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Valdir Steuernagel and Marcell Silva Steuernagel on the Witness and Identity of the Lutheran church in South Brazil

In this episode, father and son Valdir Steuernagel and Marcell Silva Steuernagel share with Maria Cornou about the witness, embodiment, and community of the Lutheran church in south Brazil during the COVID-19 crisis. This conversation was recorded in the fall of 2020 as part of a global worship course Prof. Cornou taught at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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This interview occurred in the fall of 2020 as part of a course "Learning from Worshiping Communities Worldwide" offered by Calvin Theological Seminary and taught by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff Maria Cornou and John D. Witvliet.

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Episode Transcript:

Host: 

Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In this series of conversations hosted by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff members, we invite you to explore connections between the public worship practices of congregations and the dynamics of Christian life and witness in a variety of cultural contexts, including places of work, education, community development, artistic and media engagement, and more. Our conversation partners represent many areas of expertise and a range of Christian traditions offering insights to challenge us as we discern the shape of faithful worship and witness in our own communities. In this episode, father and son Valdir Steuernagel and Marcell Silva Steuernagel share with María Cornou about the witness, embodiment, and community of the Lutheran Church in southern Brazil during the COVID-19 crisis. This conversation was recorded in the fall of 2020 as part of a global worship course. Professor Cornou taught at Calvin Theological Seminary.

María Cornou: 

Today I'm interviewing two good friends from Brazil, father and son, Dr. Valdir and Dr. Marcell Steuernagel, from [inaudible] Curitiba in Brazil, in southern Brazil. And Marcell is a Brazilian living in Texas, in Dallas, Texas. Welcome to our class, and thank you very much for joining us in this interview. I like to start by asking you if you could please introduce yourself to our class.

Valdir Steuernagel: 

I am the old guy here and I thank you very much for this opportunity. I am Valdir Steuernagel, I live in Curitiba. I am a Lutheran pastor with a PhD in the area of church history with specialization in missiology. I would say that my emphasis is much more in Latin American theologies [and] mission out of the deep South, but I'm a pastor by heart and have had many years of contact within World Vision International.

Marcell Steuernagel: 

I'm Marcell Silva Steuernagel, a Brazilian stuck in Texas. And I was in ministry for a good while before I transitioned into a career in academia. In fact, both of us , my father and I, worked together at church for a little bit before I left. My PhD is in church music studies, and I currently serve as the director of the Master of Sacred Music program at SMU Perkins and professor of church music.

María Cornou: 

That's a great combination for the conversation we are having today. So as we had discussed earlier , this is a course about responses to this particular COVID crisis around the globe. And we want to have this perspective from the Global South, and I know Marcell, you live here, but you are also connected back at home. So my first question is about your worshiping community in Brazil. If you could share with us a little bit of the Comunidad Igreja de Redentor or the Lutheran Church in Brazil in general, a little bit of the constituency, the environment, the context in which the church is doing ministry

Marcell Steuernagel: 

Redeemer Lutheran Church is a church of the ... ECLCB , the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil. We're a small denomination by Brazilian standards, under a hundred people---I mean a million---sorry, we're not that small yet! But that represents a little of the ... Brazil is still, if I'm not mistaken, the largest Catholic-majority country in the world, but what we call in Brazil evangélicos, evangelical---which is a very different thing than North American evangelicals; I just want to point that out---went from being less than 10% of the country's population in the '60s and '70s to over 20%, so a significant political, sociopolitical presence. And that's changed a lot of the issues around evangelical identity in the country. This is an immigrant-based Lutheran church; it came to Brazil through German and Eastern European immigration not only from the Lutheran denominational strain, but also on the spectrum of the Reformation, if you will, and coalesced into a denomination after the second World War with a ... federation of synods that then became a denomination and became the ECLCB. Redeemer Lutheran is a 150-year-old congregation that gathers in the Centennial Temple in downtown Curitiba right at the intersection of the nightlife, the museums, the pubs, the cultural center of town. How many people live in Curitiba now? Is it 3 million?

