What if the anti-immigrant forces have their way? What would New York City faith look like? What has happened among Brazilian churches gives a clue.
To uncover the answer to this question, we took the rumbling N train over the Queensboro Bridge past the row house-filled streets of Astoria and alighted at the 36th Avenue stop. Here is the center of New York City’s once-thriving Brazilian population, numbering 300,000-strong in the nineties, but is now closer to 30,000, according to the Brazilian consulate. Several years ago, researcher Donizete Rodrigues counted over 150 Brazilian churches in the metropolitan New York City area. But now there are many reports of closures, consolidations and changes into multi-ethnic congregations. Within walking distance you will find a Brazilian supermarket, three Brazilian restaurants, one Brazilian hair salon, the city’s only Brazilian community center, and seven Brazilian evangelical churches, including a branch of Brazil’s largest Pentecostal denomination, the Assembleia de Deus (or Assemblies of God). Just a few months ago, there were ten such churches in the area. What happened to the missing three churches?
The search for an answer to that question took us further into Astoria to a rather unremarkable building on 33rd Street, in a corner where warehouses and car repair shops outnumber family residences. It is marked by a simple, neon-on-white sign: Luz Para o Mundo (Light for the World). Upstairs, past some faux-leather armchairs and a children’s crèche, there is what looks like a 200-seat grey-carpeted conference room, were it not for the raised dais, drummer’s corner, and Biblical messages hinting that this is, in fact, a church. Further inquiry reveals that our missing churches are to be found here. This is a church that was once four separate churches, but for the sake of the Brazilian community — and survival — they have joined forces.
The largest of the component churches is Luz Para o Mundo itself, established years ago by Pastor Rubens Andrade, a welcoming, friendly man with with greying short-cropped hair and a penchant for colorful sweaters. He arrived nine years ago from Minas Gerais — like most Brazilian New Yorkers — to join the then-large Queens branch of the Peniel Church (19-54 38th St), a fast-growing denomination founded in Belo Horizonte, Andrade’s hometown. Back in Brazil, he’d been a senior associate to Peniel’s founder and spiritual chief, Reuel Feitosa, but had a falling out with the church hierarchy — in short, a higher-up wanted the New York post — and split away, taking 22 of the church’s New York members with him to start his own church. As Andrade explained to me, the beginning of the 21st Century was a period when splinterings and schisms coursed through Brazil’s evangelical ranks, fostering divisive competition.
Starting with his 22 souls, Andrade was soon able to grow Luz Para o Mundo to a peak of well over 100. But that was several years ago — when I first met the pastor back in February, the church’s rolls only held 76 members. Just last year, eleven congregants left, and no new ones arrived. Yet when I visited, I observed a quite decent-sized group, with many regulars, and a high degree of spiritual heat stoked by the lively electric band and the church’s Pentecostal belief in “praying in the Spirit,” also called speaking in tongues, and miracles. Their fervor in prayer brimmed over with snatches of known and unknown words.
A third of this group came only after Pastor Andrade was invited some two years ago to deliver the Sunday sermon at another Brazilian church, a few blocks from where Luz Para o Mundo sits today. The invitation came from Marcelo Miranda, an old friend and colleague from Andrade’s days at Peniel. Miranda’s church, Bethel Ministries, was slowly dwindling down to nothing.
Like Andrade, Miranda had left Brazil to work for Peniel overseas (in Italy) but ultimately broke with the church too, although on more amicable terms than Andrade. In the late nineties, Miranda arrived in New York City and soon after took the reins of the Brazilian Missionary Church — nowadays housed in an unmarked white building steps from the elevated N line. Back then, the city’s Brazilian population was healthier and far more stable, and the church he inherited had as many as 120 members each Sunday. But by 2005, a meddlesome board member and the lukewarm support of the church’s regional bishop led Miranda to quit the church (now called The House of Prayer for All Nations), taking 80 of the faithful with him to form Bethel Ministries.
For several weeks, the congregation-in-exile flitted from church to church, occasionally squeezing into his apartment to worship. As their nomadic existence lingered, members peeled away, until stabilizing when Bethel finally found itself a home. But rent, at around $5,600 monthly, consumed most of the church offering, forcing Miranda to find a day job as a livery driver. As the church’s finances struggled, Miranda even considered a move back to Brazil. The congregation kept dwindling down to a group of 25.
By October 2010, Miranda’s Bethel Ministries had moved into a space over on Northern Boulevard that Andrade shared with another church, the Comunidade Evangélica Vida Plena (or Full Life Evangelical Community).
As Miranda tells it, Andrade’s visit in 2010 was the answer to his prayers. It was a “beautiful marriage between flock and pastor.” Miranda says that he “let go of [his] pride” and allowed Andrade to gradually take the lead.
Also, he believed that churches should work together, taking as an example Jesus’ habit of sending out apostles in pairs. Such cooperation provides “spiritual cover” whereby when one partner wanes, another may wax strong. Andrade emphasized that the decision to merge the two churches (and then two more) was not merely to avoid extinction, but because a more robust church “can work more effectively in the community.” The churches started to look for space to meet together.
Soon after this, Miranda drove down 33rd Street and spied a for-rent sign in Luz Para o Mundo’s current building — whose two previous tenants also happened to be Brazilian Pentecostal churches.
Valmir Delgado, pastor of Comunidade Evangélica Vida Plena, also decided to follow Bethel into a merger with Luz Para o Mundo. Earlier this year at his office on 33rd Street, he talked about the reasons for his church’s historic decision to merge.
