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Southern Brazilian Adventists Spring into Action Following Catastrophic Flooding

Bairro Sarandi Rio Grande do Sul

Since April 29, the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul has endured what has been described as “the biggest climate catastrophe” the region has ever experienced. Flooding has affected approximately 94% of the state’s municipalities, and for many, the situation is dire. Rivers have risen an average of 14 meters (over 50 feet), completely submerging entire towns. Rio Grande do Sul is Brazil’s sixth largest state by population, and its fourth largest producer by GDP. It has a territory of 281,730 square kilometers—slightly more than the United Kingdom. 

According to the state’s civil defense agency bulletin (updated daily), the floods affected 469 municipalities in Rio Grande do Sul, leaving 65 people missing, 581,613 homeless with 163 confirmed deaths, affecting 2,342,460 people in all.

Impact on the local Adventist Population

The Adventist community in the state was also severely affected by the flood in the territories of the Central Rio Grande do Sul Conference, the South Rio Grande do Sul Conference, and the North Rio Grande do Sul Conference, all of which are a part of the União Sul Brasileira (South Brazil Union). 

Members of the South Brazil Union are primarily descendants of Europeans who migrated to Brazil between the 19th and 20th centuries. Many trace their lineages to German, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, Austrian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese immigrants. The missionary work of German Adventists in particular has resulted in the Adventist church electing several leaders from the region, including the current General Conference secretary, Erton Köher.

South Brazil Union president Marlinton Lopes said on Instagram that over a thousand Adventist families lost their homes, and around 70 churches were completely below floodwaters. Even elevated cities nearby that were not flooded face landslides, blackouts, and road blockages.

Local church leaders have recommended that congregations in high risk areas move their services to other safe places or to unaffected churches in the region. They encouraged church members to avoid unnecessary trips, to avoid returning to flooded homes, and to prioritize the wellbeing of families affected by the flood. 

According to data from the Central Rio Grande do Sul Conference, 23 districts and 25 churches in the conference were flooded, and 550 Adventist families had houses damaged or lost. The numbers are likely to increase as more details emerge about the situation. 

Central Rio Grande do Sul Conference president Ilson Geisler and Sarandi district pastor Janeylson Santana said that in Sarandi alone, the homes of between 100 and 120 Adventist families were affected by the floods. The Sarandi district has approximately 700 members. Geisler noted that 300 families in the conference have begun receiving support.

The South Rio Grande do Sul Conference also shared data on the impact the flooding had in their territory: 62 cities affected encompassing 19 districts, with 72 churches flooded and 280 families losing their homes.

We reached out to the communication department, the conference president, and several pastors in the North Rio Grande do Sul Conference requesting further information regarding the catastrophe, but we did not receive response prior to the publication of this article.

In the North Rio Grande do Sul Conference, the Cruzeiro do Sul Adventist Academy, located in the Taquara municipality, was partially affected by the flood. The city, surrounded by the Paranhana and dos Sinos rivers, has often been impacted by past floods. One inhabitant recounted to the daily Jornal Repercussão that in 1965, flooding extended “from Cruzeiro do Sul Adventist Academy to Mundo Novo,” a distance of approximately 980 kilometers. In 2013, Adventist media covered a similar incident in which students and employees at the academy provided aid to the people of Taquara. The school was also affected by flooding in 2013, but mostly escaped damage. Cruzeiro do Sul is in communication with the local government working to aid the population of Taquara after this current disaster.

Adventists Respond to the Disaster

The Adventist church has provided aid through donations, rescue operations, clean-ups, and field surveys. Conferences throughout Rio Grande do Sul are participating in an “Adopt a Family” project to organize aid for flood victims. Churches, schools, and administrative offices in the state were quickly converted to shelters and donation centers. 

The Pátria Nova church in Novo Hamburgo, sheltered 20 people, and in Nova Santa Rita, church members made box lunches for 115 families. Adventists in Charqueadas rescued people and animals and sheltered them in the local church, and the Adventist church in Rolante provided soup and sandwiches to employees and volunteers at a hospital affected by the flood. 

