Guilhermino Cunha: Caring pastor, visionary leaderby Becky Hobbs

F

ifteen-year-old Guilhermino Cunha watched as the poor, semi-literate Portuguese man attempted to read the Scriptures to those attending the small open-air rally. Light from the kerosene lanterns danced on the man's earnest face as he sat in front of the small Brazilian farmhouse covered with coconut leaves, struggling to sound out the words.

     Finally giving up, the man closed the book, then said resolutely to the crowd in poor Portuguese, "I can't read, but I have memorized this text, and I'm going to explain God's Word to you the best that I can." He then proceeded to recite the story of the Prodigal Son.

     Guilhermino's young heart was pierced, as the Holy Spirit convicted him, "You can read the Bible and understand it clearly because you have had the privilege to study. Why are you waiting behind the scenes to confess Jesus as Lord and help your people understand His Word?"

     From that moment on, the Lord would not let him rest, remembers Guilhermino. Soon, he publicly confessed his faith, joined the church in his hometown of Don-Cavate, Inhapim in southwestern Brazil, and began to sense the Lord calling him to the pulpit ministry. Later he became both a minister and a lawyer and over the years has led his church and country in scores of leadership positions. Since 1994 he has added to his many responsibilities the Presidency (moderator) of the Presbyterian Church of Brazil, a dynamic growing denomination. He is currently honing his pastoral skills in the D.Min program at RTS/Orlando.

Ipanema Beach, Rio De Janeiro

Ipanema Beach, Rio De Janeiro

     During the last five years, Guilhermino has seen the Brazilian church literally explode. Present statistics show this evangelical denomination is organizing one new church every week! "Other evangelical denominations are also growing," he relates. "Major factors influencing this exciting growth are the renewal movement, Bible centers, and Spirit-led, balanced study of Christian doctrine and the Bible."

     Fellow Brazilian Presbyterians greatly appreciate Guilhermino's wise leadership. "The Reverend Cunha has played a very important role as the moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Brazil, the largest evangelical Presbyterian community on the American continent," explains Dr. Elias Medeiros, a Brazilian native and Chairman of the Missions Department at RTS/Jackson. "He is very committed to the Reformed faith, has a pastoral heart to care for the believers in our country, keeps an open ear to different groups within the body of Christ, and displays a strong missionary vision."

     Guilhermino has seen his denomination's ability to train evangelical leadership grow significantly. The Presbyterian Church of Brazil alone now has five Bible institutes and seven seminaries. Guilhermino was instrumental in the foundation of the Andrew Jumper Graduation Center of the Presbyterian Church of Brazil in Sao Paulo, a training ground for the professors who teach at the institutes and seminaries. Enrollment currently stands at a healthy 300 students, with the number rising considerably every semester.

A FAITH BUILT EARLY

     Guilhermino's deep faith, strong spirit, and bold leadership stem from his covenantal upbringing as a third-generation Presbyterian. "My parents were strong, visionary Christians. They were my first Bible teachers. We had devotions morning and evening and were required each week by my father to give our impression of the Sunday School Bible study."

     Guilhermino was the eighth of ten children and grew up on a lower middle class farm amidst coffee, sugar, corn, beans, and cattle. He walked six miles with his family to school and church and learned to be tough to succeed. As one of the youngest in a traditional Brazilian home, he had many bosses; when his parents could not oversee him, he was required to obey any older sister or brother. While such a situation might seem a nightmare, Guilhermino learned quickly how to stand up for himself and today feels the ones who learn to obey early are in a better position to obey the Lord later in life.

     While he always thought of himself as a child of God, he realized at fifteen that he had to take action if he really believed that Christ died for him. "The day of my first communion, I spilled some of the wine on my white shirt," recalls Guilhermino. "I was overcome as I thought about the blood of Jesus on my heart. I realized in a powerful way that His blood cleanses me from all my sins. It was a life-changing experience."

     Although of humble means, the Cunhas sacrificed to send their children to good schools. Guilhermino was an excellent student, especially excelling in public speaking; he even trained other students. As far back as he can remember, people have commented, "He has a beautiful and strong voice; he'd make a superb preacher." But Guilhermino's concern was getting the message across, so he studied words. Always seeking to improve his vocabulary, he pored for hours over the Bible and Webster's Dictionary, trying to master new words.

     During high school he worked part of the day to pay for his education, spending far into each night studying. He was very active in his church as President of his youth group and of the presbytery Youth Foundation. God then began to use Guilhermino's oratory skills as he became an evangelist, preaching the Gospel in public squares. Through his melodious voice and compelling message, God brought many to Christ.

Guilhermino and wife, Helida

Guilhermino and his wife, Helida,
pose with Brazilian officials.

          In 1964 he entered Centennial Presbyterian Theological Seminary and graduated four years later with a Master of Divinity. He also met his wife, Helida, whom he met at church and who would become a constant encouragement to him. After graduation, he immediately was ordained and elected pastor of the 300-member Central Presbyterian Church in his home state for a five-year term, the longest possible. After a year, the church allowed him to take advantage of a scholarship to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary to earn a Master of Theology degree if he promised to return as their pastor for the remaining four years. He agreed and spent two happy and productive

years in Pittsburgh, where he also received an honorary Master of Divinity degree. Upon his return to Brazil, in addition to pastoring, he entered Dom Bosco College of Philosophy and received a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1974. He was also elected president of his presbytery.