Valdir Steuernagel: 

Close. Big Curitiba, we call it.

Marcell Steuernagel: 

So it's a good way to describe it is the whole free church tradition of Firsts, right? You have First Baptist, First Methodist, and in that sense Redentor could be considered First Lutheran because of its of its age and because it ends up having this kind of resonance throughout the denomination. We moved to [unintelligible] in the '90s because my dad was starting a Lutheran seminary in Curitiba; he was the director. This was the early '90s; I was a teenager, got involved in ministry, started leading worship. And that led to a position on staff for over a decade. And then my dad came to work with me for ... how long---five years, was that? Five, no three years we worked together. ... COVID has transcended all sense of time and history for me. ... And the American descriptor I use is "Luthercostal." The constellation of worship practices that you would expect at Redeemer has the Latin American engagement with the Lutheran theology, a more "traditional service" ... on Sunday mornings and a more "contemporary" service ... on Sunday evenings, a lot of young people, and a vibrant church,

María Cornou: 

Dr. Valdir, is this congregation still predominantly of European descent, or is (it) already a more inculturated kind of community?

Valdir Steuernagel: 

It is today a more inculturated community. However, the DNA is still there. I think from what Marcell said, if you have a migrant church that came with this Lutheran kind of identity in terms of the aesthetics, in terms of the style, the architecture, the liturgy, how do you bring this into a Brazilian culture and the Brazilian context? So it's quite a challenge, but if you know Brazil, you would say that in the south of Brazil you have more of a European influence, northern European influence, than you have in other parts of Brazil. So this is why Curitiba Redeemer Church i s not atypical in terms of Brazil, of the culture in Curitiba. But what I stress is that I think the Redeemer Church is part of a network of churches that have been struggling with a nominal kind of denomination that is ethnic(ally) determined. It's limited to the south; it's nominal. And how do you grow out of that living kind of church experience, worshiping community, engaging new generations, reaching out to the culture that surrounds you? I think Redeemer Church has been struggling with that---being successful in some aspects and struggling in others, I would say.

María Cornou: 

And for those who do not know Brazil well, southern Brazil, as you mentioned, is the area where you find more European descent or whiter Brazilians, but also more affluent in contrast with northeast Brazil, where it is probably the poorest area in the country, and also ethnically more African slave descent. So you have all the contrast in the country for our students to understand that you are in the more affluent and whiter part of the country.

Valdir Steuernagel: 

Yeah. And that is a little bit of our family experience because Silêda, my wife, she's from the very northeast of Brazil, Maranhão, and not a German descendant. So how do you bring together that kind of different cultural flavor and merging it also into the Lutheran church for her? And I think Marcell and our other boys came out of that kind of mixture. And that probably left them a little bit confused.

María Cornou: 

Well, the good thing of northeast Brazil is that it's the best food ever. So ... in this sense, it's a wonderful combination of cultures there. So you are in Brazil; Marcell, of course, in Texas, but related to this community, your home church in Brazil. That is one of the blessings of COVID, that we can worship again with our home churches wherever they are. How has this particular situation, the COVID crisis, impacted your community, the faith community, and the community around the church, and what are the main changes [or] challenges the community has faced throughout this month.

Valdir Steuernagel: 

