April 04, 2014

Portugal: Stubborn Pilgrims

In search of a permanent home for their church plant, a Portuguese congregation embarks on a multi-year pilgrimage around their city. Along the way, it reshapes their definition of "church."

  • Birth of the Church

    TEAM missionaries Clark and Yvonne Malone stand in their small living room. This small space filled up with around 30 people for worship services.

  • One of Many Stops

    Under the awning of what is now a cafe, Clark's and Yvonne's faces reflect the joy they felt whole the church met in this location. It was a time of growth and maturity for the church.

  • Current Location

    The outside of the O Caminho building is a modern addition to the community and calls itself an evangelical center, fostering good will among locals.

  • Christian Community

    Gathering in the new sanctuary, the church congregation in Ermesinde has grown significantly since its early days meeting in living rooms around the city.

In the basement of a brand-new, beautifully built, three-story building in Ermesinde, Portugal, Pastor Samuel “Paulo” Santos sat visibly emotional. He waited to gain his composure after reflecting on the question of how, after 21 years of struggle, his little church is now thriving.

When he finally spoke, his Portuguese accent was thickened by the quiver in his voice. “Some of the things we are seeing now is a result of many prayers that we have prayed over many years,” Santos said. “All the steps we have gone through, one small step, many, many problems, and I think during that time we had a burden and a vision to plant a church in this city. And we were really stubborn.”

At every turn along the difficult road Santos and his congregation traveled to plant The Way Evangelical Center Ermesinde in a community that seemed determined to keep the church away, it would have been tempting to just give up and find another town. But the group felt God was telling them to be in Ermesinde, a suburb of Porto in northern Portugal.

Planting a church is never easy. But the journey for The Way — O Caminho, in Portuguese — seemed especially grueling. In a morning tour around town, Santos invited visitors to relive the church’s journey through cramped living rooms and dark, hidden hallways, beset by obstructive neighbors and cantankerous landlords. The tour offered a taste of just how much work it can be to make inroads for the gospel in Portugal, and just how determined God can be when he decides to write a church into the narrative of a community.

Stop One

The journey began in the living room of the second-floor apartment home of TEAM missionaries Clark and Yvonne Malone. It was in a living room like this, they explained, that a new evangelical church was launched on Easter in 1992, in the home of their now retired TEAM colleagues Herb and Linda Gregg. The room held about 25 chairs and was relatively full that first service.

But the cozy beginning would only last a few months. Around 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve, while the church group was singing Christmas carols — an activity extremely common in Portuguese Christmas celebrations that often continue until well past midnight — there was a knock at the door. They opened it to a police officer, who shyly informed them they were making too much noise for the neighbors. Within a couple of weeks, the church was forced to move to the only other available location, the Malones’ living room.

Stop Two

The Malones’ home was only about 600 feet from the Greggs’ house, so the transition wasn’t that difficult; it was another living room, so the environment felt similar. But the Malones started to notice something about Portuguese people. “It’s not part of their culture to think of having a church where you live. To them, a church is something very, very different,” Clark said. Portuguese homes are guarded, private spaces, hidden from the outside world. It was completely foreign to the Portuguese for a home to be so open and accessible to strangers. Realizing this, the Malones wanted to be intentional with their living room and did what they could to make it feel naturally Portuguese, warm, and inviting. 

The Malones also invited Pastor Santos and his wife Jacinta to work alongside them with the church plant. “One of the most strategic decisions we ever made was to invite Paulo and Jacinta to come and work with us, because it gave us a Portuguese identity,” Yvonne said. “We were not going to be an American church.” 

With just a small stipend and a big step of faith, the Santoses agreed and became the pastors of the fledgling living-room congregation.

The church grew to about 45 people, crowding the small space and overrunning every room in the apartment. Bedrooms transformed into Sunday school rooms for the weekly service. The hallways and veranda became storage for movable furniture.

One Sunday, a new attendee pulled into the complex parking lot and stopped a neighbor to ask, “Where is the church?” The stunned resident didn’t know anything about a public church meeting in the private apartments and raised concerns with the building administrator. 

That set into motion the impending eviction of the church from the Malones’ apartment. The management eventually voted to ask the secret church to move, giving them nine months secure another place. “That was hard for them and it was hard for us,” said Clark, who had to defend the church to neighbors they had befriended.

As the date of expulsion drew closer, they group struggled to find rental spaces that were financially within their reach. Complicating matters further, no one wanted to rent to a non-Catholic ministry.

“Part of the dilemma of starting a church in Portugal is that if you can’t fit in your living room, where do you meet?” Yvonne said. With a small group of people, paying rent was next to impossible.

But the Lord provided the next space, a humble one. “It was the only space that would rent to us,” Yvonne said. 

Stop Three

That space was a room located down a dark hallway, hidden from the public, next to a hair salon and a nightclub. “Would you be excited about walking up to this place?” Clark said. Despite the uninspiring location, the back room was pivotal for the young congregation. In the Portuguese mindset, the church was now legitimate because it had a public space. When they moved in October of 1995, it really felt like a new church was born in Ermesinde.

