Preaching to preachers
TUBUNGU, Swaziland — Preachers, church leaders and Christians from across…
LISBON, Portugal — “Church is like a bus,” Diana Neves said. “People come in; people go out. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to say goodbye.”
She was describing the small Church of Christ she serves, the Igreja de Cristo Lisboa, in continental Europe’s westernmost capital.
The goodbyes are happy ones, for the most part. The congregation averages 40 to 60 souls most Sundays, perhaps 100 or more on Easter and Christmas, but it’s a transient fellowship.
Immigrants from Africa find a home here briefly before moving to other parts of the European Union for jobs. U.S. students on summer missions are here for just a few weeks. Missionaries worship here and learn the language before heading to Portuguese-speaking nations like Angola and Mozambique. Plus tourists.
“We have a lot of people coming through our doors,” said Neves, who helps coordinate the church’s youth ministry while raising five children — four of them teenagers — and finishing a psychology degree. Her husband, Ricardo, is a vocational minister for the church.
When a visitor comes to church, “we don’t want that person to leave the church without a contact,” Neves said, “without planning something.”
This, of course, was before COVID-19. As the pandemic swept across Europe, hitting especially hard in neighboring Spain, Portugal locked down. Suddenly, there were no somethings to plan. The church “like a bus” was in a mass transit halt.
That’s beginning to change — more quickly in Portugal than elsewhere. The nation of 10.3 million people reported fewer cases of the disease than other European destinations. It is one of the few countries that planned to reopen to U.S. tourists without requiring a two-week quarantine (though recent outbreaks may change those plans).
And that could be good news for the church, which has served as a short-term home for business executives, international students and hip-hop artists and has a network of alumni around the world.
“They meet on the ground floor of an obscure building on a side street of Portugal’s capital,” said Nathan Holland, a missionary in Portuguese-speaking Angola, “but they have a spiritual footprint that spans continents.”
Before the lockdown, Neves spoke to The Christian Chronicle in Lisbon’s iconic, 183-year-old bakery, Pastéis de Belém.
The blue-and-white-tiled pastry shop was birthed in another government shutdown — after the Liberal Revolution of 1820. Religious orders like the Jesuits were expelled, and the government seized their convents and monasteries. To survive, a former worker at one of the monasteries sold baked goods from a shop in western Lisbon’s Belém district.
Two centuries later, over tiny cups of powerful coffee and a plate of the restaurant’s namesake custard tarts, Neves told how she first encountered the Igreja de Cristo. Her family, like nearly 80 percent of the country, claimed Catholicism as their faith. She, her three brothers and her sister were baptized as infants.
Then Scott Bulmer, a missionary from the Oakcrest Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, moved in near her aunt, Manuela. Soon, her brother João Nunes was studying the Bible with Bulmer and the family began worshiping with the Igreja de Cristo.
Neves studied the Bible with Jennifer Silvestri, daughter of missionaries Paul and Rosanna Silvestri. At age 13, she was baptized — again.
“Since then I was always going to youth group,” she said, “and serving the church in any way I could.”
At age 16 she got a job at McDonald’s and began inviting her coworkers to the church’s Saturday soccer matches. They formed teams — McDonald’s vs. the church.
“Becoming a Christian was way better than being religious.”
Her future husband, Ricardo, was one of her coworkers. He came from a Catholic background but wasn’t an avid churchgoer. But “even when he was a kid, he always believed in God,” Neves said. “He remembers praying to God.”
He started attending the Igreja de Cristo. But he couldn’t commit. Religion, he said, divides people.
Neves told him she couldn’t date someone who wasn’t a Christian. They didn’t speak for a month. It was painful. Finally, seeing her conviction, Ricardo decided to study the Bible.
“I realized that religion is centered on human will,” he said, “and when we accept the love of God, we understand that God desires peace in our hearts. It’s all about Jesus’ life.
“Becoming a Christian was way better than being religious.”
Years and goodbyes followed.
The Silvestris and other missionaries returned home. Preachers and church leaders moved to Brazil and Africa. Diana Neves’ sister, Ana Isabel Carvalho, and husband Paulo moved to Nebraska. They work for York College, which is associated with Churches of Christ. Neves’ brothers, Filipe, Andre and João, moved to Oklahoma and Texas.
Ricardo and Diana Neves gradually took on larger roles in the church and assumed its oversight in 2007. They receive support from the Oakcrest church in Oklahoma. They work alongside Christians including the Carvalhos’ daughter, Ines Vieira, her husband, Caio, and Valfredo and Soili Dias.
They’ve learned from their predecessors to embrace, rather than lament, the church’s transitional nature, Diana Neves said. They do their best to bless the people they encounter while they can.
Among those they’ve blessed are members of a mission team sent by Churches of Christ to Angola, a former Portuguese colony.
“The Lisbon congregation has found an identity in being a place that welcomes those in need of a home,” said Katie Reese, who serves on the Angola Mission Team with her husband, Danny.
They were in need of a home themselves in 2005, when a survey trip to Angola fell apart, and the missionaries decided — at the last minute, on a shoestring budget — to travel to Portugal for a few weeks of language training.
