostal, and who continue to commit crimes and perpetuate the drug trade. Worse still, evangelical gangs have carried out campaigns of harassment against practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions who live in neighborhoods they control. Read about that here and here .

Religions are all malleable, existing in the minds of believers and having no objective reality. That is why they change so much, including among groups that claim to have an unchanging faith. A Southern Baptist from 2017, for example, wouldn’t do very well pretty much anywhere in 1617, all else being equal. It doesn’t surprise me as much now as it would have even just a decade ago that evangelicalism in Brazil is taking the shape of the pre-existing prejudices and predilections of the Brazilian people. That’s precisely what it’s done in the United States and elsewhere.

The only real path forward for any nation is through education and a firm commitment to human rights. Ignorance cannot be eliminated with myths any more than adding wood to a fire can be expected to put it out.

The Elusive Unitarians of Brazil

When everything lined up for me to take my first real vacation in nearly 4 years, I opted for Recife, Brazil. This city is located in the northeast of Brazil, a part of the country with which I was not yet familiar. The timing was great, as it June this year marked my 20th year since that first fateful mission internship. I was pleased to learn that the only Unitarian congregations in all of Brazil are located in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, and I looked forward to attending one of them. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so easy.

One contact I’ve had for some time is now located in California. He’s an ordained minister with the Unitarians in Brazil, but since he’s not living there right now there was no way to meet up with him. He eventually gave me the email address of someone there, but after a few emails she stopped responding. I thought even this wasn’t a problem, because although I would rather have had a contact there ahead of time, I could always certainly just attend a service.

Except not.

A couple of days before the Sunday I was to attend a service, I checked the church website and found the message above. It reads:

Attention: As a result of the problems caused by the rain on the chapel building, the Sunday services will continue to take place at the farm of the Santana family over the coming weeks. The schedule will continue the same.

The ‘rain’ to which they referred was the cause of historic flooding in the northeast which has killed some and left many homeless. Seeing that the building was damaged it was understandable that they’d be meeting in another location. Though I emailed the church for more information, no one ever responded. Having no idea where the ‘Santana family’ has their acreage, I simply couldn’t attend a service.

The Unitarian churches in Pernambuco began in the mid-20th century. What I’ve been able to piece together was that an American man married to a Brazilian woman got Unitarianism going there. Theologically liberal in the Christian tradition and modeled after the ‘high church’ services at King’s Chapel in Boston, the Unitarian congregations in Brazil are not neutral or agnostic as is Unitarian Universalism in the United States. This is something I suspect to be the case around the world.

Since it is unlikely that I will be returning to Recife anytime soon (though I had a wonderful vacation there), it’s regrettable that I couldn’t seem to track anyone down or find my way to a service. The Unitarians of Brazil are so elusive that it makes me wonder if, in fact, they were avoiding me.

Perhaps I’m happier not knowing the answer to that question.

6 reasons to visit Brazil’s heartland

A couple of times in my life I’ve lived in Brazil, and both times were in the city of Uberlândia, in the state of Minas Gerais. Situated in the midst of Brazil’s tropical savannah, Uberlândia is a relatively small city by Brazilian standards (population roughly 

654,700), but it is one of the more important cities in the region. 

My experience in Minas Gerais began in 1998 with a university trip to the state capital, Belo Horizonte. That was in the year following my mission internship  in the state of São Paulo. That began a series of visits driven, I’ll now admit, mostly by my relationship with a young woman there. My overarching love affair was with Brazil, though, and so when my girlfriend dumped me (the night before my birthday, no less) I pressed on with plans to move to Brazil and do mission work. Though I explored possibilities in other regions of the country, I found my way back to Minas Gerais, in Uberlândia.

The article above has it right when it says that most tourists don’t experience Minas Gerais, due to its lack of beaches. The 6 reasons to visit that Kevin Raub explains in the article are also all very true, in my opinion. I suggest, however, that anyone considering visiting Brazil at all consider carefully a couple of facts.

First, language. Portuguese (not Spanish) is the national language of the country. No, English is not commonly understood, and no, Spanish isn’t spoken by most either. Let me repeat: Portuguese is the language of Brazil. If you travel outside of common tourist areas without speaking the language or without someone who can interpret, expect to have difficulties.

Second, Brazil can be dangerous.

You can be mugged easily in full light of day, however, no matter where you are in any city of the country. It is far from being a bloodbath, however, and for the most part you are fine if you stay out of poor communities. Just please, don’t travel with valuables, and don’t openly carry an expensive camera that will draw unwanted attention. 

With the above in mind, I recommend that if at all possible, foreign tourists travel with a Brazilian friend or with someone else who has spent real time in Brazil.

Uberlândia, Minas Gerais, Brazil is where I met and married my first wife (a hopeful assumption of a second is implied there), and it’s where my children were both born. I love Brazil and Brazilians. So, when I say to take precautions, I’m not hating on the country. What I’m trying to do is be realistic and helpful. Take it or leave it.

6 reasons to visit Brazil’s heartland