‘Offering Everything They Have’: How Small Churches Are Sa…… | News & Reporting

For weeks, Tárik Rodriguez had been working on bringing a guest preacher and worship leader from across the country to help his church celebrate its third anniversary. In 2021, Rodriguez and a small team launched Viela da Graça Igreja in Novo Hamburgo, a small city in Brazil’s most southern province, Rio Grande do Sul.

Then, it started raining.

The floods have done more than interrupt the small Reformed congregation’s celebratory plans. They’ve devastated the community. The storms that began at the end of April struck Rio Grande do Sul’s most densely populated areas and have killed at least 116 people. Around 130 people are still missing. The high water has closed roads and even the airport, which has grounded flights until May 30. As of Friday, May 10, nearly 400,000 people have been displaced from their homes and 70,772 are in public shelters.

Some of those have found their way to Viela da Graça, which is located on higher ground and has been largely protected from a water breach. Since May 4, Rodriguez and members of the 75-person congregation have been hosting around 50 people in a two-bathroom, 3,500-square-foot building.

“As Christians, we needed to open our doors,” Rodriguez says. “And that’s what we did.”

Beyond the bathroom constraints, the situation has been less than ideal. There are frequent power cuts (1.2 million people have been affected by outages) and the building has lost access to both running and potable water because the sanitation company cannot treat the dirty floodwaters. A nearby residential condominium, which gets its water from a well, has provided drinking water and showers.

Though Brazil’s evangelicals are known worldwide for their megachurches, flood relief efforts have highlighted the impact that small churches can have in serving their communities in the country’s most secular state.

“It’s like the offering of the widow in Luke 21,” said Egon Grimm Berg, executive secretary of the Baptist Convention of Rio Grande do Sul. “They are giving everything they have.”

Or sometimes, even more.

Igreja em Reforma, a congregation founded three-and-a-half years ago by pastor Emanuel Malinoski in Quarto Distrito, a trendy neighborhood in Porto Alegre, has 80 members. When the nearby Guaíba River overflowed last week, it flooded the first floor of the church building. The water could take weeks to recede.

Nevertheless, since last Sunday, the church has been cooking, cleaning, and providing donations for 82 people in an improvised shelter, offered up by a church family in the neighboring city of Canoas, that was a warehouse until a month ago. Now the state’s civil defense is sending flood refugees there.

“None of [those being served] are evangelical,” said Malinoski, who was in the church building attempting to save furniture when the waters started rising. “We are giving an important testimony to our community.”

Rio Grande do Sul has one of the lowest percentages of evangelicals among Brazil’s 26 states. The capital, Porto Alegre, had 11.6 percent evangelicals according to the most recent census in 2010, the lowest proportion among all 27 Brazilian capitals. Most churches have fewer than 80 members, according to Ricardo Lebedenco, the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Ijuí.

Located 300 miles west of Porto Alegre—ground zero for the disaster—Lebedenco’s 800-member congregation is sending supplies to distribution hubs in the city of 1.3 million.

Though they are just one of numerous organizations sending resources to victims, many secular leaders are encouraging people to prioritize working with churches when it comes to donating and distributing clothes, bottled water, food, and money.

“They say we are more organized and more mobilized,” said Tiago Gomes de Mello, pastor of Igreja Batista Boas Novas in Novo Hamburgo.

This is the second tragedy that Gomes de Mello has witnessed firsthand. In 2014, a storm’s strong winds damaged the church to the point where the building had to be rebuilt. During the reconstruction process and then later during the COVID-19 pandemic, the previously 500-person church lost 90 percent of its members. Gomes de Mello took over as pastor in 2022 with a mission to revitalize the now 51-person church.

Around 5 a.m. on Friday, May 3, he began receiving requests for help. He left his home in Porto Alegre to open the church to two families—only to find he couldn’t return.

Water had flooded the streets and surrounded his home. His wife, Thaís, and their children Ester, 16, and Josué, just over a year old, were rescued by boat on Monday and taken to a relative’s home. Gomes de Mello finally reunited with his family on Tuesday, but only after four days of relentless work at the church, which now houses 45 people.

The sacrificial service of churches stems from people’s love of God, says Marco Silva, pastor of the Primeira Igreja Batista de Montenegro, which sits 55 miles from Porto Alegre and has been sending support to smaller churches in the region.

“When we prepare a meal, when we go out by boat to take food, when we fold blankets to take to the displaced, each of these things is an act of worship,” he said.

For church members, then, the focus is not on suspended worship services but on the opportunity to put their “theology into practice,” said Rodriguez. On Tuesday, the Viela da Graça pastor recorded his sermon from his living room and will upload it to YouTube for people to watch on Sunday. It will be a condensed program, with two praise songs, announcements, and a sermon on Jude 20–21, verses that have served as his personal reference in these difficult times: “But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.”

Igreja Batista Boas Novas is one of the few churches in the affected region that has managed to hold in-person services. In fact, they have even expanded their number. Gomes de Mello has preached on Sunday, Saturday, and Wednesday.

On Sunday, the message was about Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?”

Many of those attending were aware that the weather forecast for the region was calling for more rain and that temperatures would be continuing to drop as winter begins in a few weeks in one of the coldest areas of the country.

“The church knows that our help comes from the Lord,” said Gomes de Mello, who took the opportunity to do an altar call at the service. “And after the rain comes the harvest.”

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