(The following post was written by my wife, Mary.)
Our first trip to Portugal began nicely with us being bumped up to business class on the flights from Grand Rapids to Minneapolis and Minneapolis to Paris! What a difference it makes to be able to stretch out completely and sleep. And we won’t complain about the special food and personal service either. The last leg was a two-and-a-half-hour flight to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. Brothers Joel and Erik Lopes picked us up, and we met Edvanio Silva, the FIEL (fiel means “faithful”) Portugal director, and his wife Rosilene, teen daughters Marina and Haissa, and eight-year-old son Vinnie, as well as Guilermo, the tech guy, for lunch. Then we had a three-hour scenic drive to Faro, Portugal for the weekend, of which the first half passed us by because we couldn’t stay awake. They checked us into a hotel, and we took another nap. It is at times like this that we reflect on our human frailty and the fact that we aren’t getting any younger. We walked to a nearby mall to get water, fruit, and supper.
Portugal is slightly smaller than Indiana, covering 36,000 square miles. Its population is 10.5 million. It is not as rich as some other countries in the European Union, but it is not poverty stricken. Its hard-working citizens treasure their heritage. Even though it is very close to Northern Africa, and it would be easy for Muslim migrants to find work and settle there, most of them go to Germany, France, Norway, and Sweden, because more housing and financial support are offered.
On Easter Sunday, four churches gathered at their denominational camp’s chapel for services. There were about 400 souls there in the morning. They said it would be about half in the afternoon, but about 350 returned. Joel preached in the morning on “How Christ’s Resurrection Shapes Our Hope” from 1 Corinthians 15:19–20, and in the afternoon on “The Only Way to Live and Die” from Philippians 1:21. We are grateful many people can speak some English, or they can snag someone standing nearby to translate. If all else fails, they put their hand on their heart and make an upward motion, with tears and a smile, and say, “Obregato!” (Thank you).
We had supper with Pastor Luis and his wife Maria. Luis lost his first wife 14 years ago in a tragic accident when his children were 11, 14, and 15 years old. Luis and his daughter testified of God’s goodness in helping them through that difficult time. Luis and Maria shared the miraculous way God brought them together ten years ago. They live in Maria’s grandparents’ home and care for her father, Alfonso, and her ninety-one-year-old uncle, Joao, who is nearly blind and deaf. The father was a barber and a taxi driver in New York City for 33 years, before returning to his homeland. Joao had a life-changing experience at 13 years of age when his grandmother warned him that the leaders in their Roman Catholic Church (RCC) were teaching things that did not agree with the Bible, and that he should test everything by the Bible. He never married. He composed music, some testifying of his love for and devotion to God, and he was a professional accordion player. Later he also became a beekeeper. We tasted some of the delicious honey he produced. After Joel prayed for all of them, Joao prayed and thanked God for that minister from America, for his grandmother, and for a special person who helped him over the years, that God would save him. We were so impressed with the care and kindness Luis and Maria expended on these elderly men. It was a special Easter for us.
Monday morning, we went for a long walk in a nature reserve along an estuary by the Atlantic Ocean. We have been surprised at how refreshingly cool it has been (50s and 60s), considering Portugal’s latitude. We were also surprised so many people wore winter coats. The southern half of the country is dry and the northern half is green. Luis picked us up at 11:00, and with a member of his church, Julieta, we traveled the three hours back to Lisbon, this time with our eyes open. They did not know English well, so conversation had a lot of back and forth questioning to make sure we understood each other, with both humor and frustration infused. It helps that Portuguese and English both have a Latin base.
We have been to the FIEL conference many times in Brazil, where it gets about 1300 ministers and their wives. The evangelical movement in Portugal is small but growing. The conference here is in its fourteenth year. There were 50 attendees for many years, but four years ago the Silva family moved here from Brazil, made many improvements to the program, and now the numbers are up to about 300. The whole family is involved; they are very observant and in tune to the needs of the attendees, even eight-year-old Vinnie who helped us carry our bags to our room, who patted his friend on the back when he was coughing, and whose eyes were always darting around, quick and ready to help.
Portugal is traditionally Roman Catholic, but many are only nominal Catholics now. Monasteries and convents have closed or down-sized. Many of the people at the conference have come out of the RCC and still have family in it. Others have come through the Pentecostal church or Jehovah’s Witnesses. FIEL has an Adopt-A-Pastor program where donors sponsor a pastor so that he can come to the conference and receive Reformed books throughout the year.
The speakers were Augustus Nicodemus Lopes, Mike McKinley, Mez McConell, Jose Pinto Ferreira, and Joel. I spoke to the ladies twice. The theme was “The Health of the Church.” Joel spoke four times: “The Church Cherished” (Matt. 16:18b), “The Church Purchased” (Matt. 27:46), “The Church Preserved” (Luke 22:31–32), and “The Church Married” (Rev. 19:6–9).” I spoke on “The Kindness of the Church’s Savior” and “Blooming in Your Church Garden.” Lodging, meals, addresses, and book sales all took place in the same venue. We took several walks in the neighborhood.
There is a small group of young families that are trying to start a Christian cooperative homeschool, in order to rear their children according to biblical principles that they would not receive in the public school. Homeschooling is legal in Portugal.
We met again a friend who told us a few years ago in Brazil that he was greatly convicted by an address Joel did on family worship, particularly by a statement of Thomas Brooks, “A family without prayer is like a house without a roof, exposed to all the storms of the heavens.” He is still faithfully doing family worship. We praise God when we hear of stories like this, knowing how young children interpret so much of life through the lens of principles that their parents teach them.
Both Joel and I had the privilege of meeting people who have read and studied our books (my one and his many). It gives us joy to be used as instruments in God’s hands to influence souls in a Godward direction—my hubby on the forefront, and me in a supporting role. We are thankful for the opportunities that we have to travel to different places and for Joel to preach from the beautiful Book of books, proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to sinners. We pray that our hearts might truly be in line with Scripture, that our walk of life might coincide with our testimony, and that we might be humble servants, used to do His bidding.
On Thursday afternoon, a small group of us toured a bit of Lisbon (Joel’s translator, Thiago and his family, Pastor Jonatas, and Augustus Nicodemus and Minka Lopes). Our first stop was to experience coffee and the famous tart, pasteis de nata, in the first restaurant to bake them, following the recipe of the monks in the Jeronimos Monastery from before the 1700s. With fresh vigor, we walked the waterfront of the Tagus River near its mouth into the Atlantic. The Padrao dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) commemorates the place where many ships departed for exploration and trade to India and the Orient in the 15th and 16th centuries. Portugal was a world power, building a vast empire, controlling territories in South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. But over the centuries, the Dutch, English, and French took over the spice and slave trade by conquering the Portuguese trading posts and territories.
From old Lisbon, we went to the modern part of the city, where apartments can sell for more than a million dollars. Many Chinese are buying them up. Where ever we go, the Chinese are building infrastructure and buying up property. At Peter’s Cafe we ate traditional beef stew of the Azores, which is a group of nine islands, located 850 miles off the shore of Portugal. We had wonderful conversation with Jonatas, Augustus, and Minka. We overnighted in a hotel, then up at 3:30 to fly home. May God bless and grow the Reformed church in Portugal!