IECLB: Building bridges in challenging times
Historians point to the presence of the first Protestants in Brazil from 1555, with the French invasions. In the seventeenth century, they returned with the Dutch, but none of these two came to any significant marks. Colonial Brazil, from the religious point of view as essentially Catholic, although the forms of indigenous religiosity and African religions with the slaves was (and it is) strong and penetrating.
Lutherans arrived, as German immigrants, after 1824. Even they are the largest group of Lutherans in Latin America, they have always represented an absolute minority within Brazilian society, and it continues to this day.
There are 1,000,000 Lutherans in Brazil. Lutheranism constituted into two churches, the largest, the Evangelical Church of Lutheran Confession in Brazil (IECLB) is an ELCA companion church with 750,000 members. The other, the Church Evangelical Lutheran of Brazil (IELB), presents on its website the number of 250.000 members.
Brazil, officially the Federative Republic of Brazil, is the largest country in South America and Latin America, and the fifth largest country in terms of population and size. The current population estimate for 2019 is 212.390.000. Lutherans would represent only 0.47% of the Brazilian population. However, they not only constitute a very low percentage of the total population: also, among the Brazilian Protestants themselves they are a minority.
Admitted that there are around 42,000,000 Protestants in the country, they would make up only 2.3% of that total
Brazilian Lutheran Historian Martin Dreher writes that the Lutherans who came to Brazil were a result of the industrial revolution in Europe. Small landowners constituted the great majority during the whole period from 1820 to 1930. Living in homogeneous communities or also mixed from a religious point of view, they did not abandon their Lutheran faith, although they were not enthusiastic about ecclesiastical organizations.
There were also a large group of Lutherans who settled in the larger cities, starting in 1850. They were, in general, economically and intellectually better which, in many cases, had participated in the political movement of 1848 in Germany. They were young people who sought to make a living in Brazil and, during the second half of the nineteenth century, played a very important role such as journalists, politicians, teachers, that is, as intellectuals, and as entrepreneurs.
An important part of the first German immigrants, who arrived in Brazil in 1824, settled in São Leopoldo and later in the capital, Porto Alegre, eventually forming a German-Brazilian "elite." It was a community that even produced its German-language press. Almost no Portuguese were spoken in the region; the current language is the so-called Low German or Plattdeutsch.
Because of the II War, the Estado Novo (New State 1937-1945) established by Getúlio Vargas, prohibited the education in German, dismantling the network of parochial schools. The use of the German language was prohibited, and the sermons had to be preached in Portuguese.
The deepest changes to Brazilian Lutheranism occurred the 1970s when In the Theological Faculty of São Leopoldo - RS, Portuguese supplanted German as the main language of the formation; and the leadership of the church began to manifest itself periodically on social and political issues. Also participating since the beginning of the dialogues that led to the creation of the National Council of Christian Churches (CONIC) in 1982. Liberation Theology begins to influence the thinking circles and reaches a position of predominance in the Theological Faculty, mainly in the second half of the decade. As in the Catholic Church, Lutheran liberation theology succeeds in conquering the centers of formation more easily than conquering the ecclesiastical leadership.
The Lutheran People's Pastoral (PPL) has its origin in the liberation struggle in Latin America, where the people recognize the performance of God in history through the practice of justice. Effective, popular pastoral ministry is one that, as Jesus did, can read and interpret the society of his time to detect the problems that cause the people to suffer. Then injustice will be denounced, having on its horizon the change. The PPL appears in the final moments of a violent stage of Brazilian history, in which the country lived under the military dictatorship (1964 to 1985), generating repression, oppression, violence, and inequality. It is therefore extremely significant to understand how the PPL, an ecclesial movement with left-wing options, managed to establish itself in a minority church and historically linked to German immigrants.
In this context, also an internal movement appears to the IECLB called Encontrão (the movement or the gathering). It represents, on the one hand, traditional German pietism and, on the other hand, Latin American evangelicalism. The Encontrão began in the 1960s under the influence of an American Lutheran missionary. The emphasis on spiritual conversion and revival, although a minority in the IECLB, was echoed in the German Pietist tradition.
A third trend in the IECLB is the Pietist movement MEUC; with emphasis on personal conversion, Bible studies, and fellowship groups. The Evangelical Christian Union Mission (MEUC) is an evangelical missionary entity recognized in the tradition of reform and pietism, inserted in the context of the Evangelical Lutheran Confession Church in Brazil (IECLB), with activities carried out in several cities in Brazil.
IECLB has a strong youth organization, Juventude Evangélica, which gatherings bring together thousands of participants from all the country around, and from another Lutheran church in Latin-American countries.
The IECLB´s women organization (OASE) is spread all church around, thousands of women members of the church, pillars of the church, connecting communities and congregations in service and leadership. OASE is women in action, are deeds in their hands, but also Interconnecting networks and weaving the sense of being a church in everyday life.
IECLB, as every large church, maintain a tension between adapting to the new contexts and hermeneutics of the Gospel and fidelity to their traditions. One of the most noteworthy changes of IECLB was the organization of the church in 18 synods, each with its a synodal pastor (like a bishop), whose function is to oversight (episkope) accompanying a synodal council.
ELCA has an accompanying relationship with one of the 18 synods, the synod of Holy Spirit Belem in a companion relationship with with Southern Ohio Synod. IECLB´s Pastor President, P. Sylvia Genz, said: It is encouraging to see that others are so interested in developments in Brazil and in our church. We know that we are not alone, but embedded in a huge network. Dialogue with our partners takes us further when it is at eye level and based on mutual respect. That way, good ideas can grow - both with us in Brazil and with our partners!