Reformed congregation of Imbiribeira in Recife, Brazil
On this warm Brazilian evening, the streets of Recife are filled with people. As my colleague Ken Wieske and I are driving to the neighbourhood of Imbiribeira I catch glimpses of bar TVs tuned to a soccer game. Who is playing? I don’t know, but I suspect a local team. The plan was for Ken to drop me off in Imbiribeira so that I could preach at the Reformed congregation there at 6:00. He would then head over to the congregation in Prazeres to lead the 7:00 service there. Everything was going according to plan — something you cannot take for granted in Brazil.
It is about 5:45 or so when we reach the home of Pastor Elienai. He lives a short ways away from the local metro station and just down the street from the building where the Imbiribeira congregation worships. The streets are filled with people and the tropical air pulses with loud music. It’s well after sunset.
I get dropped off at Pastor Elienai’s home because Ken isn’t quite sure where the church building is. Pastor Elienai has already left, but one of his sons is there and he guides me down the street to the church. We don’t say a word to each other. I’m too busy observing everything around me and my conversational Portuguese isn’t that great. It’s not even a five minute walk to the t-intersection and the church is right there at the very end of the street. Crowds of people mill around, some of them going to worship, and many others not.
Familiar faces are there to greet me. There’s my good friend Pastor Elienai and his wife and kids. A fellow Canadian, Ryan Vandeburgt, is there, along with his Brazilian wife Rachel, and her mother. Ryan’s brother-in-law Rodrigo is a Brazilian federal police officer whom I’ve gotten to know — he’s there with his wife and kids. Seminary student Madson is there together with his family. There are others too, but for many I struggle to remember their names. Everyone welcomes me warmly. Speaking of warm, the building is definitely that. No air-conditioning here! The fans are going full tilt — which worries me a bit because I’m always tense while preaching with fans around. I have a fear of fans blowing my sermon notes away!
I have preached at this congregation before, back in July of 2012. They were then at a different location. The congregation was noticeably smaller then. Tonight, as I look, it seems to be at least twice as big as last year. Talking to some of the members, they chalk it up to the presence and preaching of Pastor Elienai. He is not the minister of that congregation. He is a missionary of the Greater Recife Reformed church. But since he lives down the street he often attends here and preaches. It’s made a lot of difference.
Before the service begins, one of Pastor Elienai’s sons gives me a hymnal. It’s the provisional hymnal that’s been in use in the Reformed Churches of Brazil since 2002. It has a good number of Psalms (many set to Genevan tunes) as well as some hymns.
One of the elders takes the pulpit to open the service. There’s a call to worship. The elder asks, “Congregation, from where does your help come?” The congregation responds with Psalm 124:8. The elders gives the greeting/blessing with both arms raised and then we sing Psalm 122. He leads in prayer and then turns the pulpit over to me. I give some words of greeting from my church in Canada and then we begin with the Scripture reading. I preach, in Portuguese, on Hebrews 3:1-2. This is now the fourth time that I’ve preached this sermon, so with the practice I’m starting to get a bit more proficient with the pronunciation. The congregation appears engaged during the preaching. I don’t notice any befuddled looks and there’s no laughter at inappropriate moments, so I come away thinking that I didn’t mispronounce anything in a ridiculous way. At one point, the fan near the pulpit almost commandeered my notes, but my reflexes were quick enough to stave it off. After that, I preached with one hand firmly on my notes.
After the sermon is over, the elder steps up to the pulpit again to conclude the service. There’s the singing of Psalm 115. While that’s being sung, the collection is taken. Following that, the elder asks Pastor Elienai to lead in prayer, which he does. The congregation is then asked to rise to say the Apostles’ Creed together. We sing a concluding hymn and then the elder gives the parting blessing, the Aaronic benediction of Numbers 6:24-26. The congregation responds with a sung three-fold “Amen.”
Post-service socializing is not a uniquely Canadian phenomenon. The people in this congregation seem to love to socialize after church. Like my church back home in Hamilton, these people are still chatting with each other long after the service is over. There are refreshments to be had, including one of my favourites, the Brazilian soft drink Guaraná. It’s super cold and carbonated and I feel really refreshed after just a little cup. After talking with Ryan and Rachel for a few minutes, I head outside. Rodrigo is out there and he’s on his way home. He wants to give me a hug and he asks if it’s okay. I don’t object — in fact, I actually kind of like that thing about Brazil. Guys here give each other serious man-hugs. He asks me to give hugs to everybody back home in Canada.
Just down the street, a couple of metro trains rattle past. However, you can scarcely hear them over the noise of people and loud music. I walk with Pastor Elienai and his family the short distance down the street to his house. I’ll have to wait there until about 9:00 for Ken to come and pick me up. We walk past these street vendors. When I first arrived, there was a small flame coming out of a stove over there. The flame is gone now (supper’s over?), but different types of things are heating up. There’s some type of Brazilian pop music playing and a couple starts dancing together. The music is really loud, but then from a couple houses over, even louder music begins to drown out the rhythms grabbing the dancers.
We go up the stairs and into Pastor Elienai’s house. First things first. He has to show me his study and his collection of books. I’m impressed not so much with the number, but the quality. He has a lot of excellent books. He draws my attention to one book in particular: a Pentecostal systematic theology. This one is decidely not excellent. He points out how the book has six chapters dealing with various topics relating to the Holy Spirit. There are a couple of chapters about Christ. But when it comes to justification, there are only three pages!
We sit down and begin chatting. His wife brings out lots of good stuff for us to eat and drink. Brazilians excel at hospitality. Conversational Portuguese is not my strong suit, so our long conversation is a struggle. But I try to listen and catch as much as I can.
Pastor Elienai was at one time a Pentecostal minister. So I ask him about speaking in tongues and whether he ever did that. He did. I ask him what he thinks about it now as a Reformed minister looking back. He says that it was a psychological and social phenomenon. People work themselves into a frenzy and then they begin talking babble. There’s social pressure in Pentecostal churches to do it as well, and to fit in, you need to do it. So, according to Pastor Elienai, it is a real phenomenon in a sense, but it’s not from the Holy Spirit. There’s nothing miraculous about it.
Madson (the seminarian) and his wife are there too and join in the conversation. Eventually Ken shows up and all of us enjoy the fellowship. I’ve struggled with some of the words while preaching this sermon previously. There was one expression at the end of the sermon: tragedia horrível (horrible tragedy). The previous two times I butchered it and I’ve been bearing the brunt of jokes about it ever since. But tonight I said it more slowly and nailed it and I’m thankful that Madson and Elienai make a point of telling Ken. Success!
Heavy rain begins pounding the neighbourhood right before we leave. Big gobs of warm tropical rain. As we leave, the streets are quieter. There are still a few people out and about with umbrellas, but the music is gone. Ken and I get in the front of the little Fiat, while Madson and his family sit in the back. We say farewell to Imbiribeira and head back to Aldeia, some 45 minutes away, on the outskirts of Recife.