When my broadcast career took an unexpected detour in 2003, I was fortunate to catch on for a time with Great Cities Missions (formerly Continent of Great Cities), a non-profit organization dedicated to planting churches throughout the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world. GCM was inspired and founded by a team of Abilene Christian University graduates who in 1961 sailed from the Port of Houston to Santos, Brazil, en route to Sao Paulo with plans to plant a church.
Their mission strategy was (and still is to some) revolutionary: go as a team; work with and raise up local, long-term leaders; and find a location in the heart of an urban metropolis. So maybe it is fitting that the site of the first permanent congregation they established was on a busy avenue named for the day – the 9th of July (Nove de Julho) – on which the people of Sao Paulo in 1932 revolted against a corrupt government. That regime has long since passed, but the church – not just the building, but the people – remains standing and for decades has been under its own leadership.
But the 1961 team didn’t stop there. Those 16 families fanned out across the massive Brazilian landscape (the entire continental United States can fit inside Brazil’s borders) and established congregations in virtually every sizable city, most of which are on the eastern coastline. In 1980, those families founded GCM to recruit, train and send teams to many of those same cities to strengthen the church already there, and to plant new ones.
How forward-thinking was this previously untested strategy? Consider that a half century later, every single city where World Cup matches have been contested has a congregation created either by that 1961 team or one sent by GCM. Some of those churches are huge, some are small; but almost all of them are organizationally and financially self-sustained.
When the rolls of 1961 Sao Paulo team members and GCM missionaries are called down yonder, you hear a who’s who of ACU. The original group included noted multilingual evangelist and Herald of Truth contributor Glenn Owen (’58) and his wife, Marlene (Mueller ’58); and former Students’ Association president and Christian Chronicle editor Howard Norton (’57) and his wife, Jane (Pearce ’58).
After Brazil’s stunning 7-1 defeat by Germany in Tuesday’s World Cup semifinal match (the country’s worst loss in its 85 years competing in the quadrennial competition), today was a national day of grief for Brasileros, as well as my friends at GCM, most of whom root as passionately or more so for their adoptive homeland as the one from which they came.
But in the midst of their mourning, Sao Paulo’s citizens (Paulistas) will still observe Nove de Julho and remember those who fought for a free republic. And as they do, I’ll be thinking about another kind of uprising, one engineered more than 50 years ago by a band of American college kids who went halfway to the end of the earth to share God’s love and wound up falling in love with a nation and its people.