In Search of the Promised Land

In Search of the Promised Land

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Published:
January 29, 2022

An unknown—or forgotten—fact of Adventists in Brazil is the relationship between some members of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and political movements related to the agrarian reform: the Brazil's Landless Workers Movement (MST), the National Movement for the Fight for Housing (MNLM), the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), among others. If they are currently unknown for lack of an honorable historical account, in their time of militancy, “landless Adventists” were deliberately marginalized from their communities, criminalized for their actions, and neglected by church welfare.

Since the colonization of Brazil, rural harvests were mostly destined for exportation. In order to do that efficiently, enormous portions of land were given to a few landowners, a distribution responding to the economic needs of the country. Such large estates became a system of land control.

In that context, movements for agrarian reform in Brazil emerged, calling for the reorganization and redistribution of rural property. In the twentieth century, two movements stood out in the struggle against the monopoly of Brazilian lands. The first was connected to the Brazilian Communist Party and the second to the Peasant Leagues. Given the urgency of reorganization, when enacted in 1988, the current National Constitution stipulated that large, unproductive estates should be designated for the agrarian reform. According to Valor Econômico magazine, as of 2020, 10 percent of the largest estates still occupy approximately 73 percent of Brazil’s agricultural land. In each Brazilian state, those top 10 percent occupy at least 50 percent of the land, and in some states much more.

Movements connected to agrarian reform occupy and claim land, moving to take action faster than the often-sluggish pace set by the government. Fights between landless activists and militias from the estates have sometimes grown violent.

As already discussed in the Zelota article “Right, Face!,” the Adventist leadership in Brazil currently favors a political-ideological discourse of the extreme right, in addition to endorsing the vilification of policies associated with the left. Zelota also presented a historical overview of how the Adventist Church in Latin America and Europe became involved in servility and patronage relations with right-wing dictatorial governments and how the Church allied itself with the boastful promotion of the Brazilian civil military dictatorship. The same reactionary religious sentiment is felt—against the landless Adventists—if not as outright disapproval, at the least as indifference to the history of struggle and resistance that they have carried for decades.

It appears that landless Adventists in several occupations have participated in weekly worship services held either outdoors, in tents or wooden huts. There are reports of Adventists who were victims of criticism and alienation from their religious communities because of their active participation in the militancy for agrarian reform.

As “good Adventists,” they follow their religious convictions. They refuse to take up arms to claim land. They promote religious activities among members of their community. They actively intercede for their comrades who, in the absence of options, face the violence of land-grabbers. Most importantly, they apply the faith and hope of their religion to the practice of justice and mercy—confronting, if necessary, the authorities of their church in respect for the purity of their principles.

 

On Landless Adventists

It is difficult to provide an accurate and up-to-date number of churches or Adventist communities located in agrarian reform settlements. This is due to the lack of documentation and the lack of historical knowledge that conferences have of such movements among Adventists. Zelota magazine found the existence of at least 12 settlements with an Adventist presence distributed throughout Brazil, from 1995 to 2021, in communities that could house from 40 to 6,000 settlers.

This information was collected from various documents, including academic works, books and journalistic materials as well as interviews with lay people and pastors. Although not exact or qualitative, it demonstrates a clear involvement of Adventists with MST in most regions of Brazil. The picture cannot be conclusive, but it illustrates part of the Brazilian Adventist reality that has not yet been properly explored.

Although left-wing movements in Brazil have historically had greater affinity with the Catholic Church (due to the activities of the Base Ecclesiastical Communities [CEBs]), in 1996, Datafolha already noted the increase of evangelical groups in the MST communities. According to The Intercept Brasil, the largest settlement in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Zumbi dos Palmares, has seen a significant increase in Evangelicals over the years. In 1999 they were less than 7%, and in 2021, they total 72%. In all settlements in the state, they can reach up to 80% of the settled religious. The data is not surprising, given the well-known growth of Evangelicals in Brazil, according to information released by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) in 2010.