Delgado, like Miranda, works a day job as a driver-for-hire. Delgado, who’s salt-and-pepper beard retains a certain manicured wildness, is actually a minister with the Igreja Metodista Wesleyana, a Pentecostal offshoot of the global Methodist church with as many as a million members in the United States. When he arrived in April 2000 to head up the local New York City branch, there were only 15 day-to-day members (down from 100) and a “climate of hostility” left over after a previous pastor had departed to open a competing ministry. Five years later, Delgado had built the church back up to 80 members, a great feat — but the great out-migration of Brazilians in the last decade shrank the congregation back down to 30 in 2007.
Such a “unification” is particularly significant, Delgado explains, because of the fragmented nature of New York City’s Brazilian diaspora. As the population of Brazilians in the city has shrunk, the absence of a strong social glue holding the community together creates an acute danger of total community dissolution. Many Brazilian leaders, inside and outside of the Protestant churches, describe this as a key problem for the future of Brazilian New Yorkers.
One community organizer informs A Journey that her fellow Brazilians are desconfiados, or guarded, toward each other. A Brazilian Catholic priest laments the solitary workaholic nature of Brazilian immigrants. In an informal survey Pastor Andrade found that few of his congregants had relationships with Brazilians outside the church. This phenomenon was touched upon by anthropologist Maxine Margolis back in the nineties, when she dubbed New York’s Brazilians the "invisible minority," characterizing them as sojourners rather than settlers, arriving stateside to work two to three jobs for two to five years then returning to Brazil with enough for a down payment on a house or city apartment.
Another Pentecostal mineiro (a native of the Minas Gerais region) traces the dissonance back to Portuguese settlers intermarrying with local tribes to get at their gold. In fact this old tale of gold diggers seems to find a contemporary analogue with church attenders taking benefits from the church while giving nothing back. An evangelical pastor calls them “parasites.”
More than anything Delgado and his fellow pastors emphasizes that overcoming the tragic fractiousness and solitude of Brazilians as the primary reason for joining forces, although finances and leadership strains were certainly factors as well.
It is a testament to the “vision of unity” that during their first Christmas pageant together, 30 children participated. Rubens Andrade suggests that had it been just Vida Plena or Luz Para o Mundo by itself they would have been lucky to rustle up seven.
One other church has also joined up with the three-some. Templo das Nações, affiliated with the Igreja Quadrangular, or Church of the Quadrangular Gospel, is also one of Brazil’s largest Pentecostal denominations, and is lead by the husband-and-wife team of Luiz and Rita Paes. The husband hopes that if the Brazilians can overcome their fractiousness that they could contribute an exemplar for city unity.
Over lunch of bife á cavalo (steak with a fried egg on top), Luiz Paes tells A Journey how he hopes to bring a greater multiethnic component to the new, amalgamated church forming at 33rd Street. The name of his church does, after all, translate as Temple of the Nations, and his flock has indeed hailed from all over: Ecuador, Bolivia, Mexico, United States, and now an Indian Hindu family currently in the process of converting to Christianity.
Paes’ young look with his curly hair, crooked front teeth, little goatee, and perpetual Bluetooth earpiece belays the fact that he has gone through fire in a fight of betrayal and exile. His vision of unity is rooted in his season of troubles.
In 2008, six months after arriving in New York, he had built up his assigned church to forty congregants from a moribund nine congregants left to him by the previous pastor. Yet, success attracted problems. He suggests that he was pushed out by the female pastor whom he had succeeded because she grew jealous over how much he had accomplished in contrast to her failure.
His success was rooted in the use of small home meetings like those used at the 40,000-member Po Young megachurch in South Korea and by Rick Warren at Saddleback Church in California. However, his strategy built up more loyalty to the small groups than to the central church. Paes believes his church fell into the danger of “meeting at home and forgetting the church.” Usually, the problem is “meeting in church and forgetting the home.”
This engaging unity movement among Brazilians will need to overcome several hurdles before we can say that the experiment is a success.
At the time of our reporting a new name for the combined church hadn’t been agreed upon. More importantly, the leadership structure was still being worked out, although the four pastors raised at first the possibility of a “college of pastors” with rotating responsibilities.
Slight doctrinal and style differences — for instance, there’s Luiz’s distaste for showy ecstasy — need to be ironed out, although as self-described “balanced Pentecostals,” none of the pastors thought this a major stumbling block. As for the difficult task of actual ‘union,’ joint Sunday services were only just starting up, so it may be awhile before a new community dynamic settles in. (Although if the post-service coffee breaks A Journey attended are any indication, then the various congregations are already mingling quite seamlessly.)
Yet, there can be no doubt that Andrade, Miranda, Delgado, and Paes (as well as their respective flocks) have come a long way since May 2006, when the project was first conceived. At the time of our reporting, their ongoing experiment promised one of the few solutions proposed to the existential crisis gripping evangelical churches throughout Portuguese-speaking Queens, a crisis that has slowly deprived awfully solitary Brazilian immigrants of their only safety net, a net like that employed by Jesus’ “fishers of men,” as Matthew called the early apostles. If all goes according to plan, the good pastors of 33rd Street will be able to cast their nets wider than ever before and turn back the dreadful outgoing tide.
Andre Tartar is a first time contributor to A Journey through NYC religions. His work has been published on the web by New York magazine, the Huffington Post and other media outlets. He is a recipient of a 2011 Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life, which underwrote his exploration of the Brazilian evangelical community in Queens, New York. A Journey thanks the Knight Grant administrators at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism for supporting Tartar's project.