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A letter from Bob Butterfield in Portugal

February 2013

Dear Friends in Mission,

Greetings once again from Portugal!  The month of January flew by for Keiko and me, mostly because we were part of a 12-member team, Catholics and Presbyterians, who planned and executed eight full days of ecumenical worship services for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in the central region of Portugal (in and around Coimbra and Figueira da Foz).  These turned out to be absolutely wonderful worship services: vibrant, full of warm demonstrations of brotherhood and sisterhood in Christ, and well attended by both Presbyterians and Catholics, no matter whose church happened to be hosting on a given night.  At a certain point in the service everyone got three short pieces of yarn, which you had to connect to other people’s yarn, and to do that you had to get up close and personal with at least three people.  The result was a huge web of yarn linking (as many as 500) people happily together, and at the end of the service we all joined hands and danced around the sanctuary.  It was such a good experience for everybody involved that it fully justified the many planning meetings and the five hours per night required to do these services.  This Week was not a one-shot deal either.  Our ecumenical team meets every month all year round. As a result, Keiko and I now have a strong collegial relationship with Catholics here:  laypeople, priests and even the Bishop of Coimbra, who happens to be a very nice man.  During six of these worship services Keiko worked with a Catholic woman from Coimbra in doing the PowerPoint show, and they managed to become good buddies in the process.

The next step for this ecumenical team is to plan and run some other activities, something beyond worship services.  Given the country’s financial crisis and the immense suffering it’s caused—with Presbyterians being among the poorest and most affected—it shouldn’t be too hard for us to think of something to do in the public arena.  Maybe a prophetic action in the style of Jeremiah?  Anyway, just pray that we can make bail.   

In addition I’ve been busy the last few months writing articles that have appeared in the Igreja Evangélica de Portugal (IEPP)’s monthly email newsletter and will appear in Portugal Evangélico as well, on subjects like church governance, Bonhoeffer’s ethics, and Calvin’s views on the relation of Church and State.  Our Presbyterian and Methodist colleagues here in the central region have also asked me to write a weekly email column that comments on news stories in the light of Scripture, and I’ve been doing that for a month now.  This week’s column dealt with the biblical resources for speaking about a debt (=sin) crisis, like the one Portugal is in right now.  You might think of the parable of the unfaithful steward (Luke 16:1-15) or Lev. 25, but the best text is the Book of Jeremiah, which in many ways is a manual on how to deal with a debt/sin crisis and arrive at a new economy.

In previous letters I might have mentioned that in the town of Alhadas, where one of our congregations is located, there’s a local institution at least as important to the people as either the Catholic or Presbyterian Church.  It’s the Good Union Society of Alhadas, an association founded in 1854 by Catholic priests for the purpose of improving the quality of life.  The Society offers musical instruction, has an orchestra and many smaller musical groups, drama groups that perform regularly, dance groups, and a variety of sports clubs all under the same roof.   Everything is done on a strictly volunteer basis (no fees for anything) and is completely ecumenical too.  In fact, Presbyterians have played an important role in the life of the Society.  To show our interest in the community, Keiko and I attend all their musical events, and the conductor graciously makes a point of introducing us to the audience.  Last Sunday the Society celebrated its 158th birthday with a concert and a solemn session with a table of honor featuring four local dignitaries, plus me.  We all made speeches.  The other guys, well-known political figures, talked about what a bad year (financially and otherwise) they were expecting 2013 to be.  To the obvious delight of the audience, I took a very different approach.  In my first public speech in Portuguese outside of church, I thanked God for all the good things (like solidarity, dedication, cooperation, community spirit, self-giving) I’d observed at the Society and prayed that God would continue to bless the Society and through it the people of Alhadas.  In joyous affirmation the orchestra promptly played their very upbeat theme song.  Keiko and I both feel that some genuine evangelizing took place that night.

In the case of our congregation in Granja do Ulmeiro, we’re happy to report that they have really adopted us as members of their family, and this is evident in the fact that the entire congregation now attends weekly Bible study.  They also invite us frequently to their homes for dinner, something quite unusual in Portugal.  In our congregation in Alhadas we’ve added a Sunday morning Bible study, so that everyone coming to worship does Bible study before the service.  The Catholic couple who attend our Bible study in Alhadas have become Keiko’s close friends, and she was very busy comforting and counseling them this week after they learned that their son, a brilliant but unhappy scholar, had been arrested.  Keiko did much to calm their fears, and this was not the first time they’ve really needed her.

As we prepare to return to the U.S.A. for three and a half months of itineration starting early in April, we really need to hear from you if you’d like us to visit your congregation, presbytery or synod.  And if you’ve already contacted us, we will be getting back to you soon to firm up the dates of our visit, so that we can organize these visits in a way that makes the best stewardship of limited resources.  Our home base will be Naperville, Illinois, and the best way to contact us is by email:  keikoandbob@yahoo.com.

We remind you that the PC(USA) pays our salary while we’re home but doesn’t pay for travel expenses, food or lodging.  If you’d like to invite us but can’t afford to, try sharing the costs with other churches or groups.  Rachel Anderson may also have some helpful ideas: Rachel.Anderson@pcusa.org.

Keiko and I thank you for your support and your prayers, and we look forward to seeing you this spring and sharing our stories of working with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Portugal, a small but gutsy Presbyterian church struggling to survive in a tough environment.

With many blessings,

Bob 

P.S.  Our telephone number in Portugal is (351) 233 415 307.  We’re five hours ahead of New York.    

 

The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 276
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