Given this context, the appearance of Adventists among landless activists should not be unexpected. In November 2008, Revista Adventista commented on the existence of a Pathfinder club and Sabbath services in the “Pequena Vanessa II” settlement, in the municipality of Bom Jardim, GO. Pastor Gessé Vieira, in a conversation with Zelota—and at the time a pastor for the area that encompassed the settlement—​​reported that the Adventists' relationship with the MST was due to a member who already resided in the area, and that she made part of her land available for the construction of a church. The pastor recalls having baptized an average of 20 people in the settlement at that time.

Not only in Little Vanessa II, but in most of the settled Adventist communities, it is possible to witness activities common to traditional churches including weekly church services, small groups, Pathfinder clubs, youth meetings, Bible studies, etc. The settlements are usually receptive to the most diversified religious activities and even open themselves up to evangelistic work.

In contact with Little Vanessa II, Gessé said he had not witnessed any ideological conflict between the Adventist faith and the political character of the settlement. There was, in his words, no “war of ideas,” Adventism vs. MST. The relationship between the religious and political conscience of the settlers was organic, free from impediments or prejudices. “The Church did not see politics with bad eyes, they did not see any contradiction in itself. They understood that they [politics and religion] can help each other,” clarifies the pastor.

Other examples can be cited. Adventists—and MST activists between 2018-2019 in the Gabriel Pimenta camp, in Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais—José Agostino Costa and Delizete Rodrigues da Silva Costa were “converted” to agrarian reform militancy by curiosity. Since they were little, because of their life in the countryside, they had always dreamed of a piece of land for family farming. When they understood the purposes of landless militancy and were impressed by the persistence of the movement, even though they were Adventists, they concluded that this was a just cause for the realization of their dreams. The couple reports having spent an average of six months camped in an abandoned lot, in Goianá.

“I used to say to God, ‘Lord, if I'm doing something wrong, you’ll stop me right away!’ But God was with us, and we felt He was with us all along. We were just doing good. We went there with the best of intentions. God didn't see our intent as evil or stealing,” explains Delizete.

A similar experience took place in the region of Bauru, São Paulo, around the settlement currently known as Horto Aimorés. Around 2003, a group of approximately ten Adventists met at the county bus station. The meeting, however, was not arranged, although they all had the same objective, to get a piece of land for their families' livelihood. “It was not agreed that the Adventists would all stay together, it was God who did that,” says former militant Josefa Gonçalves.

“Nobody agreed on anything, we met at the bus station. Everyone met on the same day without any coordination, a group of Adventists! And what to do when you have Adventists together? We did worship services. And I don't forget the services we used to do on the road. On Saturday we would sit on the ravines and worship, to study the Sabbath school lesson,” recalls Alzira Maria da Silva, one of the former militants.

In an interview with Zelota, the group reported that some moved from Sumaré and others from Andradina, both municipalities in São Paulo. Most of them were already advanced in age; and realized that companies in the region preferred to hire younger workers. From then on, the group  saw the opportunity for a new beginning in the lands destined for agrarian reform. United to the CPT and to the “Terra Nossa” camp, the landless Adventists erected their tents, at first, in the Igapó region and, later, they went to Pederneiras. But on neither occasion were they successful.

The group's real challenge came when they finally arrived in the Horto region, where “the fight was fierce”, according to Josefa. The camp was the target of countless injunctions, which forced them to vacate the places, causing a series of retreats in that region. “We didn't go home, we went into another area. Here in the Horto area alone, we must have taken around fifty injunctions: come out, come in, come out, come in. They took us out of one space, and we went into another,” recalls one of the interviewees. The instability lasted seven years. “There were only people of determination here,” they report.

