A new Macedonia: Brazilians in the United States

Autor: Valdir Xavier de França

Ethical Implications for the Church


The Brazilians as cultural context for ministry in the United States

The Brazilian immigration to the United States goes back to the 70’s or even earlier. They are classified by the mainstream culture and society as “non-White”. They come from the only country in South America, which does not speak Spanish but Portuguese. The great majority of those living in Tampa Bay area, Florida, come from a wave of immigration that happened in the 90’s and grew substantially around the year 2000.

The main reason for Brazilian immigration to the United States is economic. Most of them are undocumented[1] working in the service sector cleaning houses, buildings, serving at restaurants, supermarkets, hotels and also working at construction sites. Many families in Brazil are supported by the money they make here and send back home. They also file their income tax and will never receive any benefits from the American government, except the first aid in an emergency.

Some of them came here with the dream of settling down; some just wanted to have a cross-cultural experience. Others are just trying to get their marriage straight, or fleeing emotional difficulties in Brazil. But, the majority of these people have a specific mission, which is to pay off their debts back in Brazil and to make an extra effort to save some money for the future. They nurture the desire to go back to Brazil, but as soon as they realize they have a better and stable economic situation here, they end up deciding to become permanent residents.

They live in a kind of exile. Undocumented and feeling “saudades”[2] of those left behind, they do everything they can to obtain their freedom and to be able to come out of the shadows of an uncertain future.      

The Contextual Issue: Undocumented Immigrants

The objective of this paper is to reflect upon the contextual issue of undocumented immigrants and the ethical implications for the church and its ministry here in the United States. 93% of those attending my small congregation in West Florida are undocumented people. For those who are doing ministry with immigrants in USA this situation calls for a new understanding of what it means to be the church of Christ at the borders[3].

The lack of proper documentation challenges the Christian faith and ethics inherited by the Brazilian church from the American and British missionaries and imposes the dilemma of what is absolute and what is relative (Kraft 1981:18) for those living illegally here who join or are already in our churches.

The simple fact that these people do not have documents produces enormous emotional distress, uncertainty and insecurity. They also fear the loss of their children, many of whom are born here in the U.S. They want to re-locate here permanently, but because of the circumstances, they will never have the right to become full citizens of the U.S. (Marks and Aja, 1989:5).

In their economic exile, I find truth in the words of Brueggemann when he says that “the most obvious reality and greatest threat to the exiles is the power of despair” (1997a:7).

In despair, many Brazilians want to solve their problems at all costs. In order to get a job, the great majority will go to unscrupulous people who will sell them false Social Security cards and documents. Some others will pay a legal citizen to get married in order to obtain documents through marriage. Sometimes, even married individuals think of going down this path. While still married to their Brazilian spouse, they jeopardize their genuine relationships to get documents and through this means, become permanent residents.

There are an increasing number of those who are crossing the Mexican border after September 11, risking their own lives. There are also those who will find lawyers who will build a case for asylum, based upon untrue stories of political persecution. These lawyers will charge a small fortune, without telling them the legal implications.

These people are marginalized by their visa status from the whole social process. They cannot vote. Marks and Aja, tell us that “the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 intentionally further marginalizes the undocumented immigrant by taking away even basic human rights such as education and healthy care” (1989:5). They will not be able to renew their Drivers License, losing the privilege to drive, which affects their ability to work for their daily bread and to be identified as individual.

The gospel as “Good News” for undocumented immigrants

The announcement of the good news by the angels as told in Luke 2:8-22, remind us that God is still alive and active. He continues to speak even after a long period of silence. In this text in particular, He makes it in an extraordinary way, through his angel, v. 9-11. The shepherds realized that it is God himself announcing the message of good news to them, v. 16.

According to Brueggemann, the reality of God’s relationship with his people is “that the reference points of life with Yahweh have to do with interventions that made possible what was otherwise not possible” (1997b:132). God is able to intervene in times of crisis and often when it is least expected.

The good news in this text also has to do with the unalterable character of God. He always announces the good news in the same way He did to Adam and Eve (Gn. 3:8,15, the “proto euangelion”). This is the Missio Dei, God always takes the initiative (Bosch 1991:389-393). 

