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A Brazilian Union Struggles with Pandemic Safety


Editor’s note: as this story was originally reported in the spring of 2021, some pandemic-related details may have minor differences today.

The discussion about the opening or closing of churches during the coronavirus pandemic has particularly consumed evangelicals in Brazil, with whom many Seventh-day Adventists identify. The consequences of this discussion are experienced in different regions of the country and have their own peculiarities. At the Central Brazil Union Conference (UCB) in the state of São Paulo, they take the form of an official internal decision aimed at the maximum postponement of in-person services. Supporting its commitment to remote worship, the UCB communication department provides technical assistance for virtual services, both to members and pastors. Even so, this decision does not have the desired effects in practice due to the autonomy that local churches have in holding services.

Around 650 pastors serve approximately 2,100 congregations in the UCB. In that territory, many pastors do not accept the union’s safety recommendations, accusing their leaders of a "lack of faith." In doing so, they appear more aligned with evangelicals and the government policies of current Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro that minimize the gravity of the pandemic, defending church services as an "essential activity" and dismissing vaccine science. With the Brazilian government more permissive than the union, discussion of this tension among pastors is usually restricted to WhatsApp groups, but sometimes breaks out when they decide to open churches.

More In-Person than Ever

In an interview with Zelota, Pastor Odailson Fonseca, director of communication for the UCB, states that the official position remains to postpone in-person services as much as possible. This directive was communicated by the union to pastors, with an emphasis on preventing congregations from becoming centers of contamination. Citing a personal conversation with Pastor Mauricio Lima, president of the UCB, Fonseca states, "Regardless of the legislation, our orientation remains against in-person services."

According to Fonseca, the guidance for closing face-to-face services despite government permissions was formally communicated to union pastors via WhatsApp. “Here in São Paulo, we do not notice any great divergence between the leaders,” he says. Although he believes that there are disagreements with the leadership in other areas of the country, he says that “in our eight conference headquarters, we feel that there is a certain uniformity of understanding; and you don't go from one town with open churches to one with closed churches.”

Explaining the complications around the words “open” and “closed,” Fonseca states: “There is a law that says to close churches, and now another law is in court that intends to open churches. From the bottom of my heart: the churches have not been closed. What are open churches? An open church is a church that serves the community. So if the church is open because it's going to deliver food to people in need, it hasn't closed. . . . We don't want digitally closed churches. The church is open for an online broadcast. . . . The church is open, which does not mean that face-to-face worship is open.” 

Zelota spoke with Pastor Edson Nunes Jr., leader of the Adventist congregation Nova Semente [New Seed] in the neighborhood of Paraíso, in São Paulo, to ask about the reception of pandemic guidelines. In response, the pastor stated that there is currently a clear orientation from both São Paulo Conference and union leadership for the maximum postponement of in-person services. In April of 2021, the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo included Nova Semente in an article on people looking for spiritual help during the pandemic. Quoted in Folha, Nunes says, “I understand the clamor [of the faithful] to return, but the reopening of the churches is a political and strategic error.” This appears in the newspaper in the context of spiritual leaders encouraging keeping churches closed even without a government mandate. On his social media accounts, the pastor adds that Nova Semente will remain closed “until the vaccination guarantees a minimum of security.”

In order for the services to be adapted to the new reality, some UCB churches have joined together to carry out their programs online, whether as a district cluster or an entire city. Fonseca explains that in this context, “the pastors had to act as Youtubers or Facebookers,” but he doesn't deny the existence of technical difficulties. In adversities of this nature, the communication leader declares his commitment to helping congregations and claims to have carried out joint efforts for technical assistance. “My team left here and went to a church that didn't know how to deal with StreamYard or Zoom. Everyone pulled some strings,” he says. From a hierarchical perspective, if a church struggles, it looks to the district; if the district has its hands tied, it turns to the communication department.

