PEABODY, Mass. (BP) – A grim statistic has created new ministry for New England pastor Antonio Luis Ferreira. With more than 400,000 deaths, Brazil ranks second only to the United States in tragedy related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ferreira pastors First Brazilian Baptist Church, also known as Lovely Church, a congregation of about 80 in Peabody. It’s among 42 Portuguese-speaking churches in the five states served by the Baptist Convention of New England, according to Joe Souza, the BCNE’s ethnic ministry coordinator. Many of those have been hit hard by the tragedy unfolding back home.
“This is probably the worst time for Brazilians,” Ferreira said. “We have many Brazilian families that are losing family members in Brazil, and they don’t have conditions to say goodbye and stay with their families, for the legal or economic reasons.”
For varying reasons, many Brazilians in New England are not able to travel to Brazil to help their families when COVID-19 claims a life.
“They can’t return to see them, visiting when someone dies or when someone is seriously sick,” Ferreira said. “They feel the pain of their loved ones at a distance and of their own solitude here, too far from home. So, the church has been their only family in [this] country.”
Ferreira describes himself as a “social worker, psychologist and mental health counselor” in his ministry to immigrants, especially in the age of COVID-19. He estimates that almost half of those he ministers to have lost at least one family member back home in Brazil.
“Some of them has lost more than one,” he said. “They are emotionally tired because of this, but they are thankful for the presence of the church in their lives.”
Ferreira and his family have sung and prayed with many families, remaining outside to remain safe, even when temperatures dipped in the colder months.
“It was a blessing to bring them love and hope,” he said.
Lovely Church has helped families cope with the emotional and economic losses of the pandemic, expanding their outreach beyond the church to include those in need of spiritual salvation.
“First of all, we have helped families with food donation, not only church families, but also and especially non-Christians, church friends and their relatives,” he said.
The church has covered food, medication and utility costs, run errands to the market and helped with housecleaning, among other chores. Ferreira has encouraged church members to get COVID-19 vaccinations and has helped them complete documents for unemployment and other COVID-19-related financial assistance.
He estimates that about 80 percent of the members have received at least their first COVID-19 vaccine dose, often with his help; he has at times worked late into the night to make vaccination appointments online.
Ferreira said no members of Lovely Church died of COVID. The church is gradually resuming onsite worship while following health guidelines including masking, social distancing and cleaning. Nationwide in the U.S., more than 590,000 people have died from COVID-19.
Ferreira estimates the greater Boston area has 150,000 Brazilian immigrants and descendants, although numbers vary. The Migration Policy Institute (MIG) estimated 51,000 Brazilian immigrants lived in the Boston-Cambridge-Newton (Massachusetts – New Hampshire) metropolitan area in 2017, based on 2013-2017 U.S. Census Bureau numbers, but said there were 16,000 unauthorized Brazilian immigrants in Boston alone in 2012.
“To be a pastor of immigrants is a different job,” Ferreira said. “I am in a small church … and my team is my family, thanks to God! We are happy to make a difference in so many lives.”