     In 1975 the Lord called him to Copacabana Presbyterian Church in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro as assistant pastor. During his five-year term he learned much, establishing many contacts with different denominations and leading a number of crusades and rallies. "I remember when I first visited the church before becoming a pastor there, I did not know they wanted me to preach," he says, laughing. "I had about three minutes to prepare. But seminary students always have one sermon they preach perfectly, and that was what they heard that day!"

     During his pastorate there, he began attending the Brazilian College of Judicial Science and received a law degree in 1976. In 1980 Brazil's president recognized Guilhermino's wide knowledge and asked him to attend the National War College of Brazil. He was the first pastor ever to attend.

     "That was a great honor," he recalls. "Actually the War College is a place to study peace, not war. Government officials and leaders from all over the country go there for special training on political matters. We learned the political problems in various areas of the world and studied very deeply the political, social, and spiritual trends of Brazil. Ultimately we strove to know how to work for peace and to maintain it."

     In 1985, another honor came his way when he was invited to be a member of the commission writing the first draft of the Brazilian constitution. It was an exciting fresh phase of the new republic after a military dictatorship. Guilhermino spent 1986-87 writing the first draft of the preamble.

Guilhermino with Brazilian officials

Guilhermino is recognized by
the Brazilian government for service
to his country in March 1999.

     In 1981 he was nominated by the presbytery to become the pastor of the Presbyterian Cathedral in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's largest and oldest Presbyterian church. The congregation of 1500 enthusiastically concurred and soon after voted him pastor for five years. In January he will have been there for eighteen years.

     His parishioners love and respect him. "He is, first and foremost, a caring and loving pastor to his congregation, always willing and ready to pray for and with those in need of comfort and ministration," says Dr. Manoel Thedim, an elder at the Presbyterian Cathedral. "An extremely industrious man, Reverend Cunha has led not only our own congregation, but also the entire Brazilian Presbyterian Church into an age of growth and reorganization. While carrying on the spirit of our early church fathers, he has had the courage and vision to undertake the enormous challenge of modernizing our denomination."

A CHURCH DETERMINED TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

     Facing the new millennium is an exciting prospect in Brazil, where an average of one hundred new Presbyterian pastors graduate from seminary each year. These students have a thirst to serve and the denomination does not disappoint them. Believing that no church should be without a pastor and no pastor without a church, the Brazilian church requires each man who does not have a church upon graduation simply to plant one!

Facing the new millennium is an exciting prospect in Brazil, where an average of one hundred new Presbyterian pastors graduate from seminary each year.

     "While The Presbyterian Church of Brazil is moving toward the millennium in praise and adoration, we will also place a major emphasis on evangelism and missions," relates Guilhermino. "We want to plant churches both here and abroad. For many years we were a receiving nation, but now our pastors and missionaries are well accepted in many areas of the world, even in the United States. I thank God that we have become a sending nation."

     Challenges and obstacles confront the church on all sides, but Guilhermino is confident God can prevail. He feels the social and economic ills that plague his country have their basis in a greater spiritual problem.

     "Our sinful nature is my country's biggest problem," he says. "Sin is not only a personal problem, but a social one with political and economic implications. Corruption, pain, and suffering are all its by-products. In the end I believe grace will win out over sin, love will overcome hate, peace will win out over war. In fighting sin, we need to realize that the enemy is outside the church; we should be united as brothers and sisters to fight Satan."

     One of the challenges facing the Brazilian church are the thousands of street children left to fend for themselves. Another is the ballooning number of young people using drugs. The Presbyterian church has already opened one orphanage in Rio housing 450 children; they may stay until age sixteen when they are given professional assistance so they can provide for themselves. More orphanages are planned as well as centers to treat drug abuse.

     "We see problems as challenges," says Guilhermino. "If one exists, I want to be part of the solution. That's why instead of talking about how bad street children are, we are opening orphanages. Instead of talking about how young people are being corrupted by drugs, we have already opened six hostels and twenty clinics to help them recuperate spiritually and psychologically."

     Other goals on the church's horizon include spreading the Reformed faith among fellow countrymen, and more specifically in the 300 Presbyterian schools with some 85,000 students. Reinforcing Christian libraries, especially in seminaries, is also key, along with an increase in translation of important Christian works.

     "I am very happy that our people will soon have a most effective Bible study tool in Portuguese at their fingertips for the first time," says a smiling Guilhermino, who is also President of the Bible Society of Brazil. "In December, RTS President Luder Whitlock will preach at the Presbyterian Cathedral to launch the publication of the New Geneva Study Bible for the whole country. I hope this edition of 50,000 Bibles will be only the first of many more."

     With this tool and others, perhaps in the next millennium will come a time when no one in Brazil will have to admit sadly, "I can't read the Scriptures" but from every citizen's lips and hearts will come a rousing declaration of the truth found in God's Word. Guilhermino won't rest until that happens.



Reformed Quarterly, Volume 18, Number 4
© 1999 Reformed Theological Seminary
Articles may not be reprinted without permission.

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Last updated 12-16-1999.