I think if you talk a little bit of a broader perspective of what Marcell said earlier are the evangelical communities in Brazil, evangelical churches in Brazil, I think are the Redeemer Church , myself, Marcell, we have been very much identified with that trend within the churches in Brazil. So ... COVID, it's a scary kind of experience because for the last couple of decades now, the evangelical churches in Brazil, they have been growing, they have been expanding, they have been building new churches, planting churches, diversifying the ministries, and somehow becoming a very public church, a very performatic church, program-oriented church. And when COVID arrived, I think we were kind of surprised, lost, and also scared. So it has happened to me that some pastors say, well, can you talk to some of our pastors and give them some word of encouragement because they are struggling with agony, with depression. So, because we in Brazil became very much public, but I would mention as a program- oriented church, a church that likes the gospel culture, the singing, the dancing, the movement, the noise, the big temples, the mic, the technology of communication, the money, the power---that has been the trend within our church. It became a church that has learned to move in the public arena for the last couple of decades and years. And somehow COVID tells us, look, why are you so confused? What happened to you? Do you need to reinvent yourself? How do you survive? And so I think those are some of the questions that we struggle with. So I will say first at the beginning, there was quite a strong reaction---"don't close churches," and the pressure to reopen: "Let's open, let's open, let's reopen. We need to have that public experience because this is somehow our soul." And this, I would say, in terms of the gospel is very counterproductive because you just want to go with the flow, with the performance. Second, we went quite quickly virtual, a lot of lives and the church online. And one of the marks of our evangelical trajectory is that we are divisive. We like our own things. We like to start our own ministry, our own business, we do our own stuff. So we have been ... invaded by so many different, different Zooms and ... all those virtual sermons, programs, so that there is fatigue on that. So I think that is something that we have been struggling with too. I will add in two comments here and then Marcell, you can jump in. I think that some of our churches have been learning to go out and to serve and to help, to be an instrument of help. The rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that at aa time like this, people don't want to know what you say, but what you do. And so in our local church, our social project, for example, the coordinator has been telling me, look, [unintelligible] cannot stop. Even if we cannot gather the children, we are helping. So finding ways to serve people in this kind of environment, it's something that we are learning---at least some of our churches are learning. And my final [comment] is that the whole missionary challenge has been quite huge to us because the whole mission industry has been challenged through COVID in terms of not only the finances, but the methodology, the relationship, and we are now at the Latin American level even starting to discuss about how much have we been affected and what are some of the avenues we have to pursue.

María Cornou: 

Fascinating.

Marcell Steuernagel: 

Can I tag onto that with a few things? I want to clarify two things for the American viewers ...

Valdir Steuernagel: 

Yeah, Marcell, correct my English now and position it differently, please!

Marcell Steuernagel: 

That's not what I'm going to do. God forbid. But I think the first thing is, when you say "gospel" [music] in Brazil, that means the Christian ... our version of CCM, right? The Brazilian Christian music industry. So it's not American Black gospel; it's something else. And it's a phenomenon unto its own. There's a lot of information out there about that. The second is what we mean by "evangelical." Maybe it's good to clarify. So at large, in Latin America--this is not true only of Brazil, but in Latin America with its history of Catholic colonialism--"evangelico" is anyone who defines themselves in contrast to that. So everyone gets kind of bundled together into this huge group within which you have the historic Protestant denominations, the neo - Pentecostals, the Pentecostals, and then all the squabbling back and forth still happens. Right? One part of that--and we've experienced that in the US as well , in North America, is that a lot of these fringe denominations, a lot of Pentecostals, for example, leveraged technology much earlier than mainliners. So while Presbyterians and Lutherans said, "This is not what we do. We don't need to do this. Let's let them do that," now everyone has scrambled to get online and is paying for that arrogance, if you will, because on some level, you've just got to learn how to do it if you want to stay in touch with people. And it's a culture of gathering, so I think there's an added sense of grief. We're all grieving that we can't go to church, but in Latin America, I know in Brazil, that's particularly poignant because it's a very hands-on sort of culture. So being able to see the people, be with the people, touch the people, hug the people--that sense of embodiment is such a strong component of Brazilian ecclesiology. That to have that removed is extremely painful. So that sense of grief I think is there. The whole issue of digital sustainability, in the beginning, as Valdir says, everyone wants to do their own thing. Then you start to realize that if you're going to do that for six months, you can't put the same level of energy as you would if you were doing it for three weeks or four weeks. So you start seeing this shift. I'm in close contact with Fernando Silva, who is the current worship arts minister at Redentor, which was my job. And we've talked about [how] he's putting effort into different things now than at the beginning of the pandemic. So once you find your voice for the congregation and the media with which the congregation is engaging, then you kind of stick to those spaces instead of trying to branch out to every single thing.