The UCB's strategy with the ease of online transmissions was, according to the communication department, to “humanize the virtual.” To that end, the schedules were not centered on “Adventist celebrities” but on their own local pastors. During Holy Week, “we had 350 speakers, each in their own connection,” explains Fonseca. “I stayed in my corner, in Mogi das Cruzes. Others were in the central Campinas church, others in Cosmópolis.” The goal was for district pastors to develop familiarity with the regions through their digital influence.

In this context of Holy Week (March 27 to April 3), the UCB even published a website with a list of broadcasts from each of its conferences. The linked addresses offered services held on Facebook, YouTube, or Zoom. This movement is the result of a broader digital initiative for the realization of Holy Week, as shown especially clearly on the social media accounts of Pastor Mauricio Lima (@prmauricioucb) and Pastor Odailson Fonseca (@odailson_ucb), entitled “Restored in Christ.” The plan was for district pastors to carry out the services online and, as usual, to center other activities around the event, such as Bible studies.

According to information from the UCB Communication Department, there was also financial and professional assistance. At the East São Paulo Conference, for example, the pastors, about 62 in number, were given a small amount of financial support to carry out paid campaigns on Facebook during Holy Week. In addition, Fonseca mentioned several trainings, “more than 20 since December 2020,” with a focus on preparing ministers for the new virtual reality of the churches. Using one of his usual puns, the communication leader claims to have promoted the idea of ​​a “phygital” church (physical and digital), while explaining the roles of human connection and technical skills needed to achieve these goals. Even so, Fonseca admits that the training was not mandatory and that enrollment was not always complete.

Regarding the training and assistance provided, Nunes adds that in addition to the various virtual meetings with this objective, "the local conference distributed a ring light and a pedestal so that the pastors could improve their transmissions." Similarly, the president of São Paulo Valley Conference, Pastor Olivier Ferreira Jr., distributed a “backstage kit” to all its pastors, containing a selfie stick, a lavalier microphone, a ring light tripod, a ring light, a Y-adapter, and a P2 extender cable. Fonseca is not sure whether such initiatives were carried out by all areas within the UCB, but he assumes that in São Paulo, most pastors have been helped in this regard.

Photo sent by Pastor Oliveiros Ferreira Jr. to Pastor Odailson Fonseca, courtesy of Fonseca [via Zelota Magazine]

The reality in the UCB, according to Fonseca, is privileged compared to other regions, especially regarding internet access. “Talking about people who don't have internet here in São Paulo is like talking about the Northern Lights,” he jokes. Even so, the department is aware that some difficulties with the internet are faced in other parts of the country. Therefore, the UCB material is prepared without the union brand to be equally useful to all of Brazil. Envisioning a strategy from the perspective of the South American Division, Fonseca observes an integrative movement in this logic: “Pastor Rafael Rossi sees material from São Paulo and helps Amapá; he sees something cool in the Northeast and passes it on to me, in São Paulo.” Pastor Edson Nunes Jr. also claims he has no problems among members regarding internet access and sends a weekly “virtual bulletin” with its activities to the São Paulo Conference and UCB.

More Remote Realities

Not all UCB pastors agree with the postponement of face-to-face meetings and the emphasis on virtual services. Some UCB pastors support Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's “negationist” agenda and, whenever possible, bring their members together in person.

A district pastor from a region in the countryside of São Paulo offered Zelota information, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to safety concerns. He recognizes the UCB guideline for the postponement of face-to-face services but says that not all pastors agree. "Hierarchically, we have always suffered a lot of pressure in the field to open churches,” he says. “Some district pastors even circumvented the decrees and scheduled meetings in random places, and they boasted about it.”

Although he affirms uniformity of thought in São Paulo, union communication director Odailson Fonseca mentions an example that reinforces the report of the rural pastor. He says that he was approached by a church member complaining that his pastor had scheduled a face-to-face committee. To resolve the situation, Fonseca immediately contacted the conference president to “help” the minister not to hold the meeting along these lines. Reflecting on the event, the communication leader clarifies that “there is autonomy” for these meetings to be held, even against the guidance of UCB.

