How to Pastor 24 Churches--Nap on Boats
Minister on the go in rural North Brazil; move the church, sand dunes-a-comin'
BY ANSEL OLIVER, assistant director for news, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, reporting from Belém, Brazil
astor Raimundo Viana napped next to a roaring outboard motor in a boat speeding up a river, his head cradled by his orange lifejacket. Though it was a Sunday, normally the day after a typical Seventh-day Adventist minister's “workday,” he had just baptized five people and a driver was hauling him to another one of his congregations. He sees them once every two months.
"I'm always busy," he said later after waking up, admitting he doesn't see his wife and five children as much as he'd like. Viana usually isn't able to take Mondays off, as recommended by his supervisors. He oversees 24 churches totaling 1,160 members in his Lençois Maranhense district in the Northern state of Maranhão.
LIFE ON THE WATER: Maria Rocha Pereira, right, and her granddaughter take a Sunday afternoon paddle near their church and home in Barreirinhas. She and her Seventh-day Adventist family work as fishermen along the Rio Preguiça (lazy river). [photos by Ansel Oliver/ANN]
For Viana and other pastors like him in Brazil, constant travel on wheels, by boat or on foot is the only way to minister to a scattered flock. It's common in rural regions for ministers to oversee a dozen or more churches, some as many as 40. The pattern is seen throughout Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
In Northern Brazil, where some 45,000 people joined the church last year, leaders say they are doing what they can to accommodate the rapid growth.
Next year, a new Adventist college in Belém, near the mouth of the Amazon River, will open its doors for instruction, offering theology courses to help meet the demand for pastors in the region.
Also, the church's North Brazil Union Mission will subdivide, with a second union administration headquartered in the Northwestern city of Manaus, several hundred miles up the Amazon.
"We see a lot of opportunities there and we want to be better able to support our members," the church's South American Division President Erton Kohler told ANN in October regarding the addition of another union mission.
Pastor Viana, 51, a former professional soccer player, sports short hair and wears sunglasses, black pants and a white shirt with the Ministerio da Familia (Family Ministries) logo. His congregations range from 11 members to more than 100.
After a 45-minute ride up the Rio Preguiça (lazy river) his driver pulled the boat alongside a sand bar a few hundred yards from a 15-by-15 foot wooden building painted light green. It's the sanctuary for a family of fishermen who live in the Alazão neighborhood on the shores of the river in front of a sand dune.
Last year, Viana was the guest of honor for the inauguration ceremony for the building's new location. Every few years the sanctuary is scooted several hundred feet to avoid being covered by creeping sand, shifting with the wind.
Teenagers here help their families fish in the morning and attend school in the afternoon, about a half an hour's walk.
Viana led out in a song and then offered a devotional, loud enough to outdo the wind blowing through gaps in the plank walls. After visiting with church members and receiving a gift of a fresh coconut, he was back in the boat, speeding toward home. He had stayed about an hour.
The North Brazil Union currently has 320 pastors for the 444,000 membership, or about one pastor for every 1,390 church members.
PASTORAL VISIT: Pastor Raimundo Viana leads a short devotion during one of his visits to the Alazão Adventist Church every other month. He had to speak loudly to be heard over the wind sweeping off the sand dunes and whistling through gaps in the plank walls.
Other church Divisions have examined the toll such a workload has on a minister, as well as the church. There are few conclusions, however. One church official last year said such growth could outstrip the church's ability to produce enough ministers.
In July 2010, the Adventist College of the Amazon in the Northern coastal city of Belém will accept its first batch of theology students.
One recent morning a video producer captured the sights and sounds of construction on the grounds. The college was designated to receive funding from an Adventist world church offering and will be featured in a future edition of the Adventist Mission DVD.
Workers painted walls and finished fixtures of a dorm being built to harness the natural light for rooms and hallways in an effort to save energy costs. Each room will have Internet ports, a refrigerator, TV, and microwave.
After its opening, the college will introduce a new major of study every other year, such as education and information technology, to help support the region's church hospitals, schools, and other institutions.
--Jefferson Kern contributed to this story