María Cornou: 

Yes, and at the beginning, it was in most cases just to replicate what was done in the church building before, and now they are trying to find new ways, right.

Marcell Steuernagel: 

And, you know, liturgical practices and worship are continually adapting in that regard? So as COVID starts to become, in a sense, normalized, for better or for worse, then if you didn't have a small worship music contingent before you now start experimenting with two or three people, a cajón and a guitar and a singer, socially distanced, and get them to record something. So I think there's a continual negotiation there.

María Cornou: 

Sure. It's fascinating to see different approaches and different adjustments. And this has lasted much more than we had anticipated. So we are all learning in this process.

Host: 

You are listening to Public Worship and the Christian Life: Conversations for the Journey, a podcast produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Check out our website at worship.calvin.edu for resources related to this topic and many other aspects of public worship.

María Cornou: 

Switching gears, I'm glad to have a musicologist and a doctor in liturgical studies and liturgical theology, because one of my main areas of interest--and I think it's a very important conversation in today's context--is this relationship between mission and worship that traditionally have been approached as two very different areas in both the academy and in practice. But I'd like to listen to you, what you think about this relationship. Some people talk about missional worship in these days, trying to recover this sense of unity between these two important church ministries.

Valdir Steuernagel: 

I think you need to go for that, Marcell.

Marcell Steuernagel: 

You know, I'm going to start with a little story. So for twenty years, since the mid-nineties to all the way through 2018, which was when we performed our last concert, I was part of a band called [ unintelligible]. We started this when we were teenagers. And for twenty years, we did a ton of outreach working with para-ecclesiastical organizations , different churches across the denominational spectrum. By the time we were done, I had this strong sense that we were absolutely outdated, that the paradigm of mission upon which we built our twenty-year stint was not useful because it was based on a couple of assumptions about the church and culture--Christ and culture, go back to Niehbur. And those shifted. An example of that shift is the relationship of Western culture and Christianity. So if after Elvis Presley you get into this place where it's not cool to be a Christian in the entertainment industry, by the second decade of the 21st century, it's cool to be a Christian, and Justin Bieber can Instagram himself singing worship songs, and it's fine. Or there's a really good book called Rock Gets religion, Mark Joseph, 2017, talks about that. And so I use that as an illustration to say, to recognize, to acknowledge that a lot of the ways we've thought about mission and worship throughout the history, or even just throughout the modern history of Christendom--and I use that very specifically--are tied with particular colonial networks and forces with particular types of curation that connect the North and the South with particular types of industry, like the hymnal publishing industry or the liturgical resource industry, things like that. That's all messed up. I mean, you can still have the hymnal, but the hymnal can't compete with YouTube and Spotify. So that changed what we mean by mission, I think. And I'm going to focus on four little words from a class that I'm teaching this semester that focuses on digitally mediated ministry at large, not just during the COVID pandemic. As Perkins prepares MDiv students for ministry, we felt like we needed a course that equip them to do digital ministry. I think Teresa Berger, Catholic scholar, she wrote a book in 2017 called At Worship, and she talks about digitally suffused living. So the boundary between our physical life, our in-person life, and our digital life is a transparent boundary. You're never without your phone. No one goes out somewhere without Google Maps any longer. So with that idea in mind, what does witness mean? That's the first word. That's the first question. I'm just going to ask questions; I'm going to mess this up. I'm not going to give you any answers. Sorry. The second is, what does embodiment mean in relation to incarnational theology and presence, and how does that crystallize differently into a digital environment, into an in-person environment, and into the full spectrum of participation between those two poles? The third is--and directly a direct consequence from the embodiment thing--is, what does community look like? In the history of the church, in the history of church missions, community has been a powerful factor. Missionaries established community, and the community becomes a place from which further endeavors kind of resonate outwards. What does that mean when our community is no longer classically understood as a building with a bunch of people in it, which we can't have right now? And then the last--I said witness, I said embodiment, and I said community, I think the truth is that these things are unevenly combined as churches find ways to do outreach, to bear witness to the gospel. For one congregation, it's going to involve a lot more Facebook; for others it's going to involve less Facebook. It might involve--I have one student who's working at a rural church; they're doing phone calls, and it's working. It's not a new strategy. But it's working great. And so sometimes going back to analog, especially if you have a bad internet connection, you can do snail mail and it, works great. So there's various combinations there, but I think the connection remains important. And I'll close with this. I was talking to my students and we were realizing together that we went from preliterate, oral cultures and the place of liturgy within those cultures and worship was one, to literate cultures, which relied on the written word as the main means of transmitting or sharing knowledge, to a post-literate culture. Nowadays, when I watch a YouTube video, I don't take notes because I can always watch it again. If I'm trying to learn how to make bread or plant seeds or start a garden on my balcony, it's oral and it's visual and it's readily available. So an idea of witness and mission based on the written word, on that very strict modern sense of the written word as the bearer of the gospel--and I'm using those differently--I think a lot of it has been jumbled up, which brings us back into a place where we have to think about the senses in a different way and about the digitally suffused senses, both on the sending and on the receiving end of that equation. I'm going to stop now because that's a lot, I don't know, Dad, what do you want to add?