The rural pastor mentions another complicating factor: the Bolsonarist and negationist alignment of leadership in the South American Division, as previously reported by Zelota. In addition to pressure from above, “these district pastors also put pressure on the conference to open the churches,” he says. After the UCB's decision on Holy Week, stipulating the virtual nature of the program, the pastor says he had heard the prayer of one of his fellow ministers, who asked God that the union would keep the churches open at any cost. “In the WhatsApp groups, you see people defending anti-vaccination, praising evangelical services held in buses and minibuses, people interpreting Revelation and claiming that science is a leftist thing,” he says. “I even tell them they are spreading ‘fake news,’ but they claim that the verification bodies are also left-wing.”

For the rural pastor, the greatest problem with the negationist positioning of pastors in his region is the influence they have among the elderly. When citing a specific case of a visit to an elderly couple cared for by a nursing technician, the pastor says they disregarded all rules of distancing and hygiene. “The vaccine was already available, but the couple said they wouldn't take it because their conscience wouldn't allow it because of the stories of friends, or because the nurse saw a report in Jovem Pan, a far-right, Bolsonarist media outlet, and was suspicious.”

Regarding the UCB's assistance in the process of transmitting the services, the rural pastor had no complaints. “The communication department is very good. It walks the second mile; it has helped us a lot,” he says. “They did well. They taught even the elderly to use the tech.” He says he has received support materials, such as a ring light, a microphone, among other tools, and understands the gesture as necessary assistance, as the material has become more expensive during the pandemic. The pastor even mentions receiving some financial aid for his internet services. In addition, he also claims to have received various training, as did members of his leadership.

Even so, the pastor has had some difficulties—particularly in his pastoral context. Sometimes the churches do not have the infrastructure to carry out online services—specific cables or audio/video cards are missing; some members do not even have a computer. The pastor still broadcasts the services from his home, even though many members have difficulty accessing them. “They can, at most, use YouTube,” he says. “So we're broadcasting on YouTube.” Regarding this difficulty, he believes that the financial aid should not be limited to pastors.

Even congregations that have the proper technology can lack more specific training, such as sound design, among other technical activities: “The sound—people don't know what to do, they don't know what each button on the table does. I don't know either,” the rural pastor says. The need for human resources is so great that we put people who have just been baptized to do things. I can't afford a religious liberty department in my church because I don't have a district attorney. The youth director, who has several roles, is not even young and doesn't know what to do. Another youth director had to leave because she was exhausted.”

Burdened by such difficulties, the rural pastor still needs to stay emotionally healthy, deal with his family, and fulfill Bible study goals. He says that his conference leadership has set a goal for more than 100 registered studies. He has a few dozen entries, but all are inactive due to lack of continuity. “So this generates anxiety, it generates concern,” he says.

According to one of the largest newspapers in Brazil, Folha de S. Paulo, “Religious leaders had the highest percentage of deaths caused by COVID-19. Of all the records of deaths of people who occupy this function, 44 percent occurred as a result of the disease. The rate is almost double that observed among Safety (25.4 percent) and Health (24 percent) professionals.”

At the end of the day, the rural pastor isn't exactly concerned about an online broadcast or the number of registered studies. "I'm more concerned with putting out fires, burying people, and comforting families,” he says. He explains that in the countryside, the work done is basic: visitation, confession, counseling, conflict management, and provision of aid for food insecurity and lack of remuneration. Among the cases cited, the pastor mentions a woman who had her teeth broken by her husband and whose daughter is a sex worker and drug user. All live in a house with children and grandchildren. 

