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A letter from Bob and Keiko Butterfield in Portugal

November 2010

Greetings from Portugal! 

Three people sitting on a red bench outside near a tree.

Aurelia Rodrigues, my wife Keiko, and the Rodrigues's son Rui Manuel.

Since our arrival here on October 15, things have been moving fast.  For the first two weeks we stayed with (IEPP) Pastor Rui Rodrigues, his wife, Aurelia, and their adult son, Rui Manuel.  Thanks to their untiring assistance, we got our “you-can’t-even-go-to-the-bathroom-without-it” taxpayer ID number, then an apartment and, finally, a car.  For the last four Sundays Bob has preached and led worship in the three small congregations we’re responsible for while Keiko has been busy setting up housekeeping, studying Portuguese, and making friends with the women in our congregations. 

But perhaps the most significant changes have taken place in our understanding of Portuguese culture and the niche that Protestant churches occupy in it.

In various places in the United States we had significant and gratifying ecumenical experiences amid a general feeling that Christians of various stripes (not to mention Jews, Muslims, and others) can and should work together for the common good.  Everything we’ve heard thus far from local Presbyterians, however, tells us that such an attitude has really never existed in Portugal except among Protestants.  For the last 30 years the IEPP has been a leader in ecumenism, but the Catholic Church, for centuries utterly dominant and privileged, has not been willing to cooperate with Protestants or even to recognize us as churches.  But there are no permanent enemies, and so we remain hopeful that over time we may be able to get some Catholic support on specific issues facing Portuguese society—though we suspect it will not be easy. 

The current constitution of Portugal guarantees freedom of religion, but that guarantee does not magically level the playing field.

A group of people standing in a church, in between rows of pews.

People from the Presbyterian church in Sao Miguel do Rio Torto.

As we become more familiar with the history of Portugal and learn about how very hard it has been to establish and maintain a Protestant presence here, we are filled with admiration for local Presbyterians, especially the older ones who lived through the Salazar dictatorship (1926–1974) and did so much to resist the “conformism” that dictatorship imposed on Portuguese life.  They remained actively, proudly Presbyterian despite all the pressure and intimidation laid on them by the dictatorship and its surrogates, and despite the presence in their congregations of spies planted by Salazar.  These stubbornly faithful Presbyterians are real resisters for Christ and heroes of the faith.   In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that the IEPP, in its better moments, is a Christian resistance group working against the odds to reform the whole church catholic and in the process to make Portugal more just, more equitable, and more like the coming Kingdom.  Praise God for raising up such committed and persistent disciples!

A woman from one of my congregations is a good example of the Portuguese Presbyterian spirit.  Senhora A (Mrs. “A”) is old now and hobbled by knees that have no natural padding left, and for that reason she needs the help of two strong people to get from the car to the door of the sanctuary, an operation that takes about 15 minutes and is obviously very painful for her and for anyone watching.  Yet she never misses church.   In her younger years she established a child care center in part of her church’s building and offered her services free to the many local young mothers who had to work in the fields or in the factories.  They came in droves, and almost all of them were Catholics.  The local priest protested before the town council that what the Presbyterians were really trying to do with this child care center was to steal children away from the Catholic Church.  At the next meeting of the town council Senhora A came to make her voice heard.  Many of the women whose children she cared for were in the audience but were afraid to speak.  They did, however, cheer when Senhora A explained that she was too busy changing diapers at the care center to have time to indoctrinate anyone even if she wanted to, and she didn’t want to.  The town council was impressed but—this was Catholic Portugal after all—decided that her care center would have to be closed.  The local priest had won his battle against the hated Presbyterians, or so he thought.  But then the town council voted to establish a publicly funded child care center and, finding no one more qualified or appropriate than Senhora A, voted to make her the new center’s first director.  The young mothers in the audience cheered their approval, at which point the local priest could only force a smile and nod in grudging acquiescence for fear of appearing to be opposed to child care itself.  This vignette is paradigmatic of Presbyterian activity and influence in Portugal.  Seldom do Presbyterians here achieve anything directly or by confrontation, but they often have an indirect influence that helps everyone. 

An older woman in a kitchen, slicing food.

Mrs. Aurelia Rodrigues, wife of IEPP pastor Rui Rodrigues.

Our most pressing challenge over the next few months is to get to the point where we can more easily understand what people are saying.  Most of the folks we work with are as warm and friendly as they can be, but they remain difficult for us to understand.  It will be a great day in the morning when we no longer have to ask them to repeat … and repeat.  In the meantime we’re just happy that they can understand us. 

Blessed to be in Christ’s service,

Bob and Keiko Butterfield 

The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 194

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