Valdir Steuernagel: 

Oh, I can't handle that! Yeah, it looks like we need some kind of listening and breathing space. COVID has accelerated, so to say, changes, crises, questions, and we have all become deeply tired of reaching out to new ways of communcation, letting go of the past, and at the same time going into the new that we don't know exactly what it is. So we need some kind of breathing space. And I think one of the questions is how can the churches provide that breathing space and not adding more things online while at the same time having to survive by doing things online. I think it's a huge kind of challenge. We need a listening space. Listening in terms of saying, what is going on? Listening to the zeitgeist, the science of the times. Listening to the agonies, listening to the pain that is going on. I am moderating a weekly kind of [life?] with a couple of organizations, and we have been talking with health workers. Tomorrow we will be talking about people who have survived COVID, about loneliness, so many different aspects that we are all kind of run over, so we need some space for that. And I think the gospel provides that resting space that becomes a nurturing space for something new that can emerge in our souls, in our journeys, in our relationships. And somehow ... looking at the church in Brazil that has become so aggressively public, so embedded [in] our culture of consumption, there are a few things that we need to go back to. We need to go back to simplicity, simple relationships, priesthood of all believers, home worship. We need to stress again integrity, a lifestyle that somehow speaks to what we are, to our identity. I think we need to rebuild relationships. We are broken in this COVID. And finally we need to find the road of compassion in a society that is emerging more divided, more polarized, poorer, with more injustice, and with less wealth distribution, and with an environment that is being sacrificed by a kind of consumption culture that wants to accumulate more and more--to learn again to be a church in a kind of prophetic venue that can go counterculture.

María Cornou: 

Thank you. Thank you very much. I have a last question that goes back to this large and new theme of the COVID crisis. And in this class, we are trying to gather wisdom from different parts of the world. If you had to choose some advice, some gift that the church from Brazil could share with our siblings in Christ here, in other parts of the world, which wisdom, which lessons from this experience would you like to share?

