Burning Bonfires, Silent Pastors

Burning Bonfires, Silent Pastors

Published:
January 26, 2022

Although the Seventh-day Adventist Church is a worldwide organization, its authority is expressed by the local level. According to church documents, the organization’s hierarchy is an inverted pyramid—giving more power and autonomy to the lower structures. Local communities, conferences, and unions are intended to have autonomy and independence from administrative bodies such as the General Conference or world divisions.

However, in the Adventist Church in Brazil—whose leaders claim to be neutral and apolitical but often are aligned on the far right—there are contradictions in governance. An example of higher church authorities influencing local matters was recently seen at the Adventist Community of University Students (CAJU), a church in São Paulo belonging to the Central Brazil Union Conference. After inviting church member Felipe Maciel to speak at a Saturday service, the community was attacked by posts on the Facebook page “Adventist Conservatism,” which pejoratively accused CAJU of being a “gay church.” Maciel is a leader for the Brazilian branch of Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International, a worldwide Adventist organization that supports the LGBTQ+ community.

The attacks took on new proportions when, according to community members, the São Paulo Conference threatened CAJU’s pastor and the congregation took the drastic action of canceling the entire program. During the last Pastoral Council on October 26, the pastor handed over his credential in public and resigned.

The case sets a worrying precedent for the Adventist Church and illustrates the danger of prioritizing the silencing of public scandals at the expense of local communities.

Don Quixote and the Paint Leftovers

CAJU is located in the West Zone of São Paulo, close to the University of São Paulo. According to Pablo,* a CAJU member speaking on the condition of anonymity, the location is strategic: “We are an urban mission that seeks to dialogue with the university public,” he explains. The Sabbath services also have a strategic format: “Our meetings don’t happen like in a conventional church, where only one person has the pulpit and preaches without any interruption. The guest proposes a topic to be discussed among all those present, as usually happens in universities.”

Despite the openness of the discussions, a CAJU committee voted to only invite members of the Adventist Church to mediate them, giving preference to members of their own community. “When we thought about calling Felipe Maciel, the first thing we did was to check if he was a regular member of the church, which in fact he is,” says Pablo. Maciel also attended community meetings assiduously, so it was natural for him to be one of the guests. “The invitation is also a way of including people, putting them at the table, so that they feel even more a part of our community,” he explains.

In response to Zelota, Maciel confirms that he felt extremely welcomed since his first participation in the meetings, in mid-March last year. “I was invited to sing in the artistic [portion of a service], together with my sisters, and I was able to speak openly about my sexual orientation, being very well received,” he says. “I wasn’t met with opposition, and I always saw a very affectionate side—welcoming and accepting. I was always encouraged to participate, commenting at the meetings as well as the others present.”

As a coordinator for SDA Kinship Brazil, Maciel felt the movement needed environments where its members could have spiritual encounters and find support in their experiences with God. The reception at CAJU led Maciel to take several Kinship members with him to the meetings, and some became active church members, praying, singing, giving opinions, and sharing their life experiences. “There were moments of healing, affection, and liberation, where we were actually heard by the community,” he recalls.

The problems started when Maciel was introduced in an Instagram post on Thursday, September 30, as the guest of the meeting happening two days later. According to Pablo, the post was done as usual. “We asked Felipe Maciel to describe himself as he preferred, and he wanted to put his leadership role in Kinship,” he explains. “We didn’t see a problem because we have nothing to hide and we didn’t do anything wrong.” The next day, the Facebook page “Adventist Conservatism” made a post attacking CAJU for being a “gay church” and inviting a member of a “dissident movement.” The page also implicated the São Paulo Conference president, Pastor Romualdo Larroca, as being a sympathizer of the LGBTQ+ cause and demanded immediate intervention by the union and division to “demand explanation” from Larroca.

This was not the first time that CAJU was attacked by the Facebook page. On June 28, after creating a fake profile pretending to be a gay individual looking for shelter at CAJU, the page published screenshots of the messages received, accusing the community of being the “first official inclusive Adventist church (LGBTQ)” in Brazil. Even the front of CAJU’s building was attacked; since the façade was colorful, the page labeled it as “suggestive.” As Pablo explains, the front was painted 10 years ago with paint leftovers, and members were already looking for donations to renovate the fading paint. In response to Zelota, the member who had her conversations with the fake profile leaked said, “Fake or not, I would have acted the same way. I always invite people to go to my church because there is a warm welcome and also the Truth.”

“The Torches of Satan”

The Facebook page responsible for the persecution has not always been called “Adventist Conservatism.” Now with more than 20,000 likes, it was created in 2015 under the name “Adventist Apologetics” by Diego Fortunato Flores, a member of the Adventist Church from Alvorada, RS, who still coordinates the page. It only had its current name established in 2018, the year of Jair Messias Bolsonaro’s election as president of Brazil.

