The Story of the Brazilian Church in Greater Boston
by Kaye V. Cook, Ph.D. and Sharon Ketcham, Ph.D.
an updated analysis based on work done previously by Pr. Cairo Marques and Pr. Josimar Salum in New England’s Book of Acts, Emmanuel Gospel Center, 2007
Brazilians in New England
About 30% of all Brazilians living in the U.S. reside in New England (approximately 68,197 Brazilians according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority, 2012), and Portuguese is the third most spoken language after English and Spanish in New England (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). Brazilian churches in the Boston area are strikingly dynamic, and there is significant turnover in pastors as well as attendees, often because individuals go back and forth to Brazil.
What are the strengths and opportunities of the predominant Brazilian-speaking churches in Greater Boston today? Before we answer that question, we need to consider the roots of Boston’s Brazilian church community.
History and Contemporary Context
The history of Brazilian churches in Boston is very much shaped by the context of Brazil. Historically, the dominant religion in Brazil is Catholicism, which was the religion of the Portuguese settlers (Juergensmeyer & Roof, 2012). However, fewer people in Brazil today report being Catholic than in previous generations. Whereas more than 90% of Brazilians reported being Catholic as recently as 1970, 65% reported being Catholic in the 2010 census (PEW, 2013).*
The largest Pentecostal church group in Brazil is the Assemblies of God (Assembleias de Deus) with more than 23 million members (Johnson & Zurlo, 2016). Spiritualist religions, which emphasize reincarnation and communication with the spirits of the dead, are also common. More recently, Protestantism―especially Pentecostalism―has had a major impact with 22% reporting being Protestant as of 2010 (Pew, 2013). The earlier Protestant influence was a result of missionary work and church planting, but most of the major Protestant denominations now have an indigenous presence in the country (Freston, 1999) and today’s Brazilian Protestant church is strikingly indigenous.
Pentecostals in Brazil resist typology because of their rapid growth and diversity. The historical Pentecostals (primarily those growing out of missionary endeavors such as those by the Foursquare Church) emphasize the Holy Spirit, the Spirit’s manifestations in gifts, separation from the world, and a high behavioral code. NeoPentecostals such as participants in the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a denomination which was established in 1977, continue to emphasize the Holy Spirit, especially healing and exorcism, and make connections between Christianity, success, and happiness. NeoPentecostals may also move away from a separatist worldview and strict behavioral standards and toward increased cultural integration, and some emphasize prosperity rather than a central focus on Christ and the Bible (Juergensmeyer & Roof, 2012). The movement toward greater cultural integration has opened doors for political activity (Freston, 1999). There is debate however about whether NeoPentecostalism can be reliably distinguished from Pentecostalism (Gedeon Alencar, personal communication, 3 October 2015). Some also suggest that PostPentecostalism is the preferred term for those who operate in a way that is similar to a business, emphasize cultural integration, and bypass the traditional elements of Pentecostalism such as the “central focus on Christ and the Bible,” focusing instead on a prosperity gospel (Juergensmeyer & Roof, 2012, p. 159).
Pentecostals (including NeoPentecostals) comprise 85% of the Protestants in Brazil (Juergensmeyer & Roof, 2012). Five years following the 1906-1909 Azusa Street revivals, the rapid expansion of Pentecostalism reached Brazil through Swedish Baptist missionaries (Chesnut, 1997). Due to urbanization and the growth of the mass media (Freston, 1999), there was simultaneous growth among Pentecostals in the North (Belem) and Southeast (São Paulo) regions. Much of the recent growth in Brazil is accounted for by six denominations, three of which are of Brazilian origin: Brazil for Christ, God Is Love, and the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (Freston, 1999).** The most rapid recent growth in Brazil among Pentecostals is due to growth in the Foursquare (or Quadrangular) Church, Brazil for Christ, and God Is Love (Juergensmeyer & Roof, 2012).
According to the IBGE Census, in 2010 there were almost 4 million Baptists in Brazil represented by the Brazilian Baptist Convention (affiliated with the U.S. Southern Baptist Convention) and the National Baptist Convention (Renewalist Baptists). In addition, Reformed churches were common such as the Presbyterian Church of Brazil, the Independent Presbyterian Church, and the Renewed Presbyterian Church. Adventists, Lutherans, and Wesleyans were also represented.
According to Marques and Salum (2007), Pastor Joel Ferreira was the first Brazilian Minister to start a Portuguese-speaking church in New England. No interviewee knew of an earlier presence. Pastor Ferreira was a member of the National Baptist Church in Brazil and planted a Renewed Baptist Church in Fall River in the early 1980s that grew to about 500 members (Marques & Salum, 2007), also called the LusoAmerican Pentecostal Church. Pastor Joel returned to Brazil in 1991 and later returned to the U.S. where he recently died. Today there are several (perhaps 6-9) churches in Massachusetts that were born from this pioneer church.