Valdir Steuernagel: 

I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Because somehow I'm thinking, I think we can need that advice. And we are not really in a position to provide that kind of--what can you say? We need to find it out ... in relation to each other, we need to work together. We need to learn lessons. And I would say that looking at it from Brazil, in terms of the U,S there are so many common trends today in terms of polarization, a divisive situation, racism, unemployment, that we need to invest in common venues of conversation and relationship in order to listen again. And that I would say--it's listen, listen to each other, listen to the advice of God , be open to a new listening to the Spirit. And that, that is one word that I would say: listen. Second, don't stay alone. Don't stay alone. Look for someone else, look for someone else. And don't be satisfied with the virtual. Find avenues of service, of helping, of reaching out, of loving, of compassion, because those are some of the trends that you can see present in the life and the history of the church, isn't it? Listen to the voice of God that comes through the Spirit and through each other, building relationships that help you to become a witnessing community and reaching out to those that need to be embraced because we have been embraced and they will embrace us as we serve each other.

Marcell Steuernagel: 

I was going to say the same thing. I don't remember a moment in recent history in which the social/political landscape of Brazil and the US are so similar, in the worst possible sense: polarized, aggressive, truculent. And I think COVID has catalyzed many of the poisons that were already in place. I'll just be frank and say it; I don't want to gloss over the fact that we're living through a difficult time. I'm absolutely sure that the next major pastoral challenge will be mental health. That's going to be the thing. The things I want to mention--and this is from conversations in Brazil and conversations here in classroom work with students who are mostly in congregations and struggling with these things themselves. The first is going back to something that Valdir said about listening. I think it's always been the case in pastoral work that there's a point when you understand the difference between a programming presence, putting on a program, whether live, or in-person, or virtual, is different than being present. And if being present is the challenge that we have in front of us right now, then it is the pastoral responsibility to find ways to listen and be present. That may mean a variety of different things. You know, some churches are establishing small quarantine pods, two or three families that worship together, different things like that. Sometimes a phone call. I'll give an example from my relationship with my parents. I remember my grandparents--my uncle would stop by not necessarily every day, but every other day at the end of the day, just to check in. And it's a habit: you check in, you have a little bit of sausage with bread and then you chat a little bit and move on. During this COVID season I've found I can do that with my parents. So every other day, I just check in. I don't need and agenda item. I just want the discipline. And that's an important question in terms of wisdom: what are the spiritual disciplines we're practicing right now. I would argue that the spiritual discipline of checking in has become incredibly important because the scaffolding for community that we had is not in place. So how you build a web that allows that to move forward. Another one is talking across boundaries. So I've tried to spend time talking to the people that think differently than I do about politics, about the church, because I've come to realize that there is no middle, there's no center anymore. So the discipline of being able to sit there and shut up and again, listen. We've heard that even when you really want to throw something at them, it's just shut up and listen, even when it's really hard. And finally I encourage us all, and this is very Lutheran, to make a transition as we grieve to a place of flourishing. When you think of Luther's theology of creation, the place of humankind within that theology, there's this fundamental promise of God's goodness and faithfulness, finding ways to slow down enough to where you can feel the whispers of that promise in life is incredibly difficult, and itt was incredibly difficult before, but I think the kind of introspection that has become part of the way we live now affords the search for that "be still and know that I am God." And I've tried to build windows into my day where I just sit on a chair and just sit there--because I don't have to commute, so maybe I'll take those twenty minutes before my next Zoom meeting, which are becoming increasingly rare, and I'll just sit there. So I think we can learn a lot from the Christian tradition, the mystic Christian tradition, the monastic tradition , and start rebuilding some of that into our spirituality, which has become very dependent on programs instead of presence.

María Cornou: 

Thank you very much. Listening, being, being present. This is great advice as we are all continuing learning throughout this journey. I really appreciate you joining us today. May God bless you, your families, and your congregation and the church in Brazil.

Steuernagels: 

Thank you, Doctor. Thank you.

Host: 

Thanks for listening. We invite you to visit our website at worship.calvin.edu to learn more about the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, an interdisciplinary study and ministry center dedicated to the scholarly study of the theology, history, and practice of Christian worship and the renewal of worship in worshiping communities across North America and beyond.

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