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A vision for a more diverse church in America

Updated: Mar 31, 2022

Missionary to America: Silvana Ferreira, Brazil

For years we sent missionaries overseas. Today the children and grandchildren of those brought to faith by Christ’s Spirit are coming here. At just the right time. The church in America is struggling; we are in decline. What can we learn about mission work in America from someone from another country, someone like Silvana Ferreira?

Born in Brazil, as a child she had not thought of being part of a church, let alone becoming a missionary. Her parents were not “church people.” When she was fifteen a friend invited her to church. She became an active part of a youth group and knew. In time Silvana knew she wanted to serve somewhere in Christian ministry. In the beginning her parents turned their backs on her proposed vocation. A smart student, she put her plan aside, did well in school and waited a year. At sixteen she approached her mother and father with the same goal. They relented.

To graduate from seminary students were required to begin a new church. Silvana’s assignment was in an economically poor area. She learned patience and forgiveness – for others and for herself. After seminary the girl from Brazil was assigned to start a new church in Wales. Four challenging years were spent learning about mission and the sacrifices, failures, and successes in mission work. Missions, as they say, is messy. She was able to use what she learned in her next assignment: starting a mission in Tampa, Florida, among immigrants. More learning. Today she focuses on outreach to Anglos and immigrants in Naples, Florida.

I asked Silvana what the most important lessons she had learned about mission work; in particular, what had she learned about reaching immigrants in America? What do immigrant missionaries see that most Americans are blind to? She was eager to share.

The first thing the missionary from Brazil suggested was taking some time to learn about the culture of a new immigrant group. In Brazil this was not taught. With friendly people from other countries you can learn but you will know more and more quickly by during some further investigation.

The biggest challenge Silvana sees is the emphasis in the United States on work and accumulating more and more. The immigrants buy into this ethic because they have so little. Those who come to America had to be energetic and entrepreneurial. The values they brought with them begin to change; it is like a “third culture,” a blend between where they came from and their new home here.

As the missionary looked at outreach to immigrants in the US, especially first generation immigrants, she saw a desire to be with others from their home countries. There is a nostalgia for former music and food and talk of home. The second generation will be much less interested and be more eager to live in their new country. In all this their parents want them to learn English and become “American,” but not forget “where they came from.” This is especially challenging when it comes to worship. While first generation adults are eager to worship in their home language the new generations may seek out English worship, especially if it is in an ethnically diverse church. Silvana would walk the beaches in SW Florida and frequent stores where Portuguese speaking people might shop. She listened to hear people talking Portuguese and engage them about what is happening back in Brazil. One person who heard about her ministry among Brazilians and sought her out. He played the guitar. Then he became ill with cancer; he almost died. Silvana and people from the church stayed close and helped him through the illness. When he recovered he became a leader in her ministry.

Finally, and in my opinion the most important lesson Silvana shared, was the importance of a church learning to be a partner with the new immigrant group. Let me explain. Some churches are eager to rent space to a Christian group from another country. When that happens the new group invariably becomes “those others.” Churches should strive not only to host a group but involve them, prepare them for positions of leadership in the existing church. They are partners in one church with different forms and languages but the same Lord. Doing this the church will learn the importance of diversity. They can come to learn that the immigrants are in America not just to work and make money but have been sent here, sent to make a contribution to make to the spread of the gospel. To strengthen the church in America.

This is what I learned from Silvana. Thank you partner in the gospel.

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