The group finally gets a piece of land in Horto. And although they were already meeting together as Adventists, they cherished organizing a fixed church for the group. As there was no intentional help from the churches in the region—due to prejudice—the group built the temple on its own. In 2011, they already congregated in a physical space, but registration as a church only took place in 2012, when the conference realized there was an organized community there.

“Our dream was to build our church here. And we prayed to God, right, Sister Alzira? We prayed for God to send someone from there [from Bauru] to help us here, because there was no condition, access. We used to meet at my house, at other people's houses, under the eucalyptus trees, remember? But we never gave up on having a church here. And it exists today because of our dream, because God has heard our prayers,” recalls Josefa, moved.

There is no complete historical data on the institution of the church in the Horto Aimorés settlement, information on membership positions or administrative processes, because the members arranged the congregation in a way that didn’t follow typical church organization. Currently, after officialization, the church in Horto includes Adventists from neighboring churches, as members of the central church in Bauru.

But the Adventists' relationship with the agrarian reform militancy movements was not restricted to agriculture. In the 1990s, an extensive region of the “Adventist Housing Development”, in Capão Redondo, São Paulo (area of ​​the former IAE, now UNASP, campus São Paulo), was owned by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The land was very extensive, and could be classified as an idle property, as it did not have plans for a specific area and was not fulfilling its social function, either on the part of the church or the prefecture. Therefore, between 1990-1994, the Associação Pró-Moradia da Zona Sul (Association for Housing of São Paulo’s Southern Zone) occupied the site to seize it, in order to use it for the benefit of the people.

According to the Adventist Encyclopedia, the land of Capão Redondoor at least part of it—had been in the possession of Adventists since 1915. The money for the purchase at the time came from the Union Conference Education funds and a donation from the General Conference in Washington, DC, made in 1909. The amount paid at the time totaled 20:000$000 (twenty thousand contos de réis).

An Adventist woman Gersina Dalva de Sampaio Curaçá recalls the occasion, as she led the occupation at the time, and was not yet linked to the Adventist Church. “Who would have guessed. I was protesting against the church that I would be part of, in the future,” comments the ex-militant humorously. Gersina acted as director of the association, leading, on average, from 150 to 200 militants, under her command.

“The association was registered. It wasn't a mess. But people thought it was a bunch of troublemakers, that they went there to make a mess. It wasn't like that. It had a whole ideology, a purpose, a plan and a claim. And what did we claim? Housing for those who don't have it. I believe I worked for God at that time, because I did a lot more at that time than I did for the church,” explains Gersina.

The former militant also told Zelota that she was converted to Adventism within the movement itself. She received leaflets for lectures on “How to Quit Smoking” and studied the Bible with one of the teachers at the kindergarten, built by the association in one of the appropriated areas. According to Gersina, the employee used to repeat to her, “I see your dynamism on the platform. You will one day be a great soul winner.”

The organization and purposes of these social movements in the countryside – and in the cities – are simple: by identifying large unproductive estates, families set up camp near the place they intend to commandeer. This camp is built on the side of a road as a way of putting pressure on the government, which, out of respect for the Constitution, should provide settlement in that or another area, private or public. Adventists have been (and still are) part of these claims, and they have a record of struggle and resistance worthy of remembrance.

 

We Don’t Run Away From the Fight

The religious principle that constrains them not to participate in confrontations or paramilitaries is not new to Adventists, as they are situations that would force them to use weapons and hurt others. This conviction is expressed not only in biblical-theological terms but is evident in the publication of books such as Desmond Doss: Conscientious Objector, by Fraces M. Doss, or A Thousand Shall Fall, by Susi Hasel Mundy and Milan Schurch, both published by the Brazilian Publishing House (CPB) and full of testimonies of faith in the war field.

Ironic as it is, the leading role of the characters in such books says a lot about the Adventist political agenda. In both narratives, soldiers “fight” alongside armies organized for imperialist purposes, the first in collaboration with U.S. efforts, and the second in the company of the Nazi army. These Adventist soldiers deserve, in fact, congratulations for insisting on going to war unarmed. But the same praise would be dubious if one takes into account their political motivations, with regard to the moral nature of conflicts from a geopolitical perspective.

