For Jônatas Bragatto, preaching is in his blood. Coming from an Italian family who immigrated to Brazil, his grandparents became born-again believers after his grandfather experienced a miraculous healing from a tumour. He became a minister and raised 13 children with his wife whilst planting churches in Brazil.
Jônatas himself preached his first sermon at 11 years old after an encounter with God. 17 years on, he’s still preaching, albeit in the very different setting of a council estate in the north east of England.
Back in Brazil, Jônatas worked as a travelling evangelist and teacher until he was invited to guest lecture at a Bible college in London in 2016. “I never wanted, expected or thought God would bring me to the UK. But during the month I was here, I understood that God was calling me to this country,” says Jônatas. He went back to Brazil to organise his papers, sold everything he had, and arrived at Gatwick Airport in 2017 with three pieces of luggage and £130 in his pocket, believing that God would open doors.
And they did open. He soon realised that God was calling him to the north of England, so Jônatas joined a small Anglican denomination, with a proposal that he and other young ministers would help to revitalise aging congregations. He moved to Middlesbrough and became the minister of a very small church of three or four people, who hadn’t had a pastor for around a decade.
But early last year everything changed when advanced corruption within the denomination began to come to the surface. “It really was a hurricane – a complete nightmare,” says Jônatas, who is unable to give many details due to ongoing investigations into the denomination by the National Fraud Police and the Charity Commission. To add insult to injury, he was made redundant and dismissed illegally without the financial means to contest it, and the church was closed.
“I prayed, asking God: what do you want from me? Do you want me to move to another area?” But Jônatas felt convicted by the passage in Acts chapter 18, where Paul wanted to leave Corinth, but God spoke to him in a dream, saying: ‘Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.’ (Acts 18:9-10 NIV).
Jônatas went on to plant Word and Spirit Church, an independent reformed church whose inauguration service was on Easter Sunday last year, with a modest three members, including Jônatas. Since then, the church has seen miracles each month.
The church is located in Thorntree estate in east Middlesbrough – the fifth most deprived estate in the UK, according to government statistics. Jônatas explains why he chose there: “I was praying for the area and I asked God, “where do you want us to be based?” I looked at the map, and I found out that the last evangelical church in Thorntree had closed fourteen years beforehand.”
When the church plant first began in early 2021, the pandemic meant they couldn’t meet, so they started speaking to people in the streets of the neighbourhood. It was there where they first began to see fruit – people asking for prayer and help and even joining them for worship outside in the sunshine.
Jônatas utilises social media as an evangelistic tool and a lot of their growth has come from people seeing their videos. In nine months, the church has grown from three to eighteen official members, with Sunday attendance in the thirties. Ten or more of those members are students at Teeside university, and the church has been particularly reaching students with a Hindu background.
One of the converts is a student from an orthodox Hindu family from the highest caste in India, who threatened to disown her if she decided to be baptised. She first came to the service after seeing an Instagram video and from there invited Jônatas to visit her house and share the gospel with her and her housemates.
Jônatas was further encouraged when eight new people attended on Christmas day – six of them from Hindu backgrounds. “One of the guys said that he understood the meaning of Christmas and was shocked that God could become a human being. He said he would speak to his boss about changing his shift pattern to be able to attend on Sundays, and he’s been coming ever since.”
But the growth of the church has come with many challenges: “We’ve been attacked in the street doing evangelism. There are a lot of gangs in the area; it’s a dangerous place but my wife and I know that we’re here for a purpose,” says Jônatas. They also want to register the church as a charity, but don’t have the funds to be able to do so. The income from the church itself just about covers the rent and expenses.
“We’re moving by faith not by sight because what we see before us is a financially unviable church. But what God has done has been astonishing. I don’t have a salary or a fixed income at all. I’ve only been surviving because of gifts into my Stewardship Individual Partner account, which we set up in June – I don’t have any other financial security.”
“We’re in one of the poorest areas of the UK, with no revenue coming from tithes and offerings, and a very traumatic background because of what the previous church went through. But we’re here because God gave us a vision for the north east, to continue planting churches. I had all the reasons in the world to leave but our heart is here. I’m certain that this is where God wants us to bear fruit.”
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