“We arrived at the airport on Friday, not speaking a word of Portuguese, knowing no one, no place to stay, just a backpacking tent in our bags,” Reese said. They found the address of the church and were able to connect with Courtney Marques, an alumni of the Texas-based Adventures in Missions program who had married a Portuguese man and worshiped with the church. Church members found a place for the Reeses to stay.
“We had never met any of these people before, but they welcomed us with open arms,” Katie Reese said. “During our four weeks, we were invited to several get-togethers in members’ homes. We played soccer with them. I even attended a wedding shower.”
Robert and Teague Meyer, who serve on the Angola team, studied Portuguese in the Lisbon suburb of Loures between 2009 and 2011, with a pause to adopt their two sons from Ethiopia.
“Hospitality and a generous spirit are an integral part of the DNA of the church in Lisbon,” Robert Meyer said. “Every member welcomed us and suffered our pitiful Portuguese. They encouraged us to preach and teach, even when we were glued to our notes and mispronouncing every third word.”
The church extended its hospitality to members of Lisbon’s International Church of Christ as that fellowship, known for its controversial discipling practices, went through a leadership crisis in the mid-2000s. The Igreja de Cristo “provided a place to heal for many of the young members who had been part of that movement,” Meyer said.
“I was especially impressed by their ministry to at-risk youth in Lisbon,” he added. The church “organized a weekly gathering, weekend outings and a summer camp for teens, many of whom came from extraordinarily difficult family backgrounds.”
During their stay in Lisbon, the Angola team members met believers from the country they were preparing to serve. Other members came from Brazil. All of the immigrants “found a welcoming home to foster their faith,” Meyer said.
Lukeny de Almeida, a native of Angola, served on a team of ministers for the church in the early 2000s.
“It was in the Igreja de Cristo Lisboa that most of my spiritual growth happened,” said de Almeida, who now lives in Angola’s capital, Luanda. “For this reason I couldn’t possibly forget the great and enjoyable moments that I lived while I was there.”
Chad Westerholm, a missionary in another Portuguese-speaking African nation, Mozambique, worshiped with the Lisbon church in 2003 while he and his teammates did language training.
“Mostly it seemed like the church served us,” he said, “rather than us serving the church.”
Westerholm visited the church in 2018 and gave a report of the work in Mozambique. The membership was quite different, he said. But the spirit of hospitality was unchanged.
In Portugal, “most Protestant churches have a heavy Brazilian or African presence,” Westerholm said, “which makes them less effective in reaching the local population.” But the Igreja de Cristo “seems to have more of a Portuguese feel to it than it used to, which I think is a positive thing.”
“Our passion is transformation.”
The Portuguese, after all, are a mission field, he said. Although they tend to be more religiously observant than other Europeans, most do not attend worship regularly, according to the Pew Research Center.
Reaching the native Portuguese and all who dwell in Lisbon, a city of a half-million souls, can be overwhelming, Diana Neves said. She and her husband have experienced burnout. They began participating in an international ministry that provides counseling and support for marriages in crisis.
Seeing real change in the lives of those they mentored reinvigorated them. Before the lockdown, they took oversight of the church’s youth group.
“Our passion is transformation,” she said. “To see a life being transformed, we’re just absolutely passionate about that, and God has blessed us in so many ways to see transformation.”
Regardless of how the church “like a bus” changes as its doors reopen, she said, its members will continue to share hospitality and God’s transformative love — with whoever comes, for however long they stay.
Population: 10.3 million.
Languages: Portuguese, Mirandese.
Religion: 81 percent Roman Catholic, 3.3 percent other Christian, 0.6 percent other (includes Jewish, Muslim), 6.8 percent claim no religion, 8.3 percent unspecified.
Churches of Christ: Missionaries attempted to plant a congregation in Lisbon as early as 1969 but had little long-term success until Steve McFarland and Scott Bulmer arrived in the early 1980s. Other workers include Manuel de Oliveira, Dorothy Unger, Paul Silvestri, Doug Hartman and Robert B. Reid.
The church in lockdown: The Igreja de Cristo Lisboa met for 12 weeks via teleconferencing program Zoom, said Diana Neves. Members stayed in touch with each other via phone or socially distanced visits.
“It was a time of great adjustments, but also of great victories,” Neves said. “We were sharing our lives, prayers, struggles and victories through a group on WhatsApp or by phone. … I have had many opportunities to share the Word with people I know. They are more open to receive the Good News.” Her daughters have been studying the Bible with friends online. “We have been all connected with the Word and reaching out in many different ways throughout this time.”
The church recently resumed in-person services. About 25 people attended the first one. The church will host two services if necessary and hopes to slowly resume street evangelism and service projects in Lisbon’s low-income neighborhoods.
Caring ‘truly and genuinely’: Neves’ sister, Ana Isabel Carvalho, grew up in the Igreja de Cristo Lisboa and now serves as business and development assistant at York College in Nebraska. The church is “a special group of brothers and sisters who truly and genuinely care for you,” she said. “Whether you are staying for a season or just passing by, you will leave Igreja de Cristo Lisboa with Christ’s love imprinted in your heart.”
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