“Deus é a Onda”

Protestant Evangelism and Portuguese-Speaking Migrants

by | Apr 8, 2007

Nearly three-quarters of Brazilians identify as Roman Catholic, and many perceive their country to be world’s most Catholic—witness the 2003 film Deus é Brasileiro (“God Is Brazilian”), a comedy that affirms this status and pokes fun at the absence of Brazilian saints. So it may come as a surprise some of the most vibrant religious activity among Brazilian immigrants overseas has come in the form of evangelical and Pentecostal Protestant denominations that resemble—and often mimic—exuberant American styles of worship while delivering Portuguese-language services tailored to a Brazilian audience. These congregations have also succeeded in attracting participation from outside the Brazilian immigrant community to include nationals of other Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) countries such as Portugal, Cape Verde, and Angola. The resulting blend, set within a framework of fervent, charismatic religious experience and against the background of immigration and acculturation, is an extraordinary manifestation of the sort of cultural hybridization that continues to occur in the seething crucibles of large metropolitan areas.

I recently observed services at Brazilian Protestant congregations in London, England, and Cambridge, Massachusetts as fieldwork for sociological research. Brazilian immigration to both metropolitan areas has grown dramatically in recent years. During the period 1990-2000, the Brazilian population in Boston area grew 332% to over 22,000, while a recent British government report puts the number of Brazilian immigrants in London at 25,000, an increase of 500% since 1997.

At these congregations, cultural and religious tension with secular society manifests itself in creative ways. One British congregation’s tool for spreading the Good News was an unconventional youth choir that sang Christian pop songs in English and Portuguese. Before they performed live for the congregation, a music video was shown of the group performing in St. James’s Park (near Buckingham Palace), where singers from Africa, Europe, and South America attempted to appeal to staid passersby with brightly colored T-shirts and bilingual slogans such as “Jesus is the way/Deus é a onda”. The pastor commented on the appeal to youth culture in a tone that sounded more like justification than endorsement, although he did praise the young people for taking an active role in evangelism. A church in Cambridge played a role in easing Brazilian and Portuguese immigrants’ transition to their new country: sermons included didactic lectures on U.S. culture, and the church organized dinners for traditional American holidays such as Thanksgiving. These congregations engaged in a balancing act, easing assimilation into the dominant culture and while hoping to preserve some of the unique cultural elements that allow their multinational membership to worship together in a unified manner.

During a Christmas Eve service in London, the pastor referenced a survey from a major British paper that indicated that significant majorities of Britons did not believe in God, attend church, or consider their country a “Christian nation”. The pastor considered this a tragedy in a “supposedly evangelical nation”, as he curiously described Great Britain, which in his view should logically have been much farther along than his native (regrettably Papist) Brazil. Consequently, he urged the congregants to go out and spread the word of God so as to turn back this tide and preserve the religion that they had brought with them to London.



Curious as it is that immigrants from predominantly Catholic countries should be the ones to revitalize Protestantism in Britain, it is worth dwelling on the question of how believers of varying nationality, economic background, and even immigration status came together to form such solidary congregations with a marked Lusophone identity. The idea of a “Lusophone community” has been the object of some academic criticism: illustrated by the following example. At a conference on Brazilian immigration to the US held at Harvard University in early 2005, one presenter discussed a Portuguese class at Harvard which brought students together with civic organizations in Boston’s “Lusophone community” as a language-learning tool. A savvy questioner praised the design as a useful vehicle for language instruction, but challenged the course’s premise: he asserted that this community is an artificial construct, one which scholars have imposed on several distinct communities that do not have much interaction, in spite of their common outward features. There was general agreement from the other participants. Since then, my own experiences with Boston’s numerous Portuguese speakers led me to believe that the questioner was entirely correct.

Thus I was surprised to find at my field sites not only a healthy mix of participants from varying sections of this allegedly mythical community, but an explicit recognition and celebration of their common heritage. While the services were Brazilian-dominated in terms of speakers, singers, and much of the cultural material such as music and literature, strong efforts were made to reach out to non-Brazilian members. At one point during a Christmas service in London, the pastor embarked on a relatively long discussion of the members’ commonalities. He emphasized that they spoke the same language, despite differences in accent and vocabulary, and had many similar traditions due to the shared history of Portuguese colonization. Memorably, he asked the audience to name the type of cake that they ate at Christmas. He feigned deafness so as to elicit responses from various sections of the audience; when all corners predictably responded with rabanada, a dish similar to French toast, he was pleased to have made his point, saying that Brazilians, Portuguese, and Angolans had all produced the same response.

I found the blend of Lusophone identities in evangelical congregations both diverse and deeply rooted. How to explain this otherwise invisible link among members of the “Lusophone community”, whose existence could be casually dismissed by a roomful of Brazilian immigration experts at Harvard? One answer may lie in the high level of international cooperation at the national level in the sending countries: multilateral organizations such as the Community of Portuguese-language Countries, as well as private initiatives and foundations such as the Lisbon-based Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, encourage cultural and diplomatic ties among countries of the “Lusofonia”, much like the British Commonwealth and the Francophonie. Portuguese-speaking countries also have preferential immigration treaties and other special arrangements with one another. Perhaps most importantly, most of Portugal’s overseas colonies did not gain independence until 1975, meaning that certain institutional links remain especially strong (Brazil has been independent since 1822).

These strong international ties might have facilitated the proliferation of transnational churches, often originating in Brazil despite many Protestant churches’ American roots. The Assembléias de Deus Brasil, an organization which was itself founded by American missionaries from the Midwest in 1911, boasts that it began overseas missionary operations in Portugal just two years after its founding, and these efforts continue to the present day. A chain of international proselytism has resulted in the growth of churches like Assembléias de Deus and Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus in developed countries, a network that has frequently passed from the United States to Brazil, onto Portugal and Lusophone Africa, and back again to wealthy countries such as the United Kingdom.

The religious activity of immigrants from Brazil is a dynamic phenomenon that runs contrary to the trends taking shape among immigrant communities from other majority-Catholic countries such as Poland, which have swelled the ranks (and coffers) of aging, decadent congregations in their new countries. The heavy Protestant and evangelical character of much of the immigration, as well as the inclusive outreach to multiple populations believed to share common characteristics, is an intriguing development that demonstrates the growing ability of social movements to transcend international boundaries, allowing previously distant groups to reclaim a part of their shared history.

Spring 2007Volume VI, Number 3

Adam N. Khedouri is a senior in Sociology at Harvard College.

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