Additionally, the Canoas Adventist School sheltered and fed 130 people, the Esteio Adventist School became a shelter and a point of donation, and the Marechal Rondon Adventist School sheltered 80 people at the beginning of the flood, remaining a shelter until May 16.

ADRA’s Massive Relief Efforts

Since the flooding began in late April, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA International) has promoted an urgent fundraising campaign to provide resources on the ground and has taken on the administration of public shelters. ADRA is working alongside the Desenvolvimento Social, Prefeitura de Porto Alegre (Porto Alegre Social Development Department) to run shelters located in public sports centers and the military police academy. In total, the agency is operating sixteen projects with eight emergency experts operating in the field. ADRA is providing direct assistance in Igrejinha, São Leopoldo, Canoas, Lajeado, Gravataí, Novo Hamburgo, and Porto Alegre e Rio Grande.

ADRA teams have visited shelters and affected areas to register families in need and assess the damage. This assessment is useful for directing the funds that are coming in. Through registration, ADRA identifies families who fulfill selection criteria as “beneficiaries,” and establishes the priority of donations.

Alongside UNICEF and the Rio Grande do Sul social relief department (O Departamento de Assistência Social da Secretaria de Assistência Social), ADRA has released data from assessment of the state’s shelters. According to their report, 875 shelters are providing aid to 78,165 people in 16 municipalities. 42% of those sheltered are from vulnerable populations—children, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with disabilities; 38% are immigrants and refugees; and 4% are indigenous or quilombola people. Only 58% of the shelters regularly provide drinkable water through the public water system, and 50% lack cleaning supplies. 43% of shelters require personal hygiene items, while 37% need blankets and 29% need mattresses.

ADRA has deployed its “solidarity truck,” which arrived at São Leopoldo at the beginning of May. It encompasses 45 square meters with three compartments: an area for cooking, one for washing and drying clothes, and another for psycho-social support services. In São Leopoldo, it provided 1,450 meals and enabled the washing of 2,500 kilograms of clothes. 

ADRA leaders have discussed next solidarity truck destinations with local authorities in order to provide relief to the most impacted parts of the state. With 210 volunteers, the truck has visited the municipalities of São Leopoldo, Igrejinha, and Canoas, and is currently aiding people in temporary shelters in Porto Alegre alongside U.S.-based Procter & Gamble to provide health and personal hygiene products. However, mobility issues have restricted volunteer opportunities to people from Rio Grande do Sul; ADRA is not currently recruiting volunteers outside the state.

Logistical challenges also mean that ADRA cannot receive physical donations from other states. Donated items can only be received at local collection points, but the Adventist community throughout Brazil is still organizing whatever assistance it can provide. 

Students of the Recife Adventist School in the northeast region of Brazil, took to the streets  to raise awareness and solidarity and to fundraise for flood victims, and 470 of the institutions that comprise Adventist education in Brazil are fundraising or publicizing means of donation. Churches and schools in the south of Paraná, a southern state, have provided 60 tons of donated items and 280,000 Brazilian reais from the South Paraná Conference budget. Church members in the southern state of Santa Catarina also sent 150 tons of donations in nine trucks and a semi-trailer.

Catastrophes like this one may worsen in the future, in part because of agribusiness-friendly changes to environmental legislation. After nine years of development, the Environmental Code of Rio Grande do Sul, with input from experts like José Lutzenberger, was significantly weakened in 2019. Under the leadership of Governor Eduardo Leite (PSDB), 480 points of environmental legislation were eliminated or modified. Leite’s proposal was approved by the Legislative Assembly but drew criticism from environmentalists. The main changes included the relaxation of requirements and the granting of self-licensing, favoring corporate interests. Environmental experts identified flaws and setbacks in the new code, arguing that it dismantled decades of progress in environmental protection. Since changes to the code, the region has seen increased mining and logging, wildfires, and now more flooding.

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Image: Screen capture from Instagram video.

About the author

Felipe Carmo is a journalist who contributes to Spectrum. He is also a theologian with a master’s in Jewish Studies from the University of São Paulo. More from Felipe Carmo.
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