In the context of agrarian reform, however, “unarmed soldiers” advance into a trench contrary to the American or Nazi experience. The landless militants refuse to act violently, even when harassed by Military Police (PM) troops and other unprovoked violent actions. These farmers support the commandeering of large estates, but they fight motivated by religious conviction, refusing to take up arms such as scythes, knives, machetes, etc. In all the experiences reported to Zelota, Adventists militate peacefully, and on most occasions act as “intercessors” in times of combat.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Adventists from the Horto Aimorés settlement, Bauru, São Paulo, decided to hold their services outdoors, wearing masks and keeping a certain degree of distancing. On a Saturday, August 28, 2020, there was a brief and powerful service given by a biblical worker of the region, focusing on the evangelistic misadventures of the apostle Paul, in the relationship between he and Mark.

In response to the preacher's comment, an anonymous member interrupted the sermon, eager to offer an opinion on the apostle: “Paul is one of mine! As radical as I am, I know how to differentiate between good and evil. I'm not a coward!” Consciously or not, this statement by a member settled in Horto reflected the ethical-religious feeling of the landless Adventist militancy in the face of the inevitable conflicts against the Military Police for at least three decades.

Former Adventist militants from the Gabriel Pimenta camp, in Juiz de Fora, Delizete and Agostinho, were victims of an arson attempt while claiming land in Goianá. According to the couple, the fire was caused near the camp so that, later, the fire could reach the militants. “They set fire around, to be able to reach the camp and make those families disperse… it's so many disadvantaged families! You needed to see how many children there were! There were lots of them,” laments Delizete when she recalls what happened.

Despite having suffered such attacks, Delizete claims to be against violence, even in defense situations. “I'm upright! I'm not mixed! I am either an Adventist or not. If I came here, it's because God allowed it, and I'm not going to stop being what I am,” says the ex-militant. Recalling the camping period, Delizete describes the times when her companions remained on guard, armed with a scythe and a machete, and sometimes she questioned whether that environment was appropriate to an Adventist Christian like her. But when she came across the militants' goals, she changed her mind.

“I thought that was not a place for us, but I found their struggle and their union interesting. I didn't see anything wrong or unfair about what they do in there. The only thing I thought was that they didn't have to use these types of tools for defense,” she explains. And she jokes, “being camped is a crazy experience, but we like crazy anyway.”

Among Adventists settled in Horto, experience and religious conviction manifested itself in the same way. According to Josefa, one of the militants in Bauru, São Paulo, in the coming and going of the camps due to the order of the injunctions, the militants were removed from the places under the threat of police who appeared with paddy wagons.

“To get people out of the places, sometimes, policemen would come with paddy wagons. Bauru's businessmen said that this place was theirs; and they had money, so they paid the lawyer, and they paid the judge.”

An occasion of conflict remained vivid in the memory of Artur Camilo do Carmo, Alzira's husband, also settled in Horto.

“Once there was a very big conflict on the farm. When we got in, some henchmen came from below shooting. And we stayed there, but there were some who ran. Two people got hurt, the rest were fine, thank God. But there were shootings everywhere! ... I was running, and a bullet went through the ground, throwing up a lot of dirt! I left. And those shots weren’t meant to scare us, they were meant to kill! And they almost did. But thanks to God we never had to take any violent initiative,” says Artur.

His wife, Alzira, recalls the same events with sadness, but affirms her conviction about divine protection when it was urgent. At such times, she retired for prayer, and could spend the night in vigil if necessary.

​​“In my prayers I asked God that no one would leave here injured. And Daniel used to say: ‘Ms. Alzira doesn't sleep, she prays all night long.’ Why did I do this? Where would I go for support? To human beings? I have to search for God. And it was a miracle that God helped us. I feel like we only took the land because God was with us. And I have faith to this day that God sustains all of us who are here.”

