Marcos Bomfim, Director, Stewardship, Family and Health Ministries, South Brazil Union Conference

Summary: The writer talks about the blessings that the members and community receive from the First Fruits Festival, organized and sponsored by a small church called Mamborê Countryside.

It is Sabbath, early in the morning, on April 24, 2010. As in biblical times, caravanning together are throngs of people, families, young and single alike, however without animals of burden, instead utilizing cars and buses that swarm the small road that leads to Mamborê. This is a small town of about 16,000 inhabitants located in western Parana, one of the more developed states in southern Brazil. The city is located about 500 km from the capital, Curitiba, and 300 km from the Iguazu Falls on the border, between Brazil and Argentina.

The purpose that brings together all of these 3,000 pilgrims is to participate in the seventh edition of the First Fruits Festival, organized and sponsored by a small church called Mamborê Countryside, a distance of about 12 km from Mamborê City. The church is situated, as the name indicates, amid rural properties of Adventists and next to the church is also located the smaller Adventist school of the Northern Parana Conference, with only five students! (This conference has 13 schools with a total of 5960 students).

The 75 Mamborê Countryside church members are mostly farmers, descendants of German immigrants who accepted the Adventist message nearly 64 years ago arriving from the furthest southern point of Brazil with their wagons in search for more land. Beyond organizing all the festival and as an offering to the Lord, they also offer and provide the meal to all the 3,000 participants.

The members of this church are people who have learned to live simply and to work together as a community, sharing equipment and manpower. They plant mainly soybeans, corn and wheat, today reaching productivity comparable to the best global scores. As a result, the majority of them have exchanged wagons for large combines and pick-ups, and are living in spacious houses while sending their children to study at Brazil Adventist University (UNASP), a distance of about 1000 km.

The interesting thing is that all this prosperity, rather than withdraw them from God, has led the church to stay even closer to Him. According to lawyer Ilson Gomes, leader of the Stewardship Ministries of Mamborê Countryside Church, and son-in-law of Jair Zonemberg, one of the prosperous farmers of the church, “the members understand the principle that they do not own the land but are mere administrators who need to receive help from the Owner so that all things may happen.”

According to Gomes, there was an occasion, for example, when the drought threatened to completely destroy the crops. Then during prayer service on Wednesday evening, all of the members prayed to God for deliverance, and He answered their prayers by sending the expected rain on Sabbath!

But the result is not good every time. There was a year when they almost lost the entire crop to frost. However, Gomes states that today, “the loyalty of members to the Lord no longer depends on prosperity or adversity, but on the principle that leads them to worship the Lord because He is the owner of everything.”

This new phase in the church began in 2002 when led by Gomes the church started a strong stewardship program that emphasizes not only tithing but also the giving of offerings on a percentage basis (this system is called “the Covenant” in Brazil). So, in addition to tithing, each member is challenged to choose another percentage out of his or her income to dedicate regularly as an offering to the Lord, “in proportion to the way the LORD your God has blessed you” Deut. 16:17 (NIV).

According to Gomes, the first step to establishing this program was to call the church board together and challenge each of its members to adopt the plan. “When the leadership adopts the program, things become easier,” says Gomes. Nowadays, the members return an average of 7% of their annual salary as offerings, in addition to tithing. Gomes gives the credit to the full support of the church’s leadership.

In the Church of Mamborê Countryside, the entire annual program of stewardship finds its climax just after the harvest, in the Feast of First Fruits, that today goes beyond the local church’s frontiers and is attended by members of several other Adventist churches from that region, as well as by “friends” and “neighbors” of the church, as they call the non-members.

At the beginning of the year, congregations throughout North Parana Conference plan the trip to attend this event. Every year many big tents are erected on a plain near the church to accommodate the worshipers. However, this year (2010), the presence of a heavy rain a day before the feast made it impossible for traffic to travel on the unpaved road that runs through the 12 km between Mamborê and the Church of the Countryside. Thus, for the first time in seven years the feast was transferred to a gym in town.

In this First Fruits edition, the main decoration of the stage was one of the original wagons that was used by the pioneers to reach that place. Nationally known singers and preachers were also invited to participate in the program, including the visit of Pastor Jeffrey Wilson (director of Planned Giving and Trust Services of the General Conference). All administrators and many district pastors of the conference were present with their caravans, as well as the president and the treasurer of the South Brazil Union.

As always, the most important part of the festival is the moment that the Lord is worshiped with the offering of the First Fruits. While a child of each family recites a Bible verse (as Deut. 26:7-10, for example), the father, mother and other children (often including grandparents), parade down the hall bringing in their hands the land products that are deposited in the wagon, offering them to the Lord.

But these products are just outward symbols of surrender, commitment, and inward gratitude that are transmitted from generation to generation. This year, the most exciting moment was when Marisa and Edivaldo brought among their first fruits a basket containing the small, 7 month old Milena, that district pastor, Jackson Paroschi Correa, presented to the Lord in a ceremony of dedication. “We do not want this festival as a merely theatrical act, as a symbolism, but as really as an act of worship. When I see, I learn. When my son comes with me, carrying forward a fruit, he believes that that moment is of God, that everything is God’s [possession],” says Gomes.

Symbolism meets reality, when each family also brings an envelope containing the real tithes and offerings from that harvest. As both the church and each family has an account of grains in the cooperative, the families return both the tithe and offering in grains, which are transferred to the account of the church in the cooperative. Inside the envelope is only a proof of the transfer transaction. When the church sells the grain, a receipt of the value in Reais (Brazilian currency) is issued to the donor.

Yet, the Feast of the First Fruits is not the only program of the Stewardship Ministries that happens in that church. In fact, not only Mamborê Countryside Church, but all the 1720 congregations of the South Brazil Union plan to achieve each year at least the 10 items proposed by the program of certification and quality MC Plus (the first two letters, MC, are the initials in Portuguese for Mordomia Crista?Christian Stewardship, in English).

When the church finally achieves all those ten items, the pastor is invested with a pin, the church receives a plaque to be affixed in a visible place stating that it has achieved the certification, and the leader of Stewardship Ministries in addition to publicly receiving a certificate is also invested with a pin.

The pastor in whose district all churches have reached the certification is requested to receive his MC Plus certificate in one of the plenary Union committees and also is interviewed in the annual two hours training program of Stewardship that is aired by satellite to all the congregations of the Union, (The 10 items of the program, along with ideas and materials can be found in Portuguese on the blog for MC Plus,

For Mamborê Countryside Church, the result of this involvement has been both spiritual and material growth. While many churches struggle with serious financial difficulties, Mamborê Countryside Church has since 2003 invested an equivalent in the American economy of $40,000 for Pathfinders maintenance, and about $30,000 in aid to other churches, only to list two cases. “We subsidize the salary of a Bible worker and all expenses of the church leaders when they need to travel to attend training sessions promoted by the conference or union,” says Gomes. But most important of all is the growing realization that the main reason for tithing and giving should not be the sustenance of the Pathfinders, rebuild or build other churches, pay Bible workers or even send leaders for training, but rather worship the Lord, recognizing that everything is from Him and comes from Him.

…the LORD heard our voice and looked on our affliction and our labor and our oppression…. He has brought us to this place and has given us this land, “a land flowing with milk and honey”; and now, behold, I have brought the firstfruits of the land which you, O LORD, have given me.’ Deuteronomy 26:7-10 (NKJV).