The initial post against Felipe Maciel has over 200 likes on the page. Among the comments, one can find descriptions ranging from “torch of Satan” to “freak” and “abomination.” Other comments call CAJU’s male pastor a “female pastor.” The post was also shared and endorsed by Patrick Siqueira, a former pastor recently fired by the São Paulo Conference who regularly posts against Pastor Larroca. Pastors and conference employees report that the Facebook post, along with Siqueira’s comments, circulated among groups of pastors on WhatsApp.

On the same day as the post attacking Maciel, people familiar with the situation say that the São Paulo Conference leadership contacted CAJU’s pastor and demanded that something be done, such as the removal of the original Instagram post. However, there wasn’t dialogue with the church itself. “We were never consulted or questioned about our proposals or intentions,” Pablo tells Zelota. “Maybe if they had talked to us and wanted to understand, they would have understood.”

The decision by CAJU to cancel the meeting was spurred by a threat. “If we didn’t cancel the event, we were told that our pastor would be punished,” says Pablo. “Considering that he is very sweet and was in a vulnerable position and was liable to be fired, we decided through tears that the ‘less worse’ option was to cancel the event.”

The topic chosen by Maciel to discuss on that Saturday was the need to welcome the LTBTQ+ community in religious spaces.

“My understanding today is that we are not at a time to discuss theology,” says Maciel. “We are at a time to guarantee fundamental rights—to housing, food, health affection, and family—for the LGBTQ+ community, which has these rights constantly curtailed. We are in different places and we can’t even discuss the theological issues of ‘being homosexual’ because before that we need to define: Do I have a right to live? Am I entitled to emotionally relate to other people? Do I have the right to have a religion and be here like you do?”

The cancellation of the program and by extension Maciel’s participation offers answers to these questions. “On Friday night I received a call from the pastor responsible for CAJU, and he said he would have to uninvite me due to an ‘orientation’ from the conference’s leadership, given the publication from the [Facebook] page against me and the community,” says Maciel. “I was very embarrassed to have been approached that way. I felt humiliated, weakened, powerless, and I saw the same feelings in the pastor’s eyes, who wanted none of this. There was nothing to be done. The board decided that there would be no programming, instead of just uninviting me, in an attitude of respect for me within what was allowed to them.”

Maciel emphasizes that it was a difficult situation for everyone. “As much as I feel injustice and [the attacker’s] impunity within me, I understand that CAJU and the responsible pastor did as much as they could and that because they were inside the institution, they also had their rights curtailed,” he says. “Apart from the CAJU pastor, no other church representative came to speak with me, and I still do not understand the official reasons for withdrawing my invitation. We assume what it is, but there was no communication, much less concern for my emotional life, my dignity, my spirituality. And this is because we are dealing with a religious institution that propagates the soon return of Jesus to all people. How are we announcing Jesus’s return to all people if some people don’t even have the right to be heard?”

Canceling the meeting was not enough to silence the attacks. On October 23, the Facebook page made another post attacking Pastor Larroca and the pastor overseeing CAJU, releasing alleged sensitive information from the São Paulo Conference meeting about the case and demanding that the church’s pastor resign. The following week, that pastor turned in his credentials during the conference’s annual pastors meeting and resigned.

The Firewood or the Shield

This is not the first time that church members have used reactionary internet pages to try and intimidate church administration in order to promote a witch hunt. In May 2009, as reported by Spectrum, an anonymous website began promoting attacks on La Sierra University in the United States, due to its biology professors teaching “naturalistic evolution.” Meanwhile, Dr. Sean Pitman, a medical doctor, and Pastor David Asscherick, neither of whom were university employees, sent letters to the Pacific Union Conference, the president of the North American Division, and the president of the General Conference. The letters called for intervention in the university due to the teaching of “unbiblical doctrines” in their classrooms.

However, the institution did not respond by giving in to the pressure. Ricardo Graham, president of the Pacific Union at the time, said he was “not interested in being part of a witch hunt.” The president of La Sierra University, Randal Wisbey, wrote an open letter defending the university’s academic rigor and debunking rumors that its professors were “indoctrinating students” in evolution. 

The case represents a positive example that could be followed by the church in Brazil. In the face of online attacks alleging heresies in a local Adventist institution and community, the administration of the territory listened to those accused and defended them against complaints and slander, not surrendering to the wishes of outside groups wishing to “burn supposed heretics” at the stake of reactionary public opinion. It is up to administration to serve as a shield for their communities, rather than fuel for such fires.

Likewise, instead of subjecting institutions to the demands of reactionary virtual militias, the church should watch over its local churches, defending them from defamation that, in addition to having legal implications, fosters a discourse of division between “the faithful” and “the heretics” and further marginalizes the LGBTQ+ community.

 

*Pablo is a pseudonym

The original version of this story appeared in Zelota magazine and appears here as part of Spectrum’s Brazil Week 2022.

 


André Kanasiro is a biologist, biblical scholar, and editor-in-chief of Zelota magazine

Title image: Adventist Community of University Students (CAJU) in São Paulo [via Zelota magazine]

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

 

Spectrum Banner Ad: Click for Grow the Vision