The first Mennonites arrived in Brazil during the year 1930, coming as refugees from Russia/Ukraine, where their property, churches and schools were taken over by the state during the Stalin years.
Thousands of Mennonites (15,000–25,000) and other groups took their few belongings and travelled to Moscow in 1929 to get a visa. Only 5,000 received permission to leave the country. Arriving in Germany, they were not allowed to stay there, so they had in mind to migrate to Canada. Because of the economic depression of the 1930s, Canada only accepted a few of these migrants, mainly those who had close relatives already living in the country and who were in good health.
The other two options of countries that would receive them were Brazil and Paraguay. European and North American church leaders encouraged the refugees to move as a group to Paraguay, where there was already a settlement of Mennonites from Canada. In Paraguay, Mennonites already had several privileges like exemption from military service and the right to self-government of the colonies. Around 3,000 chose to go to Paraguay.
Another 1,300 chose to move to Brazil. The real reasons for the choice to Brazil are not very clear. Arriving in Brazil, they were settled in a hilly, rainforest region in the south, completely different from what they had known in Russia. One settlement group (Stolz Plateau) could not develop, and they found a good place in Curitiba (300 km north). Here, there was a colder climate and prairie land. Within a few years, all Mennonites had moved away from the original settlement place.
Among the settlers, there were three different groups: Mennonite Brethren, Mennonite Church (kirchliche) and Evangelical Mennonites. Initially, all the services were held together except the assembly meetings, everything in the German language. During World War II – which Brazil joined in 1942 – the use of the German language was prohibited in public until the end of 1945. So the churches conducted their services in Low German, sometimes in Russian and even began to use Portuguese.
The first outreach project began in 1948 with an orphanage for abandoned children and with it the first exclusively Portuguese-speaking congregation, in the outskirts of Curitiba. It had the support from Mennonite Brethren (MB) workers from North America. Several other church planting projects followed, and soon the Association of Mennonite Brethren Churches was formed with Portuguese-speaking congregations. In 1994, the German-speaking conference and Portuguese-speaking conference merged, creating COBIM (Convenção Brasileira das Igrejas Evangélicas Irmãos Menonitas: Brazilian MB conference). Today, COBIM has more than 60 congregations and several mission projects in Brazil and Africa.
In the year 1955, the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities of the Mennonite Church General Conference in the United States sent their first missionaries to Brazil. Several congregations were planted in Sao Paulo, central Brazil and the Amazon region, forming the Alliança Evangélica Menonita (evangelical Mennonite alliance). The Associação das Igrejas Menonitas do Brasil (AIMB: association of Mennonite churches in Brazil, a merger of two German-speaking groups and other evangelical Mennonites), and COM (Commission on Overseas Mission) joined this church planting project and began to send missionaries in 1976. AEM now has some 35 churches and congregations and mission projects in Brazil and Albania.
In the year 1965, Mennonite Central Committee started several agricultural and social development projects in Northeast Brazil. In 2012, this outreach was ended. Some local organizations (AMAI) are keeping on several of the projects, in promoting peace and reconciliation. Three congregations were planted and are affiliated with AEM.
The AIMB conference formed by Mennonites and evangelical Mennonites has nine churches and congregations. For many years, they had their services in German. In the 1980s, this began to changes as the churches moved into using more Portuguese to reach out to neighbours and to the Brazilian context. Their strongest mission project is Associação Menonita de Assistência Social (AMAS: Mennonite relief organization) with six daycare centres for low income families, caring for more than 1,000 children daily.
In 1960s, a group of Holdeman Mennonites (Church of God in Christ Mennonites) moved from the USA to central Brazil (400 km west of the capital city Brasilia), and formed their colony in Rio Verde in the state of Goiás. Their contact with the larger Mennonite community in Brazil is mainly through Anabaptist/Mennonite literature they distribute.
After 85 years in Brazil, the number of church membership of all conferences may be estimated as 12,000 to 15,000. In the last 30 years, there have been several divisions and splits in the churches and conferences, mostly because of Pentecostal/charismatic renewal movements. A desire to move away from the German ethnic church culture has also been a factor that led to the formation of several independent Mennonite congregations.
What are the main challenges for Mennonites in Brazil?
- Identity. What does it mean to be a Christian Mennonite in Brazil, where 90 percent of all evangelical Christians are Pentecostal/charismatic/neo-charismatic. Related to this, we still have an ethnic church culture. One leader observed: “We do not live in the colony anymore but the colony is still in us.” Brazilians do not understand this Mennonite mindset and find it foreign to their culture.
- Outreach and acculturation. How to be committed and faithful to a Jesus-centred interpretation of the Bible in the midst of a context of all kinds of religiosity, “Christian superstition,” “direct divine revelation,” power controlling-centred gospel, prosperity gospel, etc.
- Diversity and conflict. The congregations with the German speaking background are reaching to the end of language change. Some have two services, one in each language and others have bilingual worship. Interethnic marriages are more common than before. The new baptized members are mostly non-German background. Cultural and theological diversity are every day more present.
- Leadership. The concept of a servant leader, appointed by the congregation, forming team leadership is being challenged by power-oriented, hierarchical, productivity-centred, even “self-appointed” leadership.
But the Holy Spirit is moving among the different conferences and congregations, to support and help out more each other. The Theological School Fidelis belongs to the 3 bodies: AEM, COBIM and AIMB.
Other projects as the Mennonite School Erasto Gaertner and the Nursing Home Lar Betesda, are under a joint board with Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren.
The need to dialogue, to share experiences, to learn from each other is getting every time more important.
Peter and Gladys Siemens are team pastors at Vila Guaíra Church, Curitiba, Brazil. Gladys also serves on the Deacons Commission of Mennonite World Conference.
This article first appeared in Courier/Correo/Courrier April 2016
Mennonite national churches in Brazil
*Alliança Evangélica Menonita
Headquarters: Paulista, Brazil
Presiding officer: Cristiano Maiximiano de Oliveira
*Associação das Igrejas Menonitas do Brasil
Headquarters: Curitiba, Brazil
Presiding officer: Fridbert August
Church of God in Christ, Mennonite
±Convenção Brasileira das Igrejas Evangélicas Irmãos Menonitas
Presiding officer: Emerson Luis Cardoso
Igreja Evangélica Irmãos Menonitas Renovada
Headquarters: Sao Paulo
Presiding officer: Jose Eguiny Manente
* indicates membership with MWC
± COBIM has re-engaged the process of taking up membership with MWC
Accessed January 2016