A game-changer

PC(USA) organizations ‘walk together’ to provide benefits to new worshiping community leaders

by Janet Hadden, Board of Pensions | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Casa Brasil is one of two new worshiping communities in the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta begun by the Rev. Rafael Viana and his wife, the Rev. Ivette Llano. (Contributed photo)

PHILADELPHIA — The Rev. Dr. Lindsay P. Armstrong and the Rev. Rafael Viana have spoken many times since they first met in 2016 — but they both remember one particular phone call vividly.

It was in late 2019, when Armstrong called Viana to inform him that he would be receiving benefits through a Benefits Grant for Organizing Pastors and Evangelists from The Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

“I remember well her call telling me the good news that we had achieved this blessing for our family,” said Viana, who is co-pastor, along with this wife, the Rev. Ivette Llano, of On The Way and Casa Brasil, two new worshiping communities serving immigrant communities in the Atlanta area.

“I hadn’t told him that I had applied on his behalf. I didn’t want to raise his hopes,” said Armstrong, executive director of the New Church Development Commission, which leads new church developments for the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, as she described her excitement when sharing the joyful surprise on that phone call.

“This was really big. It was a game-changer for him,” she added.

The grant — introduced by the Board of Pensions in 2019 to support the evangelism efforts of presbyteries planting churches and cultivating new ministries — meant that Viana would be enrolled in Pastor’s Participation, a comprehensive benefits package that supports the health care and retirement needs of ministers and their families, at a significantly reduced cost. The package includes full family medical coverage, pension, death and disability, and the Retirement Savings Plan of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Viana had previously purchased medical coverage from the Health Insurance Marketplace, but the cost was burdensome.

“Receiving this grant was yet another response from God’s care for our lives,” said Viana. “I have often used Psalm 37:5 in my preaching, and I can testify that this is a spiritual truth: ‘Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass.’”

At the time that Armstrong learned about the new grant program from Keenan Rodgers, the Board of Pensions church consultant who serves the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, she had been actively searching for more affordable health care options for Viana and other leaders of new worshiping communities.

“Many leaders are new to the country and do not have a lot of resources or familiarity with U.S. health care systems,” she explained.

This type of assistance is one of the many ways that the New Church Development Commission — a nonprofit organization dedicated to “enriching lives through the development of new worshiping communities” that Armstrong has led for the past six years — provides support, including training and advocacy, to new worshiping communities and their leaders. There are currently 26 new worshiping communities within the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, including 13 new immigrant communities — all of which the commission helped to develop.

When Armstrong met Viana in 2016, he had just arrived in the United States from Brazil with his wife and their two children, Gabriel and Raquel. “My wife and I took a sabbatical year after 12 years of pastoral ministry in Brazil, and together with our children, we moved to the Atlanta, Georgia, area to start my Doctor of Ministry and also to study English,” explained Viana. “We visited Hispanic churches in the area, and our hearts felt a deep love for this immigrant community.”

At one of these churches, Viana and his family met Armstrong — “a chance encounter,” as Armstrong described it.

Viana and Armstrong began to discuss starting a new worshiping community in the northern region of Atlanta, which has a significant presence of Latinx families. By 2017, Viana and his wife had started On The Way, a Spanish-speaking new worshiping community largely serving immigrants from South America. They held their first worship service at the Fellowship Hall of Fairview Presbyterian Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia, on November 12, 2017.

“At On The Way, we assume a motto, ‘Walking Together,’ which expresses the deep desire to be a church that loves and supports all who join with us on this journey,” said Viana.

By the end of 2018, still working closely with Armstrong, Viana began to think about starting another new worshiping community. As he explained, “A number of Brazilian families began to attend On The Way and expressed a strong desire to have a worship service in Portuguese,” Viana’s native language. “I remember a conversation with a congregant that was very important in the process of discernment. She said, ‘I miss worshiping God and singing songs of praise in the language that my heart speaks.’”

Answering this call, Viana and his wife established Casa Brasil, and in summer 2019, the new worshiping community was welcomed for worship by Johns Creek Presbyterian Church in Johns Creek, Georgia. Just a few months later, Viana would receive that all-important phone call from Armstrong about the benefits grant from the Board of Pensions.

“The grant from the Board of Pensions made it possible for Rafael to focus on two new worshiping communities,” said Armstrong. “It upped his family’s level of care, level of security, and peace of mind. It’s been very life-giving.”

The Revs. Rafael Viana and Ivette Llano and their children, Gabriel and Raquel. (Contributed photo)

Viana echoes this sentiment. “Knowing that my family is assisted, that we can receive medical care and that we can plan for retirement in the future, has taken a heavy load off my shoulders,” he said. “This freedom of mind allows me to focus my thoughts and actions on our communities. I have no doubt that this was a great blessing for my life, for my family, and for On The Way and Casa Brasil.”

“I am a foreigner in a strange land and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has made me feel like part of a large family,” he said. “I have received much from the Lord, and gratitude is a constant in my heart. I cannot help but thank God for the life of the New Church Development Commission, the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, the Board of Pensions, and the PC(USA). We keep walking together.”

Janet Hadden is content strategy lead at the Board of Pensions, which supports wholeness in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) community and care for Benefits Plan members. For information, contact info@pensions.org.


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