Several renewal Baptist church groups exist in New England, including the Shalom Baptist International Community in Somerville led by Pr. Jay Moura and the Igreja Communidade Deus Vivo led by Pr. Aloisio Silva.
American Baptist Churches began a new church-planting movement in Boston in 1991 and planted primarily renewal churches (Marques & Salum, 2007). This movement gained force from 2001 to 2004 when about 20 new Brazilian Portuguese churches were planted in Massachusetts and Rhode Island under the New Church Planting Coordination led by Rev. Lilliana DaValle and Pr. Josimar Salum. This forward movement stalled due to issues of church doctrine. Another group of churches that were established with Baptist connections are the Vida Nova churches including Igreja Batista Vida Nova in Medford (Pr. Jose Faria Costa Jr) and Igreja Batista Vida Nova (Pr. Alexandre Silva).
The Southern Baptists also planted many churches since 1995. There are about 30 of these churches in New England, including the Portuguese Baptist Church in Inman Square, Cambridge (Pr. Silvio Santos), the Celebration Church in Saugus (which was in Malden and Charleston under the direction of church planter Pr. Joe Souza), and the First Brazilian Baptist Church of Greater Boston (also known as the Lovely Church) with Pr. Antonio Marques Ferreira.
Assemblies of God
The first Assembly of God churches in Boston were established by Ouriel de Jesus. He was invited by Pr. Alvacir Marcondes to Somerville in 1985, and under his supervision the Assemblies of God denomination in the U.S. experienced tremendous growth. After September of 2001, Pastor de Jesus said he received a message from God to lead a great revival and began holding revival meetings all over the country and world. Currently, he is the pastor of the World Revival Church in Everett, which now has over 70 congregations throughout the U.S. and in 17 other countries with a membership exceeding 15,000.
Despite Pr. Ouriel’s success at leading revivals and church growth movements, his ministry has been accompanied by a great deal of controversy. As a result, in 2002, the church was expelled from the Assemblies of God denomination in both the U.S. and Brazil. The mother church and those he planted are no longer allowed to call themselves Assemblies of God and instead have taken the name The World Revival Church, later adding “Boston Ministries” (Pinto-Maura & Johnson, 2008). These churches continue to exist under Ouriel’s leadership.
There are 36 Brazilian Assemblies of God churches in Massachusetts, including Igreja Vida Assemblies of God (Pr. Salmon Silva) and Mission Assembly of God (Pr. Joel Assis).
Several Presbyterian churches are in the Boston area. Christ the King church in Cambridge was established in the early 1980s by Pr. Osni Ferreira, who had a multicultural vision. Several additional Brazilian Presbyterian churches have been planted by this church, including New Life Presbyterian (Framingham), Bethel (Marlboro), and Christ the King (East Boston).
Church of Christ
In 1984, the Church of Christ established the Hisportic Christian Mission (HCM) in East Providence, Rhode Island, led by Rev. Wayne Long with the vision to reach Portuguese-speaking people in New England (Hisportic stands for Portuguese as Hispanic stands for Spanish). In 1990/1991 Rev. Aristones Freitas and Josimar Salum planted the first Brazilian Church in Worcester, Mass. Today there are about 46 churches that have been established through the HCM, of which 26 are in Mass., an additional 10 are in other New England states, and three are in Brazil.
Independent churches. The Foursquare Gospel Church arrived in 1991 and now has several churches throughout New England. These include the Communidade Brazileiro of Framingham, PenteBaptist (Pr. Dimitri Grant) and Malden Portuguese Foursquare Church (Pr. Cairo Marques).
Strengths and Opportunities for the Brazilian Churches in Boston and New England
The strengths of the Brazilian churches are many. Some churches have numerous young people, many pastors are committed to preaching the Gospel, and large numbers of lay people who fill these churches take seriously their responsibility to know the Bible and to serve Christ. Brazilians as a group are well-accepted in the community. We heard stories which indicate that this is not always true for individuals, particularly with regard to immigration, but we also saw newspaper articles extolling the benefits that Brazilian churches have brought to the community! Brazilian churches can and often do reach out to contribute to their larger communities.
Nevertheless, there are many challenges, including the language barrier, how immigrants can participate in the larger culture and retain their Brazilian culture, immigration issues, and high levels of turnover among church attendees, in part because of immigration. In a series of interviews conducted in 2015, virtually everyone mentioned the challenge of finding affordable meeting space. Many churches do not have their own buildings, and, if they do, they struggle to maintain them. Renting space is increasingly expensive, and there are often problems parking near urban churches. Difficulties surrounding meeting together, an essential aspect of being a church, results in significant stress in the community.
These churches have other struggles as well. Converting new people to Christ is often hard. There is a need to raise up new pastors, because many pastors have been in the U.S. for several decades. It can be difficult to recruit young people to such a challenging ministry and one focused specifically on the Brazilian community.