The announcement message of the Savior consists of the fact that God never abandons his people; his creation. He never changes; he is always there to save. As Kraft (1991:227-235) introduces us to the constancy method concept, he makes the point “that the Bible reveals the constant method by means of which the unchanging God (Mal. 3:6) seeks to communicate his constant message” (Kraft 1991:400). This method (I Cor. 9:20-22) involves extensive adaptation by God, the communicator, to the cultural context of the receptors in order by all means to win those within that context (Heb. 1:1-4), but God and his message will remain the same.

The Gospel’s response to undocumented immigrants

For Brazilian immigrants the denial of God “is practical and not cognitive”, as suggested by Brueggemann (1997b:136). Their sense of reality as “orphans” leads them to trust in anyone, but God. I am sure that for many immigrants all across the country, the only good news they want to hear would be the announcement of an amnesty by the government.

The question is how the Gospel responds or speaks a word of good news to the undocumented immigrants in U.S?

First, this text (Lk. 2:8-22) tells us that God is the one who always takes the initiative. God always speaks and “since faith and life are inseparable”, this good news message has to affect the life of those living here as undocumented immigrants. The good news is the ability that God has to transform in “solidarity with the poor, needy, and helpless” (Brueggemann 1997b:141) all circumstances in well-being. God can intervene in many ways (including supernaturally) in order to open doors, to sustain, to find a new way for this people to get documents without denying the power of God to intervene.

Brueggemman (1997b:143), exposition of Israel’s testimony of Yahweh, suggests that: 

What is important is the recognition that for Israel, power and solidarity are held together, and that both are crucial for Israel’s normative utterance about Yahweh. Power without solidarity yields nothing that reassures Israel in it needs. And solidarity without power yields empty hope.

Second, Brazilian immigration to U.S. does not need to end in deportation, tragedy (death while crossing the Mexican border), lies, fraud, cheating and deceiving the system. I would like to suggest a pattern proposed by Brueggemann (1997a:3-11), when dealing with the issue of “faith in exile”. He affirms that the “exile did not lead Jews in the Old Testament to abandon faith or to settle for abdicating despair, nor to retreat to privatistic religion” (Brueggemann 1997a:3).

Third, God always speaks to people. In Lk. 2:8-22 he speaks to those at the borders. The message is not directed to the rich, to the powerful, nor even to the kings in their palaces. Not even to those in charge of the temple and religious leaders in Jerusalem. The good news is primarily directed to those shepherds in the field. They are simple people. Marginalized by their own profession. They were considered in the first century culture to be thieves and cheaters and therefore could not testify in a Jewish court.

The shepherds are a model or type of all undocumented immigrants, who without the proper documentation work for their daily bread under the suspicious eye of people, who wonder whether they are terrorists disguised as immigrants. God in his sovereignty chooses the weak, the simple, and the humble, instead of the powerful, the arrogant. As Bosch (1999:33) points out “God’s reign is not intended for those who regard themselves as VIPs, but for those on the margins: for those who suffer, for tax-collectors and sinners, for widows and children”


I would like to conclude this paper affirming that, there are no simplistic answers and solutions for the problem of undocumented immigration and the ethical implications for the church of Christ among these people. The only thing I can bring to the table at this point is that the difficulties we have with this issue should not prevent us from being the Church of Jesus Christ.

I just want to suggest some clues, which are right now my only convictions regarding the Christian work among this people. I will use them in the future to further reflect upon this subject and to shed some light onto the Brazilian church in U.S.

1. The Christian ethics for this church should primarily consider the fact that, if we take the whole issue of undocumented immigration into account, there will be no church among these people in the first place. As Christians, we are challenged by the Word of God to share the good news to all people, including the aliens (Lev. 19:34)[4].

2. The Christian ethics for this church should not try to define membership and leadership of the church on the basis of those who have and have not a “green card”. The only way to become members of the church is through faith and baptism, as Bosch (1999:39) emphasizes saying that “the entry point for all alike is receiving forgiveness and accepting the reality of God’s reign; this determines the whole life of the disciple and of the community to which he or she belongs.”