Settled in Pontal do Paranapanema, in mid-1997, Adventist Rosinei Oliveira Santos claimed to have lost count of the occupations he participated in. As is common among Adventists, he refused to take up arms, and ran the risk of going to the “battlefield” as an unarmed soldier.

“By the word of God, we cannot take up arms, but we don’t run away from the fight,” reflects the activist. In one of the occupations at the time, on the São Domingos farm, six landless people were wounded by bullets. Rosinei, recalling what happened, says that he prayed for the undertaking.

In an account published by Carolina Teles Lemos about the “mystique of the peasant struggle” for Caminhos magazine, an Adventist woman is cited as an intercessor for the resistance against the military police in Paraná. The camp, named by the landless as “Cristopolis,” located in the municipality of Ibema, would have been formed by an occupation at the end of 1980. On December 28, 1989, the military police tried to evict 300 families from the area, but they backed off in face of bayonets, truncheons, sickles and machetes. Recalling the victory, one of the militants commented, “The police arrived around 6:30 am. With just a few words, the staff was already united, trying to resist the police. There were around 700 to 800 police against about 1,500 to 2,000 people. A group manned the part of the fence, carrying scythes, water to protect themselves against the gas bombs. They also took a gasoline pump, which was built at the time. And the land was our weapon. There were prayers from an Adventist member, who prayed all the time. The women stayed together making food to feed the children […] God helped us a lot. The day was beautiful, and God soon sent rain to help us. The rain hurt us, but it hurt them more [the PM]. The gas bombs wouldn't work in the rain. That day for us was very important, an unforgettable date.”

In São Paulo, Sister Gersina, leader of the Associação Pró-Moradia da Zona Sul, even before her conversion to Adventism, already supported a policy of non-violence,whenever possible. The apartments that make up the Housing and Urban Development Company (CDHU) in the Capão Redondo region were, at the time, conquered by her and her team. Although there were promises that the land would be expropriated for housing, the prefecture backed away from the decision, and, therefore, Gersina and the militants moved to the door of the Bandeirantes’ Palace, the state government building, in protest.

The former militant recalls that, on that occasion, the police were brutal and objective in their search. The focus was on the leaders. “To give you an idea, in front of Bandeirantes’ Palace, the dogs were watching us. I dozed off, and the leaders around me dozed off. It was dawn. When we thought otherwise, the police were already on top of us. When the guy was about to shoot, they said ‘Get this dark little woman there, she's the leader of the movement.’ We asked the team to calm down, and the police said they only wanted the leaders. We all went to the police station to explain why we were there,” describes Gersina.

For these moments, the association led by Gesina was properly trained. As the objective was peaceful, with intentions to demonstrate and demand, the group was instructed not to retaliate against the police, even if they were hostile. The occupation was organized, with a surveillance team, a tents team, a journalism team, among others. Even so, police violence was inevitable.

“We were taken out, the leaders, with a riot squad! It was really weird. But we trained. In my case, when I raised my hand, no one moved, everyone stopped to avoid aggression. Because we went there just to make claims. So, we had training, several meetings, and each one got a team, it was all separate. As a leader, anyone who got hurt was our responsibility,” explains the Adventist.

Cowardice, balance and passivity are not virtues among landless militants, who need to defend themselves from violent attacks by the police, land grabbers, landlords, false landlords, agents or State bodies, etc. According to the CPT, in 2017, of the 71 deaths that occurred in the countryside, 22% were leaders; in 2018, of the 24 murders registered, 54% were movement leaders. In an interview with G1, Ruben Siqueira, member of the CPT's national executive coordination, explains that homicide works as an intimidation, “you intimidate in two ways—either killing indiscriminately, or killing leaders. And both things are happening.”

