Categorized | Brazilian, Featured, Queens, Religion

A House of Prayer for All Nations

Pastor Gerald Steele

Pastor Gerald Steele stands in the House of Prayer for All Nations after the Sunday service. Credit: LIZ FIELDS

A Brazilian church in Astoria is fighting for survival amid changing neighborhood demographics, coming up with some innovative ways to grow and encompass the area’s diversity.

At Pastor Gerald Steele’s surprise 67th birthday party in September, it was clear that the Brazilian community in Queens has welcomed the Columbus, Ohio, native as one of their own. In the luncheon room above a small missionary church in Astoria, a crowd chattered in Portuguese around buffet trays of crispy bacon Farofa, and assorted churrasco. A tiered cake bore an edible figurine of the pastor, represented by his signature glasses, bald head and generous beer belly.

The celebration was “so Brazilian, so warm and embracing,” said Steele, who speaks English with a Midwest inflection and fluent Portuguese with a Rio accent. The latter was acquired during the 16 years Steele and his wife, Miriam, worked as missionaries in Brazil.

With his background, Steele is the perfect figurehead to sweep in and erase the ethnic boundaries separating the very multicultural Astoria neighborhood (home to over 100 ethnic groups, according to the Central Astoria Local Development Coalition Inc.) and a tight-knit 60 or 70-strong congregation of what was long-known as the Brazilian Missionary Church.

Throughout New York City, churches that serve ethnic communities can easily find themselves struggling for survival when neighborhood demographics change. In Astoria, the number of Brazilians has actually increased – up from about 500 in 2006 to 3,300 in 2010. But, so have the populations of other immigrant groups.

Pastor Steele said the immense and growing cultural and religious diversity in the area is demonstrated by the fact that “two and a half blocks down from the Church, there is a Muslim mosque, and on the back street, a Buddhist center.”

Amid that diversity, Steele set out six months ago to widen the embrace of the Brazilian Missionary Church. First, he re-named it A House of Prayer for All Nations – a move applauded by Jeff Getz, the regional director for The Missionary Church, who looks after 14 different ethnic churches in the New York state area, two of which are Brazilian.

Getz said that, like many ethnic congregations, the Brazilian churches are in a constant tension between staying true to their culture and their desire to grow.

“They need to grow and become more diverse to match their neighborhoods,” said Getz, “but they have been tempted to hold onto their culture through the church.”

For a Missionary congregation, whose stated goal is “to evangelize and make disciples” across all nations, that goal is particularly imperative. That’s why, two years ago, Getz brought Steele into a discussion with the church’s senior leaders to discuss plans for a transition. Neither man expected the leaders to ask Steele to stay and fill the void of their last Brazilian pastor, who had just left to start his own Spanish-speaking church in the area.

But Getz seized upon the idea with enthusiasm.

“The fact that they put in place a pastor, a leader who was not Brazilian born, that was a huge thing,” said Getz, ” I thought it would be very strategic, because so much of an impression on a church is the person who is doing the main teaching.”

Despite his obligations in missions overseas, Steele agreed to come on board, moving into the two-bedroom apartment above the church and integrating himself into the Brazilian community. He then began to institute a series of reforms, the most notable of which was rebranding the Church to reflect ‘All Nations’.



“I saw very little resistance to the name change,” said Steele, “which kind of surprised me a little bit.”

Steele’s second strategy has been to provide translations for non-Portuguese speaking worshippers.

When new members drop into regular Sunday services at the church, parishioner Ivone Angola can often be seen huddled at the back of the room, simultaneously feeding her young baby and translating through a wireless microphone and headset piece.

“Sometimes I translate for groups and sometimes for individuals who come in,” said Angola, who trained to be an early childhood carer. “I don’t mind at all, because I get to listen to His word twice – once in Portuguese and once in English.”
The church’s third neighborhood outreach strategy has been a gradual introduction of services spoken entirely in English, with a Portuguese translation.

“The primary goal of moving to an English service would be to not lose the next generation,” said Steele, “but in addition to that, we’d also like to reach out to the 127 ethnicities that we have in Astoria.”

But for some of the older Brazilian generation, the church has traditionally served as a spiritual connection to their culture and home country, through songs and words spoken in their native language. For them, the switch to English could prove to be more difficult – and perhaps alienating, since the narrow demographic of the Brazilian congregation gave them a strong sense of community and belonging.

Alzidea Silva, 76, is the oldest member of the congregation and said she speaks only “one or two words” of English. She is torn between her belief that the church should retain its close ties with Brazilian culture and recognition of its need to reflect greater diversity.

“I believe that it can’t change, and it shouldn’t, because it’s a Brazilian church. A Brazilian community has to remain,” said Silva, who at the same time said she supports Steele’s reforms and the name change. “The Brazilian church is more than Brazilians. Church and prayer is for all people.”

But despite all of Steele’s attempts to net a wider audience, of the 15 new members the church has attracted in the last year, very few have been scooped from the neighborhood’s ethnic melting pot.

“Most are American men married to Brazilian women,” said associate pastor Wagner Castro.

Steele acknowledges he still has a lot of work ahead of him if the House of Prayer for All Nations is to grow to reflect the diversity of its new name.

“A passage out of the Old Testament says: ‘Where there is no vision, people perish,'” he said. “It’s one thing to cast vision, but it takes a while for people to own that vision.”


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