A letter from Dennis Smith, regional liaison for Brazil and the Southern Cone, based in Argentina
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They call it the Chapel of Bones. There are bones everywhere. Human bones. Columns and arches set with skulls and femurs.
The inscription on the arched entryway says: Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos (“We bones that are here, for yours await”).
The chapel is in Évora, Portugal, and dates from the 16th century. Is this just macabre medieval Franciscan humor? Perhaps. “Memento mori,” they said back then: “Remember, you have to die.” Indeed. To contemplate the visible remains of 5,000 human beings does help clear one’s mind and focus on mortality, on how ephemeral are our lives and institutions.
Our host is Rev. José Salvador, one of the elder pastors of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Portugal (IEPP). I’ve come to Portugal with Wertson Brasil de Souza, the Moderator of the United Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPU); we are exploring a new three-way partnership between Presbyterian World Mission (PWM), the IPU and the IEPP. In synthesis, the IEPP needs pastors and the IPU has skilled, experienced pastors available. PWM would offer guidance in the selection and supervision of Brazilian mission personnel and could supplement the funds offered by IEPP and IPU for this project.
As I contemplate the bones, I think about our never-ending longing to thrive—as persons, as communities and as churches. Both IEPP and IPU are small churches. They share a deep commitment to ecumenism and social justice. They understand that if they are to thrive, they must grow. Each member needs to be trained and encouraged to share joyfully with family, friends and neighbors the Hope that Jesus births within them.
One challenge facing the IEPP is keeping their young people. Youth unemployment in Portugal now stands at 32 percent; the IEPP youth program has been decimated in recent years as their young people have been forced to move to Germany, England or France to find jobs. This is not dissimilar to the challenges faced by small-town churches in the U.S. when their youth move to the city to study or work.
Despite this challenge, the IEPP is blessed with several strong young pastors. There just aren’t enough to go around! We visited two amazing young pastors in the Figueira de Foz region. Both Sandra Reis and María Eduarda Castanheira are thoughtful, passionate and caring. Each is responsible for three congregations, miles apart, in addition to other labors. Wertson and I visited five churches on the Sunday we spent with them—that’s two sermons each plus a harvest festival. Pray for Sandra and María Eduarda that they might have the endurance and tenderness they need as they pastor their flocks!
Back in the 1980s the IPU sent several pastors to support the ministry of the IEPP. As the IPU leaders have discussed their own need to grow and prosper, they have focused on recovering a clear sense of common call to serve together in God’s mission. They pray that this project to send and support Brazilian mission workers to Portugal will energize their denomination, mobilizing them also to respond better to local pastoral challenges.
For Presbyterian World Mission, this project allows us to continue to walk alongside two valued and long-standing mission partners. We have partnered with the IEPP since the 1950s and with the IPU since the 1980s. Presbyterian mission workers in both countries helped to establish solid programs of theological education in contexts where Protestants were a small but respected minority. We were able to walk with both churches as they engaged in courageous prophetic witness under repressive military dictatorships.
Please pray for clarity and wisdom as we discern together how to proceed with this new dream. And just like in Ezekiel’s vision of the valley filled with dry bones, pray that the Spirit of God will fill our churches with new vitality and help us to thrive.
Surprising news from Chile!
I’ve just received welcome news from Rev. Dr. Daniel Godoy, Rector of the Evangelical Theological Community (CTE) in Santiago, Chile, another of our ecumenical partners. Throughout Latin America more and more seminarians are seeking degrees that are accredited by the local Ministry of Education. To have an accredited university-level degree opens to them a variety of employment options that can supplement their income as pastors, or allows them to pursue an academic career. For a small school with limited resources like CTE, meeting government accreditation requirements has been impossible.
Daniel and his colleagues pursued an unexpected alternative. In a region known for difficult relationships between Catholics and Protestants, the CTE approached the Catholic University of Valparaiso—an accredited school—to see if they could come under the University’s academic umbrella. More than a year in planning, in October Daniel received word that the University Board had approved the project! Through the Institute of Religious Science of the School of Theology of the Catholic University of Valparaiso, CTE will now be able to offer a “Licentiate in Biblical-Theological Studies and Ecumenical Dialog.” Praise be to God for this new space for ecumenical collaboration!
A prayer request
Conversations continue with the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPIB) after that denomination voted to sever its partnership with the PC(USA). (See our September newsletter for details.) Our second meeting to iron out the details of our disengagement will be held Nov. 17-18 in São Paulo. I give thanks to God for the cordial, respectful way that we have been able to work together during these painful times. Please pray that God will guide in these deliberations. Please pray for the churches, presbyteries, pastors and mission workers in both the U.S. and Brazil that are affected by this situation.
A word of thanks . . .
During this Thanksgiving season we give thanks to God for each of you who accompanies us faithfully in prayer, who supports our ministry financially, and who expresses your love for us through your correspondence. If you don’t currently support our ministry, please consider doing so. We’d love to have you as part of our extended family!
Under the Mercy,
Dennis A. Smith
The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 44
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