In 2019, the data on Conflicts in the Country, recorded by the CPT, indicated the occurrence of 1,254 conflicts over land, 12% higher than in 2018, surpassing all figures since 1985. In the same year, the CPT registered 32 murders, 30 assassination attempts and 201 death threats—all of them against peasants, indigenous peoples, quilombolas and resistance leaders. Most deaths (87.5%) occurred in the context of land conflicts. Among the partial data released for 2020, 1,083 conflicts were registered, totaling 18 murders. Overall, between 1985-2020, more than 1,900 workers were murdered.

 

You Can Do Both

The struggle of the landless does not contradict the Adventist faith, but the criticism and prejudice that involve left-wing political militancy in the institution discredit the farmers, driving them away from the coexistence among the brothers for claiming basic land rights. In 1997, settled in Pontal Paranapanema, Valmir Rodrigues Chaves—popularly known as “Bill”stopped going to church after “putting in the blender” what he knew about the Bible and The Capital, by Karl Marx. In an interview given to Folha de S.Paulo, he stated that “you can do both.” His departure was not because of a contradiction between the Bible and militancy, but because of what some Adventists thought about militancy.

Landless Adventists were often harassed, both by their community membership and by their leadership. In the words of Agostino, from the Gabriel Pimenta camp, in Juiz de Fora: “many people went there [in the camp] and cursed us, because they didn't agree with us. Many were supportive, but most of them cursed us.” He adds: “Adventists get upset when they see us doing this kind of thing. They get upset, offended, you know?”

Agostinho's wife, Delizete, active in the same camp, experienced an unpleasant situation with a sister from her community. “We used to take a bus that passed by the camp's gate. I was sitting on the bus and an Adventist who lives nearby got in. Then this lady, younger than me, got on the bus, and when she found out I was going there, she walked away from me terrified! As if I was going to kill her!"

The couple reported to Zelota, however, an even more troublesome occurrence. At the time they were camped in Goianá, they claimed a portion of a latifundium whose owner’s son was an Adventist—a member of the community in Juiz de Fora. Aware that there were Adventists among the MST militants, the farmer's son persuaded the pastor to visit the members in order to convince them that the practice was sinful. The pastor then went to the couple to advise them, although at the time he did not threaten them from a religious perspective.

“He filled the pastor's head. He said that the occupation was illegal, that this was not right, that we were stealing, taking what was not ours. That we were sinning. Then the pastor came here asking, ‘Would you like someone to come here and invade your land?’ He put himself in the farmer’s shoes and started talking about these things. And I said: ‘no, because the house is ours, but the land belongs to the prefecture, and when things belong to the prefecture, and it concerns the planting of food, the city hall does not prevent it! Can you imagine if I'm going to take the land of a poor family?’” narrates Delizete.

Adventist Cilmar Rosa, who also joined the Gabriel Pimenta camp in Juiz de Fora, reported similar difficulties with community members and pastors.

“Within the Adventist setting there is prejudice because many are closed-minded and don't care about the other’s point of view. There are a lot of prejudiced people who think you’re stealing. These are prejudices of those who do not understand the struggle of those who are fighting for a piece of land. We even stood the prejudice of some pastors who gave advice based on their mentality, and did not consider ours,” reports Cilmar.

Along with the MST militancy, Cilmar participated in professional courses that qualified him for functions of interest to him, focused on agriculture, including courses on medicinal plants, agroecology and phytotherapy. Before that, he used to work collecting recyclables on the outskirts of Juiz de Fora. The movement not only educated him but gave the Adventist member the possibility to fulfill the dream of living off agriculture, even selling some of his products at fairs in his municipality. During his involvement with the MST, Cilmar was discouraged by both members and pastors, who did not offer him any alternative work or financial support.

“A pastor even told me that this is not biblical, that it is wrong, that the land has an owner. But we know, through the Constitution, that a land which does not produce is property of agrarian reform. The land belongs to those who plant on it, if you don't plant on the land, it's not yours,” he explains.