Some challenges come from outside the churches and others from within. Networking among Brazilian pastors is challenging even though there are some groups that meet regularly, including BMNET (Brazilian Ministers Network), Brazilian Prayer Network of Boston, and Pastors Fraternal Union in Fall River. When asked during an interview to name the single thing that would be most helpful to them, pastors frequently said that they would like better contact with other Brazilian pastors. Nevertheless, multiple factors can limit opportunities for networking:
- Journeyman pastors work a full-time job in addition to pastoring and lack time for networking.
- Instability in church membership as members return to Brazil contributes to pastor overload and burnout.
- Pastors may compete among themselves for church members.
- The needs of first, second, and third generation immigrants are difficult to navigate. For example, churches struggle with whether to have services in English or maintain evening services as in Brazil versus the American way of holding morning services.
The opportunities for growth and change are many. Among them are these:
The Brazilian population in Massachusetts is estimated by the 2005 census to be approximately 84,000 individuals, many of whom are not in church. There is great potential for church growth within (and outside) the Brazilian population.
Brazilian churches can get more involved with the local and global realities, e.g., by supporting other church efforts such as limiting human trafficking.
They can perhaps better educate their members about the problems with the prosperity gospel, and the financial abuses that are too often perpetrated against church members (including the Ponzi scheme called Telex Free in which some pastors participated).
They need to strategize for the future, as more and more of their members speak English and either ask for changes in Brazilian churches, or leave for English-speaking churches.
The Brazilian churches have much to teach the larger community. Church planting appears to be a primary focus for Brazilian Christians and virtually every church visited had either already engaged in church planting or hoped to at some point. Many churches also feel called to send out missionaries. Even though we were unable to get an estimate of the number of missionaries commissioned, anecdotal evidence suggests that there are surprisingly many missionaries from these churches. And finally, at least one of these churches feels called to minister not just in their local community but around the world. In a church community that was itself not financially flush, the church has supported orphanages in Brazil and dug a much needed well in a needy community without a church, while also supporting ministries in Africa. This level of commitment is remarkable and challenging to mainstream American churches.
In conclusion, the size, energy, number of young people, and commitment to church growth in Brazilian churches should inspire the Global Church. The needs are great, and the opportunities are many for serving those engaged in these impressive churches and for ministering together in the larger community.
*Johnson and Zurlo (2016) report approximately 76% Catholics and 28% Protestant. These numbers refer to the percentage of all Brazilians and demonstrate that some Brazilians claim dual affiliation or membership in more than one community of believers. By their estimate, the number of dually affiliated believers is 13% of Brazilians, many of whom claim to be both Protestant and Catholic. Their estimate is based on an effort to provide a more precise estimate than the 2010 census, in part by collecting information from additional sources than the census and in part by allowing individuals to report belonging to more than one religion.
**The remaining three churches are the Assemblies of God, the Four-Square Church, and the Christian Congregation (Freston, 1999).
Boston Redevelopment Authority. (2012). New Bostonians 2012. BRA Research Division Analysis.
Chesnut, R. A. (1997). Born Again in Brazil: The Pentecostal Boom in Brazil: The Pentecostal Book and the Pathogens of Poverty. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Freston, Pl. (Jan-Mar, 1999). “Neo-Pentecostalism in Brazil: Problems of Definition and the Struggle for Hegemony.” Archives de sciences sociales des religions. 44E, No 105, p. 145-162.
IBGE (Institute Brazileiro de Geografia e Estatistica) (2010). Census. http://censo2010.ibge.gov.br/en/ censo-2010 Accessed 6.27.2015.
Johnson, T. M., & Zurlo, G. A. (Eds.) (2016) World Christian Database. Leiden/Boston: Brill. Accessed at worldchristiandatabase.org/wcd on 1 January 2016.
Juergensmeyer, M., & Roof, W. C. (Eds.) (2012). Encyclopedia of Global Religion. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Marques, C., & Salum, J. (2007). The Church among Brazilians in New England. In R. Mitchell & B. Corcoran (Eds.), New England’s Book of Acts. Boston: Emmanuel Gospel Center.
Pew Research Center (2013). Brazil’s Changing Religious Landscape. http://www.pewforum.org/2013/07/18/brazils-changing-religious-landscape/ Accessed 6.28.2015.
Pinto-Maura, R., & Johnson, R. (2008). Abused God. Maitland FL: Xulon Press.
U.S. Census (2009). ActivitiesUpdate_June09. Accessed on 8.2.2015 from http:// www.henrietta.org/index.php/doccenter/2010-us-census-documents/6-june-2009-census-2010-activities-update/file
This essay updates the story of the Brazilian Church in Greater Boston as told in New England’s Book of Acts (2007), originally published by the Emmanuel Gospel Center in preparation for the October 2007 Intercultural Leadership Consultation. The earlier version was written by Cairo Marques and Josimar Salum, and work on the current document began by talking with them as well as 45 other Brazilian pastors and lay people in the Greater Boston community. Their observations are integrated into the comments above. —Kaye Cook and Sharon Ketcham, February 24, 2016.
See the original 2007 article on the origins of the Brazilian church movement in New England in New England’s Book of Acts.