3. The Christian ethics for this church should be flexible, to the point that it will preserve life in the middle of exile, in the same way God used the midwives in Egypt to preserve life (Exodus 1:15-22). The context here calls for a new understanding of what it means to be the church of Christ at the borders. How can I, in a cross-cultural context as a Christian witness respond to differences in people’s perception of sin?  Which ideals should we preserve as Brazilians in U.S.? Kraft (1991:245) raises this type of question when talking about “a cross-cultural approach to sin”.

4. The Christian ethics for this church should be responsible and at the same time prophetic. Of course, undocumented Brazilians, being human and sinful, will have to be judged by God’s standards. There are many things that need to be dealt with in this new culture and in the lives of the people.

I do believe that in any exile, God has a purpose and with Brazilians, is not different. Kraft emphasizes the fact that “people don’t seem to need more ideals to increase their feelings of guilt and frustration. What they need in the first instance is assistance in dealing with their own ideals” (1991:248).

5. The Christian ethics among Brazilians should contemplate the context of exile, despair, pain and the emotional breach of those who left their dear ones behind.


Kraft, Charles H.
1981 Christianity in Culture: A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Maryknoll: New York: Orbis Books.
Marks, Amal & Aja, Anotonio J.,
1989 Living the Vision: Welcoming Immigrants and Their Gifts. Published by Mission Interpretation & Promotion Ministry of the General Assembly Council, PCUSA.

Brueggemann, Walter
1997a Cadences of Home: Preaching among Exiles. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press.  
1997b Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute,  Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fort Press.

Thomas, E. Norman
2002 Classic Texts in Mission & World Christianity. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.

Bosch, David
1991 Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of  Mission. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.
1995 Believing in the Future: Toward a Missiology of Western  Culture. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press   International.

Walls, Andrew F.
2001 The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History. Maryknoll, New York, Edinburgh; T&T Clark: Orbis   Books. 

[1] The usage of the term “undocumented” started with former INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) Commissioner Leonel J. Castillo during the Carter Administration (1977-81). I will make distinction between “undocumented” and “illegal” on the basis of the “Title 8 Section 1325” of the United States Code, when it deals with “Improper Entry by Alien,” stating as follows: “any citizen of any country other than the United States who:

·         Enters or attempts to enter the United States at any time or place other than as designated by immigration officers; or

·         Eludes examination or inspection by immigration officers; or

·         Attempts to enter or obtain entry to the United States by willfully false or misleading representation or the willful concealment of a material fact;

has committed a federal crime.

Violations are punished by criminal fines and imprisonment for up to six months. Repeated offenses can bring up to two years in prison. Additional civil fines may be imposed at the discretion of immigration judges, but civil fines do not negate the criminal sanctions or nature of the offense.

The INS calls illegal aliens, particularly those slipping across the Mexican border, even though a larger number of undocumented residents arrived legally and overstayed their visas. Brazilians are part of the latter group.

[2] “Saudade” is a Portuguese expression to designate a deep and profound feeling of missing someone, something. One of its characteristic is that only those in exile know what it means to have “saudades”. There is no adequate translation for such expression in English language. The Harper Collins dictionary defines it as: “longing, yearning; nostalgia: to be greatly missed: to long for; to miss; homesickness”.  

[3] What I am tying to point out here is the fact that in most of the cases Brazilians are transplanting their church from Brazil and “when things around us don’t seem to make sense we need new mirrors, new models, and new perspectives on reality” (Kraft 1981:13). A serious reflection upon the question posed by Kraft (1981:14) should be taken into consideration: “would a new perspective, a new mirror on reality provide any better solution to these problems?” The simple fact of living in here for a while, does not give the kind of expertise that the work among undocumented Brazilian needs. Those involved in this ministry, both trainees and trainers, should be aware and understand the full implications of being a church among those without documents here in the US. The great majority of the Brazilian churches here are just a caricature of a local church anywhere in Brazil transplanted into American soil. I personally believe that those who have been trained as lay leaders and lay pastors here in the US should be aware of the context where Brazilians are inserted and the ethical implications for the church.

[4] Read more in Marks & Aja (1989:3-4) Living the Vision. Booklet published by Mission Interpretation & Promotion for Evangelism and Church Development Ministries of the General Assembly Council.


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