Similarly, the landless Adventists in Horto Aimorés felt prejudice from their brothers, the central church in Bauru, and elsewhere. But in the case of this group, prejudice was overcome by indifference. While in Pederneiras, the landless Adventists went through many difficulties, needing basic resources for subsistence: “I needed everything,” says Josefa. When they turned to the church for help—particularly from the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA)—the community responded with help but said it would be the only and last.

“The first time we came to ask for help from the church here in Bauru, we were in the Pederneiras area. Then we thought ‘let's go to Bauru, to the church, and who knows, she'll help us, right?’ And then we went to the central church in Bauru. The brothers didn't get rid of us but said ‘we'll only help once.’ and they really helped only once, and never again,” says Josefa.

At the time when the landless Adventists of the Horto did not yet have their own meeting space, it was customary, from time to time, to visit nearby communities. When attending these churches, the militants were openly criticized by their brothers, “We felt prejudice, right, sister Alzira? Not from the settlers, but from the brothers in Bauru. They said, ‘How can Adventists be among these MST people,’ but we were not MST, we were with the Pastoral Land Commission. We came here because they said it was a land destined for agrarian reform, and it was,” Josefa recalls, in tears.

“Even though I was a victim of prejudice, I went anyway. I said ‘I go there to hear the Word of God. I didn't go there to see the members, I went there to hear the Word of God,’” Alzira answers her friend.

Although Gersina, in her time of militancy alongside the Associação Pró-Moradia da Zona Sul, did not experience prejudice from the Adventist membership—because she did not congregate with the community—she said she felt strangeness from the members, when relating her experiences after conversion. “I think that the Adventist brothers had, when they heard my story, a mixture of prejudice and respect,” she reflects. Although she has some reservations about life in politics, Gersina sees no contradictions between her past claims and her current life as an Adventist.

“People must claim their rights up to the point that it doesn't hurt their principles. Because we can't sell our ideals. And like it or not, being an Adventist is an ideal. But we live our lives as if we were playing being Christians,” warns the former militant.

Gersina explained to Zelota that an Adventist Christian’s involvement in politics should recognize its limits, but never assume impossibility or unfeasibility of this relationship. For her, good politics is composed of morals and ideals, unlike bad politics which is usually entangled in prejudices, personal interests and greed. To do good politics, for the former militant, is also to be polemic; and this attitude reflects the ministry of Jesus himself who, for Gersina, “was a very polemic person.”

“So, you have to go with politics to the point where it won't hurt your religion. Jesus was political! When He told Judas that he had to leave those coins there, He was doing politics! He did politics when he went to preach. When you are born, you are already positioning yourself, when they hit you, you cry! It's the first time you do politics in your life,” she reflects.

Among these Adventists, there was (and there is) no contradiction between their belief and the struggle for land rights. On the contrary, faith is manifested through the struggle for justice in a country that, according to the IBGE's Agricultural Census, published in October 2019, the number of unproductive lands grew from 45% to 47.6%, compared to the last edition, the equivalent of 47.5 thousand properties with extensive latifundia in 2006 to 51.2 thousand in 2017. Although they are Adventists, and long for a "new heaven and a new earth," they also fight for a land promised by the Brazilian constitution. A place to live off family farming while waiting and preaching about Christ's second advent.

 

 How Far to Cannan?

Agrarian reform, in the actions of its militant fronts (MST, MTST, CPT, etc.), wants the land to fulfill its social function and to be divided up fairly, in the terms already established by the Constitution. It intends to encourage family farming, inserting more and more workers in the field and multiplying landowners. It is already a central character in the production of healthy food, free of pesticides and available in fairs at a price accessible to the population.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2019, family farming produces 80% of the world's food. According to the organization, encouraging this initiative helps fight hunger and obesity by facilitating access to healthy food in large quantities; all in a sustainable way. In Brazil, the Agricultural Census Data (2017-2018) indicates that family farming is mainly responsible for the food that goes to the Brazilian dinner table; even though it has decreased in recent years, it still represents the largest contingent of agricultural establishments in the country (77%).

