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Brazilian church another sign of Florida's diversity

Brazilian church another sign of Florida's diversity

MIAMI -- Marcelo Gomes didn’t set out to pastor a Portuguese-speaking congregation in the heart of Miami.

His heart’s desire was to become a missionary working with people of different ethnicities and backgrounds.

“I think that’s been a passion I have had since I was a child,” said Gomes, who grew up in Brazil but has ties to Boston, where his mother lives and where he studied as a teenager. “I grew up thinking about sharing God’s grace with people.”

Marcelo Gomes preaching
Marcelo Gomes, a missionary and native of Brazil, has planted a mission to reach out to Brazlilians living in Miami. Photo from Marcelo Gomes. Home page feature photo of Brazilian flag in front of Miami skyline from Creative Commons user MiamiTom.

Fluent in both Portuguese and English, he was assisting a United Methodist congregation with a ministry targeting Brazilians in Boston when his gifts caught the attention of Florida Conference leaders, who had identified a sizable population of native Brazilians settling in the Miami area.

The result? A new worship community on the campus of First UMC, Miami, that appears to have found fertile ground. Under the leadership of Gomes since July, the fledgling congregation has grown to a total of 18 people, with gatherings twice a week and plans for a third.

Gomes also is working with the Brazilian ambassador in Miami to develop cultural opportunities for people in his mission field.

The Miami Brazilian mission is the Florida Conference’s latest effort to meet the diverse needs of a state with a high influx of immigrants. Those efforts include missions or ministries targeting Hispanics, Haitians, Koreans, Micronesians, Filipinos and people of Slavic descent with services tailored to their cultural and often alternative language needs, according to records compiled by Florida Conference Knowledge and Information Services.

“These are the ones we know about,” said Rev. Clarke Campbell-Evans, the conference’s Missional Engagement director who recently was tasked with brainstorming ways to financially sustain worship communities that fit a cultural niche.

He suggested that some congregations may be reaching out to people of different cultures in their community without designating a separate mission or congregation.

“It’s just part of their ministry, and they do it and don’t think they need to report it [to the conference] in any way.”

He said the new Portuguese-speaking mission will be a welcome addition.

“Placing it at First [UMC] Miami is a good plan when you look at the demographics,” Campbell-Evans said.

The 2010 U.S. Census lists more than 41,000 Brazilians living in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. The Wall Street Journal cited Miami sources who believe as many as 300,000 Brazilians have settled in Florida, with Miami listed as a top destination.

Small group of Brazilians in Miami enjoying a meal
The new Brazilian mission in Miami includes small group get-togethers, as well as worship on the campus of First UMC, Miami. Photo from Marcelo Gomes.

Gomes had applied to be a Global Ministries missionary before he was tapped for the Miami challenge through a partnership of the Florida Conference and Global Ministries. Both arms of the church are providing funds toward the missionary’s position in Miami, said Rev. Dan Jackson, New Church Development director for the conference.

He credited Rev. Craig Nelson, who serves on the United Methodist Global Ministries’ National Plan for Hispanic and Latino Ministry committee, with the vision for the arrangement. Nelson was serving as superintendent of the Florida Conference South East District, which includes Miami, when he identified the Brazilian ministry opportunity. He also knew there was funding through the National Plan for startup ministries targeting immigrants from South America, Jackson said.

“The Miami climate is almost identical to Rio, so that is why there are a lot of Brazilians that are heading to Miami,” he added.

Gomes said violence and unstable economic conditions in Brazil lead many to leave their homeland.

The populations of Brazilians in Boston and Miami are far from the same, however, Gomes said. And the differences will guide him in designing his ministry plans.

“As a missionary and a church pastor … you need to understand what are the needs and the problems,” he said.

He described the people he worked with in Boston as “people who dream about having a better life for themselves and their children,” often seeking educational opportunities they couldn’t get in Brazil or working for low wages that they would share with loved ones back home. They also tended to work for a few years in the U.S. and then return to their native country, Gomes said.

In Boston, he explained, “you can have them coming to church every Sunday, not to attend services, but to ask for help.”

This meant people found the church, and less of his time was devoted to seeking them out.

Those in Miami tend to be more affluent and educated. Information from the Brazilian consulate in Miami indicates more than 67 percent of Brazilians have American citizenship or permanent residency status and more than half own homes in South Florida, according to the missionary’s ministry plan submitted to New Church Development.

“Here in Miami, they don’t go to church asking for help,” Gomes said. That doesn’t mean they have no need for spiritual nourishment, though.

Gomes plans a social media campaign to attract his target flock, and small group meetings may form around such activities as tennis or music. In addition to reflecting on Bible themes of salvation, grace and faith, group discussions will tackle timely social issues, such as immigration, abortion and sexuality, Gomes said.

Next month, he plans to team up with the Brazilian consulate in Miami to offer a Brazilian Culture Day, including traditional food and music from that part of the world.

Brazilians tend to be familiar with the Methodist Church because of its mission and social justice work in their home country, Gomes said. However, many people don’t attend church, and those who do tend to be Catholic.

“In Brazil, it’s the more educated you are, the more distant you are from church,” Gomes said. 

Although most of the people he ministers to in Miami speak English fluently, he plans to offer services in Portuguese.

“You can speak better your emotions when you are speaking your native language,” he said. “We can be more open with one another.”

Click here for more information about Gomes' mission.

– Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor.