Brazil’s exclusively inclusive church
By Paulo Whitaker
In Brazil we have a saying, “Soccer and religion are sacred.” Here, as with one’s choice of a favorite soccer team, one’s choice of religion is also not up for discussion. When I discovered here in Sao Paulo a church run by a missionary and a pastor who are lesbian partners, I thought it would be an interesting photo story.
In this megalopolis, there already are a few evangelical churches that are inclusive, accepting people regardless of race, color, economic situation and sexual preference, but the Cidade de Refugio (City Refuge) is the first in Brazil to cater almost exclusively to the gay community. This church, part of the network of the evangelical Assemblies of God, is led by Lanna Holder, a lesbian activist who uses the title of Missionary.
This story was particularly difficult because of the number of subjects involved, and the need to get their and the church’s trust. I confess it took me a while to reach a level of confidence with them so that my pictures were natural. There was also a lot of suspicion among the congregation due to recent financial scandals involving different churches.
Missionary Holder had a complicated past as a young woman, having gone through drug and alcohol addiction, and suffered the discrimination of a lesbian in conservative society. She found her way by converting to Christianity. She says she dropped everything in the name of Jesus and came to join the Assembly of God church where she began to preach. At that time she married a man, had a son, and began preaching against all those aspects of her previous life: drugs, alcohol and homosexuality. Then, fully acknowledging her homosexuality, she separated from her husband and opened the Cidade de Refugio with her new partner, Pastor Rosania Rocha. They call their church a “missionary church.”
The first day I went to a Sunday mass, Holder presented me to the worshipers to explain that I wanted to photograph their congregation. She asked those who didn’t want to be photographed to please change their seats and move to the corners. She directed her words especially to anyone who was not openly gay in daily life.
The worshipers were initially intimidated by my presence in the temple that fits only about 250, and I was the only one not there to pray to Jesus. Every seat was occupied and it was difficult to move about. I took the whole range of lenses with me, but with space so tight I couldn’t use the 300mm, my favorite lens.
It took about three visits for them to become used to my presence, and then it became easier to get the images that really show the emotions and reactions of a church dedicated to the LGBT community. At any given moment, Holder would call on stage the newest members of the church. The first-timers were expected to confirm in front of the congregation that they would be frequent worshipers. It was a moment of glory for them.
I was photographing on stage during those moments, and Holder turned to me and asked me to accept Jesus and join them. It was a very uncomfortable situation for me, but I thanked her and told her I already had God with me.
The last mass I attended was on the first anniversary of the church’s founding, with the Cidade de Refugio overflowing with worshipers. The had to put extra chairs on the stage to accommodate all.
After a few weeks of insisting, I managed to get permission from Missionary Holder and Pastor Rocha to visit their home. They told me that they are working on a project to enlarge the church, and that they will marry next year. At the rate their church is growing, it occurred to me that the famous saying might have to be changed, to “Soccer, religion and sexual orientation are sacred.”