In 2017, BBC reported that MST alone was considered the largest producer of organic (pesticide-free) rice in Latin America. At the time, there were more than 27,000 tons, produced in 22 different settlements, implying the participation of 616 families. From the production, 30% of the product is exported to the USA, Germany, Spain, New Zealand, Norway, Chile and Mexico.

In a conversation with Zelota, the journalist Heron Santana, Director of Communication and Religious Liberty of the East Brazil Union Mission (ULB), recognizes the potential of family farming and its benefits for the economy. Between 2000-2002, he worked with the press office of INCRA (National Institute of Settlements and Agrarian Reform), in Pernambuco. During this period, he had contact with several farmers and MST settlers, and said he got to know both the movement and its demands better, as well as being impressed by experiences in the field of “family farming, the solidarity economy, and cooperative work.”

“Working with the farmers allowed me to perceive the often-stereotyped vision of public opinion about the settlements, since the economic activity of these communities, and even the capacity of production on a larger scale, through community farming systems, were rare,” explains the Adventist pastor.

Heron's experience with family farming, alongside the MST settlements, was useful, years later, to advise Landerson Santana, current ADRA director for the state of Paraná, in the project “Polyculture program for the Development of Semi-Arid Regions. ” The project, maintained by ADRA in Uauá, BA, helped an average of three thousand people, and focused on polyculture — an agricultural technique that combines the cultivation of several types of vegetables and the preservation of the caatinga (a type of subtropical vegetation, and an ecoregion characterized by this vegetation in interior northeastern Brazil).

The work with polyculture, applied to the Adventist setting, puts into practice the ideals nurtured by any agrarian reform militant: the validation of small farmers and small farms; the production of healthy food in large quantities for the population, at affordable prices; and the care given to the health and maintenance of the soil.

“[Polyculture] is a means of allowing both man and land to grow and develop, for the good of the brave peasant of the caatinga and for the preservation of one of Brazil's most stunning sceneries,” Landerson Santana said to Revista Adventista, in October 2009, about the project developed.

In an article published by the official Adventist news website, Heron Santana, in 2017, recalls his experience in Bahia and calls on the church to conduct more initiatives of this kind: “ADRA developed a polyculture project in the backlands of Bahia, teaching new ways of planting and caring for the land, allowing the development of various crops, even in the dry season. What if ADRA were to develop a project of this kind again, with the support of the Church?” suggests the pastor.

In fact, the church already develops projects of this kind, but its initiatives are unknown or targeted by prejudice of Adventists who don't understand the demands of the landless. Or worse, because of “neutral” opinions, their political activism in favor of family farming has been disregarded by the Adventist media for decades. Today it is even more defamed because of the reactionary positioning of leaders and influencers of the institution.

If stripped of its political prejudices, the Seventh-day Adventist Church could contribute to the well-being of its members, small farmers, who dream of a piece of cultivable land. The Church, also, by valuing the struggle of its landless militants, could give them and thousands of other outcasts a glimpse of the peace, prosperity, and abundance that it preaches for a future of hope.

Sister Delizete, from Juiz de Fora, has already understood this. Her questioning can be echoed to the higher levels of leadership in the Adventist Church, so that God's promises can be experienced as soon as possible.

“While I talk to you, I look at my avocado tree… I keep appreciating God's blessings through the plants. God allowed the people of Israel to leave Egypt and go to the land He said He would give them. He had already given it to Abraham and to Isaac, but even so God allowed them to kill a lot of people to stay in the land. But here we are not killing anyone. Why can't we plant on land that is abandoned?”

 

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.

Images from the Horto Aimorés Settlement, Bauru, Sao Paulo courtesy of Zelota. Photographer Anderson Pinaty.

 

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