The Rev Richard Bartlett, Director of Mission Engagement for the Anglican mission agency USPG, reports on his recent visit to the Dioceses of Curitiba and Brasilia in the Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil.
When Naudal Gomes, Dean of Curitiba Cathedral, in Brazil, first suggested to his congregation that they begin a weekly outreach to the homeless, he was met with hostility.
Many complained they didn’t want to rearrange the furniture to create space for serving food, and they said the cathedral’s doors shouldn’t be opened to people who might be unclean and dangerous.
That was in 2002 and, over the years, by faithfully sticking to his beliefs, the dean won his congregation over, so much so that many of them are now the volunteers serving food to the homeless each week.
Since then, Naudal Gomes was first made Bishop of Curitiba and then, earlier this year, he became the new Archbishop of Brazil, while also remaining the dean of the cathedral – so he’s a busy man.
He has a team of just seven clergy in the diocese, so it’s a small operation but very active in its ministry to the most marginalised.
My visit to Curitiba coincided with the weekly outreach to the homeless. Every Thursday the cathedral opens its door to offer homeless people meals, a safe space and respite from their hardships.
From early in the morning, 70 people had started queuing outside the cathedral waiting for the doors to open – anyone who needs a meal is welcome.
This cathedral doesn’t look like any other cathedral I’ve seen. It’s not an historic building but a unit in a row of shops in the city centre with its own shop front – an absolutely ideal location and style for a city centre ministry.
Breakfast and lunch are served and, in between,the cathedral remains open as a safe space. Some visitors just want to sleep – which is much needed because it’s dangerous on the streets so they might usually only half-sleep.
The cathedral puts on other activities for the homeless. On the day I visited there was a time of worship and a therapeutic arts session run by the archbishop’s wife, Carmen. It’s a free gift of time and space for those that society normally doesn’t afford time and space.
Curitiba has many homeless people in a country where huge numbers are living in poverty. Some of those who come to the cathedral are living on the streets. Others are young men who came to the city in search of work, due to unemployment in rural areas, but find themselves living in hostels which they have to vacate during the day.
The cathedral is doing what it can to help the homeless find work. Finding a job requires having the right paperwork, but the homeless often have none. So the cathedral brings in a lawyer to collect whatever details he can on each person, then he goes away and locates their documents, such as birth certificates, free of charge. On the day of my visit the lawyer was handing out documents to some very grateful people.
Voting for bishops
This emphasis on ministry to the most vulnerable and exploited is evident throughout the Brazilian church.
Much of my time in Brazil was spent in Brasilia where I preached at a Eucharist held to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the consecration of Maurício Andrade as the Bishop of Brasilia.
I was invited because I was a USPG missionary in Brasilia in 2003 when the bishop was voted into office. Indeed, I was one of those who voted for him – the first and only time I’ve ever voted for a bishop!
Brazil has an electoral system for electing its bishop. Clergy and lay representatives in a diocese receive presentations from candidates, then a vote is taken, with the result sent to the provincial synod for ratification.
It’s a democratic election by the people, which is clearly a more transparent system than the one we have in the Church of England, where discussions largely go on behind closed doors.But while it’s a more open process in Brazil, it can also leave people exposed: if someone doesn’t receive any votes then this will be public knowledge and, in a small church like Brazil,this can cause discomfort.
During my visit to the Diocese of Brasilia, I attended the diocesan synod, which took as its theme ‘Perfect love drives out all fear’. The aim was to build up confidence and reaffirm the diocese’s vision to be a missionary church that is a diverse and inclusive community with a heart for those on the margins.
The most controversial topic discussed was same-sex marriage in church. The provincial synod in May had agreed that same-sex marriage could be conducted subject to the approval of each diocese. And, at this synod, the Diocese of Brasilia voted sizeably in favour of same-sex marriage, although the decision was not unanimous.
I think their decision reflects the Anglican Church in Brazil’s belief in inclusivity. Of course, this comes at a price because not all of Brazil’s dioceses have voted in favour of same-sex marriage, so now there’s a division of practice between dioceses. However, in many ways this is not new or surprising – in essence it reflects the reality of a diverse global church in which, in a spirit of open debate, we will always have differences of opinion.
Churches in the Diocese of Brasilia are located mostly in some of the poorest areas,which demonstrates their strong commitment to standing up for the rights of the poor in what is quite a divided society in terms of wealth distribution.The church takes very seriously its vocational bias to the poor.
The Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil is a very small church between two big churches: an estimated 70 per cent of Brazil’s population is nominally Roman Catholic and there’s a very large and expanding number of Pentecostal churches – so the Anglican Church covers the middle ground, alongside the Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists, often working ecumenically.
In many cases it has been a deliberate policy of the Anglican Church to work in rural areas where the Roman Catholic Church isn’t operational. In these places, Anglicans fill the gap and meet a need.
More about the work of USPG in Brazil at www.uspg.org.uk/brazil