Feature

Sowing Seeds of the Gospel in Portugal

Relationships are fertile fields of growth

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Rugged is a word that describes the land and people of northern Portugal: rocky hills and weathered faces. Having held its own during several historic battles, Porto proudly claims the title of “the invincible city.” But coupled with the toughness is a tenderness, like the delicate tendrils on their heirloom grapevines. There is a sensitivity and sadness that can be exposed unexpectedly; when they listen to traditional Portuguese music called “fado,” they begin to cry.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal was a dominant power, initiating exploration and new trade routes around the globe. Ships loaded with gold from the New World financed Portuguese expansion across Brazil, southern Africa and Southeast Asia. But the wealth ran out. Today Portugal is one of the poorest Western European nations. Many young people are leaving the country to make their future elsewhere.

While some citizens exited, in 2011 our Alliance pioneering workers arrived. As part of Project Portugal, an initiative of the C&MA national church of Brazil, my husband, Mike, and I have come to plant churches and extend hope to a people and generation who feel they have no future and no hope. With no Alliance workers previously assigned to Portugal, we did not have a program to follow. So as people and opportunities come our way, we embrace them. Even with structured plans, the outcome is unpredictable and often a total surprise.

Last fall teammate Charlotte Hisle moved to a city that has no evangelical church. During a prayer retreat soon after, someone prayed that instead of her having to seek out people, they would come to her. Not long after her return, there were knocks on her door, a gift of home-grown produce on her doorstep and gardening tips offered, as well as volunteer labor and invitations to walk. A “Mrs. Google” appeared who gave Charlotte information on everything from who is a good mechanic to where to buy dining room chairs. The kindness seemed endless. In response, the women have received from Charlotte a listening ear, prayer, solace in grief, care for elderly parents, apologetics to a philosopher professor and a weekly Bible study. Charlotte has also hosted several teas and recently held a sardine bake attended by more than 50 people, mostly neighbors. All of this has happened in less than a year.

Another unexpected opportunity came when Mike was offered the coaching position for an American-style football team of 40 Portuguese young men. What a great connection—and in the same town where Charlotte lives. The team was looking for an older American who had grown up with football and who could be respected. “Football is a good venue to teach life principles such as commitment, discipline, teamwork and respect for others,” Mike explains. “Above all I want to be an example of someone who is a Jesus follower as I look for opportunities to share my faith.”

We are trying to build community with the team in various ways. Besides the practices and Mike’s meetings with the defensive and offensive coordinators, we are trying to help supply American equipment, which is not available for purchase in Portugal. When we returned to the United States in July because my mother was gravely ill, Tim McGarvey, pastor of Altoona (Pa.) C&MA Church (our home congregation), asked area high schools for donations of used equipment. In August, we flew back to Portugal laden with two extra bags stuffed full of football gear. In September, we hosted an American hamburger barbecue in Charlotte’s backyard to kick off the season.

Other means for making contacts have been in shops and cafés. Our Brazilian colleagues, Danilo and Elaine, have found that by eating at the same restaurant, they have developed relationships with waiters and cooks alike. One particular relationship developed into a Bible study that lasted for a couple months.

Some contacts have been made in more established settings. One is through the invitation to teach evangelical moral and religion classes in a public school. During the past year I taught a course on financial principles from a biblical perspective, something helpful during a time of economic crisis. Besides the classroom contact there are opportunities to meet with the administration, other teachers and monitors.

In addition, I have become a certified online counselor for Peace with God, an arm of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. As people surf the Web looking for answers to questions about God, angels or the meaning of life, sometimes they land on this site. I am given the names of people living in the two towns in which our Alliance team wants to make an impact. At least a couple of face-to-face meetings have already occurred, in addition to the ongoing e-mail correspondence.

No matter how we meet them, people are curious about who we are. Some of our new friends are practicing Catholics; others are nominal and maintain their connection to the church because of family ties. Others have a secular mindset, not believing in anything, and still others dabble in witchcraft, which has been around for centuries.

Roman Catholicism is Portugal’s predominant religion, and the churches are numerous and ornate. The focus of devotion is evident in the artwork. Generally, Mary is depicted crowned as the Queen of Heaven in a large painting or statue, front and center. On the other hand, Jesus is shown either as a small baby or on the cross to the left or right—or even in the back of the church as a corpse in a Plexiglas coffin! It is easy to see where the emphasis lies. Things are off center.

Consequently, we’ve been asked more than once: “You don’t believe in Mary or the saints, do you?” It seems to be the delineating factor between traditional Catholics of Portugal and their understanding of evangelical Christians, which make up less than 1 percent of the population. “Yes, we believe that Mary and the saints were people who lived good lives and did extraordinary things,” we usually respond. “But we don’t pray to them or worship them.” Defining who Jesus is and His precedence above any deity, saint, person, accomplishment or possession is the crucial question not just for Portugal but for the world. It is our Lord Jesus Christ who is “full of grace” and whom we “venerate,” and it is He who offers salvation to those who have faith in Him.

While we were in the United States this summer, we were able to speak in a couple of churches. Using Ecclesiastes 11:4–6, Mike reminded us that our job is to sow a lot of seed and reap. In between the sowing and the reaping, God takes care of the miracle of growth. My mother, who loved farming, left us a living illustration. She had planted bean seeds, and the plants were three inches tall when I arrived on the Fourth of July, three days before her death. By the time we left for Portugal, there was a harvest. Mom planted, I (her daughter) watered and her grandson reaped. God did the miracle of growth, which we do not understand.

In Portugal our calling may be to sow seeds of the gospel, but we hope to also have a harvest. Either way, we are dependent on God’s part between the two actions.

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