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The Last (Divine) Hope for Little Brazil

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The pastor's wife puts out three glasses of water, next to which she places three packets of Bayer Alka-Seltzer. She picks up the first of the packets and clinks it against the first glass. "It is not good enough to just be close to a relationship with God, because you're still sealed shut and unable to let it all fizz and grow," Deiva Izidoro cautions in Portuguese, speaking to a room full of teens and twentysomethings at Astoria's First Brazilian Baptist Church one Friday several weeks ago. (Her son, Lucas, is translating in English for the handful of non-Brazilians in attendance.) Moving on to the second glass of water, she drops in the still-unopened Alka-Seltzer packet. "Even some people who may be in a relationship with God are still closed, unable to talk or share it, limited by something." Finally she picks up the third glass of water and drops in two Alka-Seltzer tablets, which immediately begin to bubble and cloudy the water. "But the person who leaves at home that cape," she says, referring to the packaging that keeps the first four little white tablets from releasing their inner effervescence, "they are now contagioso." It means contagious, much like the theme of that day's sermon -- Vida Cristã Contagiante -- translates as a Contagious Christian Life. It's what Deiva's husband, Pastor Francisco Izidoro, has called his church's 2012 evangelization drive, the first such effort by a Brazilian church in Queens for quite some time.

The First Brazilian Baptist Church of New York -- abbreviated to PIBBRNY -- is a plain, ecru-colored two-story building with a lighted 'Templo Batista' sign out front and a retractable garage door, just a stone's throw from Astoria Park and the East River. Its wood-paneled sanctuary, while better kept than some, is less aspirational than the vaulted ceilings of the Brazilian Adventist church I visited out in Jackson Heights. Its congregation of around 300, while large for a Brazilian Protestant church in the area, is still small compared to nearby Saint Rita's Roman Catholic Church, a predominantly Brazilian parish. And its worship services, while lively, are still a far cry from the soul-rattling din of the Pentecostalist cultos I've attended. Yet despite all these qualifiers, the First Brazilian Baptist Church is thriving while the dozen or so other Brazilian churches surveyed are flailing, or even failing.

The story of this decline is the story of Little Brazil, formerly a block-long strip in midtown Manhattan that in the 90s transplanted to Astoria, in Queens, at a time when the borough's Brazilian population numbered at least 300,000. Today the consulate says it is closer to 45,000, if that. What used to be a healthy flow of Brazilian immigrants coming and going from the United States -- with many staying just a handful of years, enough time to save up for a down payment on a home back in Brazil -- is now an inward trickle offset by an outward flight. Fueled, in no small part, by Brazil's economic miracle. Nowhere is this exodus more acutely felt than in Queens' Brazilian churches.

Churches like the Assembleia de Deus de New York, that a decade ago attracted as many as 500 members, have slowly been relegated to less than 50; some pastors say 10 percent of their congregations disappear back to Brazil each year. By comparison, only three PIBBRNY families left in the past year, according to one church administrator. Churches once financially sustainable are considering consolidating their congregations, and at least four pastors I've interviewed hold down day jobs, often as drivers, to supplement their meager church earnings. Meanwhile, PIBBRNY has seven paid employees, several large meeting rooms, a recording studio for its six bands, and offers weekly soup kitchens and AA-style addiction counseling. Where others rent, PIBBRNY even owns its building outright, once a furniture warehouse and laundromat.

The church's true strength, however, is its large youth contingent, rallied over the years by Deiva's indefatigable energy. "It gives us hope that the church will live on," says Pastor Francisco, an earnest man with a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard -- PIBBRNY's fourth pastor, he took over the church in Oct. 1995. He also points to the congregation's small but growing core of young professionals, which includes his eldest son Lucas, an NYU graduate who currently works on Bloomberg's currency trading platform -- and is pursuing a Master's in Divinity from Nyack College.

One recent Friday, just before rehearsals for the weekly youth service, Lucas remembers how, "slowly but surely God started to change the vision" for the church's youth ministry. "As recently as two years ago we received clear direction, just as the early church did. When we go back to Acts, there were struggles between Hebrews and the Greeks, all these cultural differences. We were living exactly that here -- we have a second generation of immigrants who are growing up here, they feel more American than they do Brazilian. God was showing us that perhaps it was time to face that reality head on and embrace it instead of shy away from it."

Waldemiro Marcelo, not his real name, is one of PIBBRNY's newest members. Being a 33-year-old, Brazilian-born, American-bred, college-educated small business owner, he is exactly the demographic that Lucas was referring to. He and his wife of almost four years joined the church a little over a year ago from the much-diminished Assembleia de Deus congregation, which had moved into a space off the 36th Avenue N and R subway stop. They had hit a marital rough patch and went in search of support -- PIBBRNY stepped into the breach with couples counseling and the promise of a new, younger and more energetic community.

Waldemiro's personal story is one that resonates among the 45 percent of PIBBRNY members who take part in the church's youth ministry. His father began his working life in New York as a shoe shiner and his mother as a housecleaner -- occupations that Brazilian immigrants have long dominated. Waldemiro , who completed high school and earned a chemistry degree from Queens College, now owns his own event planning company. Just a few weeks ago, his car was full of blueprints for a high-end event at the Museum of Modern Art. Waldemiro's wife is the executive personal assistant to a rich Wall Street investor. Many of their new friends at PIBBRNY are architects, research scientists, and college students -- one young man was recently admitted to Columbia with a full ride to study physics. Where Waldemiro's experience diverges from that of his peers is that he, unlike they, does not yet have his papers. While that's not all that uncommon in the Brazilian community more generally, as many as 70 percent of PIBBRNY's members are legal, Pastor Francisco told me. (Conversely, visit the decades-old Luso-Brazilian Adventist Church off the Junction Boulevard 7 stop, and 70 percent or more of its members remain undocumented.) Despite living in legal limbo, his entrepreneurial success is a constant reminder to Waldemiro of what he believes is God's miraculous hand at work, which also granted him and his wife the child that they had so long struggled to conceive.

Over a lunch of medium-rare picanha sirloin and guarana -- Brazil's national drink -- our conversation eventually turns to the Contagious Christian Life campaign, which was the subject of one of Pastor Francisco's recent Sunday addresses. True Christians are "the salt of the Earth and the light of the world," the pastor said, paraphrasing Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, and it is their duty to "share the best of themselves, which is Christ in their lives." Playing soccer, eating churrasco BBQ, or dancing samba should never be the focus, he added -- they are but the bait to bring others into the presence of Jesus de Nazaré. To that end, the congregation receives a weekly task -- present a stranger with a flower or, like Lucas once did, bring cupcakes for all your work colleagues -- engineered to elicit a simple observation from non-crentes, or non-Christians: Why the act of kindness? Over time, the example of a Christ-led life, and opportunities to teach his message, will answer a deeper question the Pastor hopes emerges: Why are these people so happy and at peace all the time, what makes them different? By the end of 2012, PIBBRNY's goal is to spread the Gospel to 100 non-crentes and baptize at least 50 into the church.

The youth contingent is responsible for half that number, Deiva informed her charges once her Alka-Seltzer demonstration was complete. She proceeded to hand out little slips of paper and explained that everyone present should write down the names of five friends or acquaintances who had yet to accept Jesus Christ into their hearts. With this 300-name kickoff, PIBBRNY's sons and daughters got to evangelizing. It quickly paid off. On June 17, Pastor Francisco baptized four new teenage members into PIBBRNY, the first converts to a Contagious Christian Life. And likely not the last.

Scenes from the First Brazilian Baptist Church in Astoria:

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