A letter from Bob and Keiko Butterfield in Portugal
Friends in mission,
As Keiko and I share with you some of the amazing things that the Holy Spirit is doing in Portugal, we want you to have a sense of the religious landscape here. At first glance, Portugal appears monolithically, narrowly Roman Catholic, and yet historically Portugal was the first global village, a place of great ethnic and religious diversity and tolerance. Unfortunately, religious tolerance suffered when the Spanish brought the Inquisition into Portugal, against the will of the Portuguese, and it has been a long, hard struggle to restore that spirit of tolerance. But finally it has been restored so that there is much more variety, flexibility and religious tolerance than we ever expected to find. Here’s what happened recently.
Last Christmas Keiko and I got a call from a local woman who said that her daughter wanted to have her baby baptized in a Protestant church. So we invited them all to come over and talk about it. The three of them — grandma, daughter and 3-month-old baby boy — came right over, and after a certain initial awkwardness, we proceeded to have a very civilized and tolerant discussion of the meaning of baptism, of the differences and similarities between the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Portugal, and of the logistics of doing a baptism. The mother and daughter both declared themselves to be Roman Catholic, but, to our surprise, they obviously liked what I told them about Protestantism. They then wanted to look at our sanctuary in Rossio ao Sul do Tejo, which is extremely poor and cramped, and again to our surprise, they found the sanctuary quite satisfactory.; They then wanted to know if the baptism could be done privately. We said, “No, baptism is a community event.” They thought that was just fine too. The daughter (mother of the baby boy) then said that she lived in Frankfurt, is married to a German, and could not be back in Portugal until Easter. “Is that a problem?” she wanted to know. “No, we’ll celebrate the baptism on Easter Sunday,” we said. “As part of the service?” she asked. “Yes, of course.” And they liked all this very much. Since for Portuguese Catholics it’s taboo to set foot in a non-Catholic sanctuary, Keiko and I were amazed and very pleased.
The next day the young woman and her absolutely adorable baby boy returned to our apartment without her mother, and we had much the same conversation again. The young mother was obviously very relieved and even more joyful that things were working out so well. In our first meeting, with her mother present, she spoke Portuguese, but now she spoke with us in fluent English, which was probably her way of letting us know that she had seen the world outside Portugal and was now a thoroughly modern person. She explained that her husband is Protestant (Lutheran) and wanted the baptism to be in a Protestant church and that, after some prompting, her family was happy to oblige. She emphasized how thrilled she was that the baptism would be part of the Easter Sunday service.
As Easter Sunday approached, the women of our congregation in Rossio ao Sul do Tejo began to talk among themselves. There had not been a baptism in that sanctuary for at least 44 years, and they were excited about it and wanted to make sure everything was just right for the big event. Without telling Keiko or me what they were planning, the women repainted the sanctuary, cleaned it, polished the floor and installed French blue velvet trim wherever they thought the room needed some color. They even borrowed a fancy marble baptismal font just for the occasion.
Soon people began arriving for the Easter service, first the dozen or so of our own members and then 30-some guests: the little boy and his parents; the parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends of the mother — all from Portugal and all Roman Catholic — and the parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends of the father — all from Germany, some Catholic, some Lutheran — a microcosm of the whole people of God. The little boy, Merian, 7 months old and dressed in a white suit, was as beautiful a child as I had ever seen. He remained incredibly calm, sweet and composed throughout the service. I was the one who had to cry — for joy! I couldn’t help but see the tears on the faces of Merian’s parents and grandparents too.
For nearly an hour after the service, the guests stayed to socialize with our members and with each other, not inside because it’s too crowded, but out in the street. They and we took lots of photographs, and we all basked in the warmth of the noonday sun and of the blessing we had received by being together there for that holy purpose.
In this gathering of Christians of many stripes and from many places, Keiko and I saw the Church as it was meant to be: focused on the grace of God in Jesus Christ and, differences forgotten, all one in the Spirit. This is just the kind of fellowship that needs to grow until everyone in Portugal knows what I’m talking about.
Yours in Christ’s service,
The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 194