On September 4, 2023, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva declared September 20 as National Pathfinders Day. This achievement highlights the increasing significance of Pathfinders in Brazil. Beyond this official recognition, there has been been a story of growing participation.
This year, a single camporee within the 285,000 member Central Brazil Union gathered over 26,000 pathfinders from the state of São Paulo, a number higher than the population of 412 cities in the state. The latest South American Division Camporee, held in 2019, had to be split in two successive events in order to support over 100,000 attendees. That’s roughly double the attendance of the last International Camporee in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. With about 378,130 total Pathfinders in the SAD, even this double accommodation left many Brazilians out of the event. Brazil makes up more than 70 percent of the total SAD Pathfinder membership, with approximately 269,682 members. In comparison, there are about fifteen thousand Pathfinders in the North American Division.
But the relevance of Pathfinders in Brazil is not restricted to the sheer number of clubs, events, or active church members. In the past, the conversion and retention of new members in the Brazilian Church was largely due to the involvement of friends and family. However, Adventist Church Management System (ACMS) data provided by the Central Brazil Union since 2012 shows that the influence of public evangelism was surpassed by Novo Tempo (Brazil’s Hope Channel) and Pathfinders. The 10–15 year old age group, which corresponds to the age of enrollment in Pathfinders, receives and retains the highest number of church members in São Paulo.
This was familiar knowledge to many of us at Zelota magazine. In fact, most of my personal church work experience stems from Pathfinders; my mother was a leader and a volunteer staff member at camporees since I was little, and I eventually became a club director for a few years. In my experience, because most of the Adventist churches in Brazil are located in low-middle class or poor neighborhoods and towns, Pathfinders often becomes the major program of community outreach in small churches. The clubs enroll children who otherwise rely on television and increasingly dismantled public schools for education and access to culture. This leads to tension inside the local church. Often, clubs have to support Pathfinders from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. Due to limited funding sources and space competition in local churches, even while lauding youth involvement publicly, church members sometimes express hostility as clubs disrupt congregational routines. But the clubs thrive and flourish nevertheless, and it is not uncommon to see members past the target age group enrolled in the club as staff, as they often fail to see any other equally relevant church ministry within which they can employ their gifts.
All of this shows that a public acknowledgement of Pathfinders’ relevance is far from unwarranted. But what is the significance of the new National Pathfinders Day? According to Mariana Rocha, an editor at Zelota who holds a degree in management of public policies, this official recognition allows the Adventist Church to hold Pathfinder-related events in public spaces, as well as make use of state infrastructure and services. For instance, in 2010, the State Day of the Adventists’ Youth—which was added to the official calendar by vice-president Geraldo Alckmin—was celebrated by a gathering of over 45,000 people at the center of São Paulo. Such an encroachment of the church into the public sphere is part of an ubiquitous clientelist quid pro quo, where politicians favor Adventist events and institutions in order to be promoted by them. Alckmin provides a clear example. Despite having public ties to right-wing Catholic sect Opus Dei, he was present at the opening of the SAD Camporee in 2014 where he was awarded a Pathfinder scarf. He was also the master lecturer for the Central Adventist University of São Paulo (UNASP) in 2013 and 2017.
The possibility of this political development in Pathfinders is especially worrisome due to their clear stance toward the military. Pathfinders have been marching in celebrations of the country’s independence since the military dictatorship during 1964–85. In recent decades, many leaders have struggled to separate the club’s emphasis on drills and marching—vibrant sport-like practices for Brazilian pathfinders—from military hierarchization inside the club ranks. Additionally, the election of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro in 2018 brought the military back into politics—and back into Adventism as well. In 2019, then-vice-president General Hamilton Mourão, who publicly advocated a military coup, was the master lecturer at UNASP. More recently, the 2019 SAD Camporee featured a public etter from Bolsonaro during the event’s opening, answered with applause and “finger gun” gestures by many Pathfinders. To this day, Pathfinders still take part in Brazil’s independence parades.
Pictures of the parade celebrating the 150 years of Brazil's independence, held in 1972 under the rule of Emílio Garrastazu Médici, one of Brazil’s bloodiest military dictators. The slogan held by the children states, “Pathfinders celebrate the 150 anniversary of independence.” The slogan with the Brazilian flag reads, “We love our homeland because we love God.” Source: UNASP São Paulo Memory Center Facebook Page.
The approval of National Pathfinders Day shows a troubling progression of the state co-opting important elements of Adventist church life. Despite the fact that the law’s author (Tadeu Alencar) and the president who sanctioned it (Lula) are from center-left political parties, it was General Hamilton Mourão, now a senator and the rapporteur of the bill in the Senate, who was publicly promoted by SAD Pathfinders director Udoley Zukowski. The history of Brazil and its Adventist leadership shows a tendency to fog theological lines if power can be gained. Given this past, will Adventist church leaders be able to find a path that converts club success into a daily witness that marches beyond the national?
André Kanasiro has a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of São Paulo and an MA in Literature (Hebrew Bible literary criticism) from the University of São Paulo. He is the editor and co-founder of Zelota, an independent Adventist magazine from Brazil.
Title Image from the UNASP São Paulo Memory Center Facebook Page.
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