According to Pastor Odailson Fonseca, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency is active in the union’s territory. He says that ADRA headquartered at Artur Nogueira, SP, carried out a campaign with 80-90 employees to collect more than 400 basic grocery packages at the beginning of the pandemic. In Manaus, AM, ADRA came to deliver an average of 19,000 hours of oxygen to more than 70 families caring for COVID-19 patients in their homes. Pastor Nunes, commenting on ADRA's actions, says that his church frequently seeks to partner with the organization through “Instituto Sementes,” an NGO from Nova Semente.

Likewise, the rural pastor recognizes ADRA’s contributions. “Today, ADRA is even more important than it once was,” he says, “because it has worked throughout the city to ensure food security for its members.” However, he insists that membership assistance needs to be more radical. In this chaotic environment, Adventists need assistance that transcends computers and occasional food aid. According to the pastor, most members work as day laborers or cardboard collectors. When lamenting the plight of his sheep, he asserts that “staying at home” needs to be redefined for such people and insists that the government, like the church, needs to prioritize a public policy program. “The church has empty space,” he says. “It could house those people who face insecurity for housing and food. Here in São Paulo, we have training and recreation centers, in Itaipava, in Araçoiaba da Serra, in Cotia. Local churches themselves often have a better building than the homes of the members who built them. Then they could also house them. Agreements with hotels and inns can help, as suggested by CUFA [Central Única das Favelas].”

According to a 2015 report on the Brazilian Adventist reality based on data provided by the 2010 IBGE Census, the Adventist Church in Brazil has many poor members.[1] According to the survey, 34.6 percent of Brazilian Adventists (over age 10) had no income. In addition, the level of unemployment was higher than the Brazilian average, at 37.1 percent. With regard to contexts like that of the rural pastor, 37.2 percent are considered poor, and 19.9 percent ​​live in extreme poverty.

Radical Initiatives

From the union’s perspective, Fonseca recognizes the unique reality of each region in Brazil. “Some have a lockdown where not even the cameraman can enter in the church . . . and at other places, they are saying [attendance can be] 50 percent, in line with government guidelines,” he says. “The church is a democratic, family environment. It is not a military environment. So, we have to live with this difference between people, and everyone is welcome. But let every member of the church be responsible.” 

Debate among Adventist pastors remains active in this regard. And the South American Division does not take an official position on the matter. On the contrary, the general counsel of the division, Luigi Braga, recently published a video that explains his relationship with the National Association of Evangelical Lawyers (ANAJURE) and justifies the process filed by it: the opening of the churches during the most serious period of the pandemic. The communication director of the division, Rafael Rossi, even shared the lawyer's speech on his social media, suggesting that he agrees. Rossi appeals to the theme of "religious freedom," an argument similar to that of ANAJURE, which claims to be suffering persecution for being prohibited from attending services. 

In all of this, the Central Brazil Union Conference continues to carry out its massive work of training and guidance for its lay members and pastors. When necessary, it turns to ADRA to help those most in need in a material way. However, in more humble contexts, reality demands even more radical initiatives. "Thank God I managed to keep most of the churches online before the health mandates,” says the rural pastor. “But our social fabric is very fragile, and any lockdown without aid policies, whether government or church, means genocide." Thus far, over 624,000 Brazilians have died from the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps, more than anything else, the Adventist church in Brazil needs to make two hard decisions: first, to create an official policy on church closures, and second, to use its financial resources to fully support its members who, in the face of the pandemic, suffer greatly. 


Notes and References:

[1] Pereira, Lucius; Follis, Rodrigo; Ferreira, Bruno; Novaes, Allan. “Kingdom development: socioeconomic challenges for Brazilian Adventism.” In: FOLLIS, Rodrigo; NOVAES, Allan; DIAS, Marcelo (Orgs.). Sociology and Adventism: Brazilian challenges for mission. Engenheiro Coelho: Unaspress, 2015, p. 119-137.


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


Elias Batista Jr., who writes under a pseudonym, is a theologian, journalist, and editor-in-chief of Zelota magazine.

Title image: Zelota Magazine

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