It lasted three years in that space but was rocky from the get-go. While the group was setting up for its inaugural service, an angry building administrator walked in and demanded to speak with the boss. Yvonne remembered the administrator warning, “If you guys are going to make trouble you are going to have to get out. We hate noise!” 

“We had our services at 4:30 in the afternoon, and we got kicked out because we were too loud,” Yvonne said. Ironically, business at the nightclub next door thumped well into the night. 

“It wasn’t because of the owner of the buildings, it was really the neighbors that had and issue with the church,” Yvonne said. “The Catholic Church in the community is protected by a number of laws and civil codes, but not so for any other religious organization. It then comes down to having the favor of the neighbors, and if that cannot be obtained, they can kick you out.”

The end of the road came in the spring of 1998. The neighbors had had enough, and the church was forced to find another location. This time, the daunting task didn’t overwhelm the group. They were a body, unified and ready to face the challenge together.

Stop Four

Yvonne and Clark talked excitedly after they exited the car in front of the third stop of the tour, and it was easy to see that this was a favorite location. The building was on a narrow side street with a red awning hanging over the road that cast a rose tint onto the cobblestone. This was the congregation’s home for eight years. “This was a safe place of growth!” Yvonne said. “It gave us an identity, a deeper sense of unity as a body — we were real people now. This was a huge milestone for the church. This was the place where we were legalized and began to have church membership. We developed an identity as a church and not just a ragtag collection of believers.”

The church experienced an influx of local believers and began to have a good problem: it was getting too full. The group began looking for a new location on their own terms — truly a luxury at this point — but finding one was still the same challenge. Nothing was available in the church’s price range. The search continued for nearly three years. Just when they thought they had found the perfect space, it fell through. “But we were glad, we were really glad, because nine months later, God led us to another place that was heaven,” Yvonne said.

Stop Five

“Heaven” was an old rundown tire repair shop with dilapidated apartment buildings towering over the white privacy wall. Another auto repair shop and a dance school neighbored the new church location. The rent was just right and the landlords were great. 

The church leadership knew that the location of the rundown shop, however, would be a problem for Portuguese preconceptions of what a church should be. So the group worked together to spruce it up and renovate. A new floor went in, ceiling tiles went up, and walls helped to turn the awkward L-shaped building into a functional sanctuary. Cream, yellow, and deep mahogany colors created a warm environment that got people talking. Yvonne commented that people could really see the heart of the congregation in the details of that renovation. They arranged the sanctuary chairs in a semi-circle, allowing people to see each other and engage in meaningful community worship. Yvonne called it a “Christ-incidence,” a word they made up to replace “coincidence.”

But the close-knit congregation soon faced another agonizing challenge. They finally moved to purchase a piece of property to build a permanent building of their own, in a nicely developed neighborhood just around the corner from the church’s first public space. But the government blocked their purchase. There was nothing they could do to move things forward except pray. 

While the congregation grew in numbers, their faith grew exponentially. Believing the church is not the rundown tire shop where they were gathering, but rather a people, carried them through a dark four-year process of waiting on the government to approve their building plans. This focus sustained them through two years of gaining city permits and two more years of an intense building program, and helped shape their ministry ethos moving forward.

Stop Six

In October 2012 the permanent building was finished.  “We wanted a place that was right on the front of the street, because all the other places were in corners, in the backspaces. That was not our way of hiding ourselves,” Santos said through a contagious laugh. His  vision is for a church that reaches out to the community around it, not just inward. 

“We have a vision to see our community as everyone around the church, not just those in the church. Every time we meet together on Sundays, the gathering is for everybody,” Santos said. “We tend to not be very religious in our services. Sometimes we joke, we get people to say hello to everyone around them, creating a lot of happy confusion.

The surrounding community views The Way less as a church and more of place to find practical, everyday help. The church intentionally calls itself an “evangelical center” to cast itself as a community center. The Way’s intentional outward focus includes programs like a food pantry and a scouting program for young boys, which have allowed the church to build strong relationships throughout the neighborhood and even with social workers across the city. “People really see this [building] as a part of the community. It is open almost every day. We help 25 families with food, we give clothes to the people, we help them with the problems they are facing,” said Santos, who believes people have been attracted to the building because it looks like a church but at the same time looks different.

Getting to this place wasn’t easy, yet the laborers stayed faithful for all of these 21 years. Both the Malones and the Santoses have displayed enormous conviction and perseverance. When it seemed like there was no hope for a thriving church in Ermesinde, they stayed. “I think part of what our presence here communicated, the Portuguese have always felt that they are forgotten by God. And our presence here is a symbol that God is interested in them and cares about them, no matter what else happens,” Yvonne said.

During the church’s first years in Ermesinde, the Malones heard rumors that high government officials had said there would never be an evangelical church in this city. It almost seemed true. “When we moved here to Ermesinde, there had already been a number of churches ... and all of them were eroded out,” Yvonne said. “You can’t see a church started here unless God moves. I think it has been very clear from the beginning, it’s a miraculous moving of God.”

-Written and photographed by Robert Johnson

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