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A letter from Bob and Keiko Butterfield in Portugal

Advent 2011

Dear Friends in Christ,

It’s in Advent that we Christians await the coming of our Lord.  It’s in Advent that the words “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes again: Come, Lord Jesus!” have their most poignant power.  We wait hopefully because Christ’s coming is God’s sovereign act, not our own, but we also keep busy while we’re waiting because Jesus says, “Happy is the servant whose master, upon returning, finds him busy.”  We pray that all of you, like us, are awaiting Christ’s coming with hopeful yearning and focused busyness.

When you hear the word Portugal, you may very well think of glorious cathedrals or of castles built by the Knights Templar, and of course Portugal does have a lot of such impressive monuments, plus some lovely beaches and wonderful food.  But Portugal is also a land of severe social inequalities.  The rich are ostentatiously rich, and the poor, roughly 60 percent of the population, are painfully poor.  And the Presbyterians we work with in and around the town of Abrantes are among the poorest.  That’s right.  As difficult as it may be for you to wrap your head around this idea, it’s true: POOR PRESBYTERIANS!  How poor is poor, you ask?  Let me try to explain.

Most of the members in our three churches are middle-aged women, and they have a remarkably similar life story.  Their parents were agricultural laborers living in shacks on the edge of some landed estate.  They, the children, never set foot in a school of any kind and instead helped their mothers at home until they were old enough to do farm chores.  At about age 12 they began working in the vineyards and fields like adults, putting in impossibly long hours, carrying heavy loads on their heads, and getting paid practically nothing.  On Sundays they rested by spending the entire day in a church founded by Presbyterian missionaries.  Catholics were suspicious of them and discriminated against them in many ways, but these hardworking Presbyterians loved their church and bravely endured the shame and social disadvantage of being Protestants.  Most of the time, in fact, they were just too tired to care what names people called them.  They married young and had many children while continuing to labor in the fields.  Eventually school attendance became compulsory, so their children got some education and decided that they wanted a better life.  So the children moved to the big city or in some cases emigrated to get decent jobs, as a consequence of which their parents got left alone here in their old age.  I shouldn’t say “parents” because their fathers usually died young from a combination of exhaustion and alcohol, but their mothers somehow survived, although, as a result of hard physical labor begun at too young an age, these women have all sorts of orthopedic and other health issues. 

To make matters worse, they have no one now to help them except each other.  The government gives them pitifully small pensions at or often below the minimum wage, and every day they have to choose between eating and medicating.  The National Health Service is underfunded and severely underperforming, and in any case these women are too poor to afford the co-pay.  Their Presbyterian church is virtually their only lifeline.  Keiko and I do our best to proclaim the gospel to them, and sometimes we even use words.  But most of the time we show them the gospel and try to be the family they no longer have.  They appreciate what we do, but of course there is no way we can really make up for the way life and society have treated them.  They have been used, abused, and discarded, and for that reason when they say, “Come, Lord Jesus!” they really mean it.  They know—and we know too—that God is the only one who can really give them the love and justice they deserve.  What Keiko and I can give them are only signs of what God has in store for them, tokens of the Kingdom, a foretaste of the feast to come.  Therefore, for these women, Advent means very much what it meant in the early church: a time of intense and hopeful yearning that Christ will actually come and in the twinkling of an eye transform them and this world into what God intends them to be.  Keiko and I join with these women in their hopeful yearning.  We want Christ to come for their sake.  And while we’re all yearning hopefully, Keiko and I try to give these women signs and symbols of what God has prepared for those who love Him.

When Keiko and I are not with our three congregations, I work with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Portugal on the national level.  I run monthly pastors’ meetings in several different regions, and I’m one of three pastors responsible for the national church’s lay education program.  In the pastors’ meetings we’re doing strategic planning, which I pray will lead this church body to play a more aggressive and effective role in doing social justice.  In order for that to happen, however, we need to develop a consensus and make a plan, and I’m helping the church do that.  But carrying out that plan will require highly trained and committed lay leadership, and that’s what the lay education program is designed to provide.  On the one-year anniversary of our arrival in Portugal, the national church appointed me to do these two jobs, and in those appointments Keiko and I see the hand of the Holy Spirit because the national church has asked me to do the two things that are most crucial to the church’s future and that at the same time best match my gifts.

So Keiko and I work together on the local level, and I also work on the national level.  But really our work goes beyond that.  Portugal is Catholic but seems only nominally Catholic, only culturally Christian but not theologically Christian.  In fact, Catholicism as it is known here would hardly even be recognizable to American or Northern European Catholics.  This is popular Catholicism in a peculiar Portuguese and Spanish style resulting from centuries of Muslim occupation.  In this strange version of the Christian faith, Christ is the center of a cult of death.  Christ incarnates death.  He is the sacrificial victim whose death guarantees eternal life—understood as a continuation of this earthly life only without the poverty—for anyone to whom the Catholic Church of Portugal gives it.  But just as Jesus Christ made a sacrifice, so the Portuguese Catholic is told that (s)he must make sacrifices in order to win God’s favor.  Such a message, I hope you recognize, is a corruption of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is therefore not an exaggeration to say that many, perhaps most, Portuguese have not yet heard the gospel.  If Keiko and I locally and the rest of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Portugal nationally can make our voice heard, many Portuguese will hear the gospel for the first time.  It sounds crazy to say that about a country that thinks of itself as being so Catholic, but I believe it’s true. 

I close, friends, with requests.  Keiko and I ask that you pray for the whole country of Portugal, which is going through a financial crisis, and that you pray especially for poor and middle-class Portuguese, who are bearing a disproportionate share of the burden of this crisis.  We ask that you pray for the Catholic Church of Portugal, that it might awaken to the gospel and proclaim it to the people.  We ask that you pray for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Portugal as it struggles to reform both itself and the majority church and to do justice.  We ask you to pray for our congregations.  We ask you to pray for Keiko and me as we try to be Christ’s servants until He comes again.  And finally we ask for your financial support. 

Yours in Christ,

Bob

The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 194
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 270

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