Eunice Michiles: A dialogue with the first woman, first Adventist, senator of Brazil
The year 1979 marked a significant milepost in Brazilian history. That year the all-male parliament made way for the first elected woman senator: Eunice Michiles, a Seventh-day Adventist.
Born in an Adventist home, Eunice’s childhood was shaped largely by the values of her missionary parents, with her father serving as a pastor in remote areas of Northeast Brazil. Her father’s absolute dedication to serve the spiritual and social needs of the poor and the underprivileged in largely neglected regions led her to an early resolve to transmit the values of the gospel to the political and social fabric of the country.
Her interest in social service with a Christian commitment led her to politics, and the first great door opened when she was elected to the federal senate in 1979. Later she also became the first woman counselor to the State of Amazon Accountability Office.
In 1984, Michiles was also nominated to run for the republic’s vice-presidency. Her career was not simply politics for its own sake; she saw her public role as an opportunity to instill in the country’s governance agenda issues that were little discussed until then. Her political platform was specially distinguished by the defense of women’s rights, sustainable development, ecological education and family planning. Her involvement in family planning and welfare issues received international recognition when the United States Congress awarded her a Medal of Honor for her distinguished work in the area.
Even though she is immersed in public life, Eunice continues to be an active and involved member of her local Adventist church. She teaches a Sabbath school class, leads out in women’s ministries, and devotes her talents wherever the church needs them most. In 2005, she was part of the South American Division delegation to the General Conference session at St. Louis.
Tell us a little about your early life.
My parents, Theófilo and Edith Berger, were an adventurous couple. They pioneered Adventist missionary work early in the 1930s in northeast of Brazil, a very needy region of the country. They devoted themselves completely to ministry, offering spiritual and material assistance to their parishioners. Their dedication, long hours of service, and a loving willingness to do whatever they could to make God’s love meaningful made a lasting impression on me as a child. That’s where I caught the true essence of the gospel–to go beyond preaching and get involved with real-life problems, with joys and concerns, of those for whom you minister.
What were the most impressive facts that marked your life during this period?
The loss of my father. On one of his long missionary trips into the hinterland, my father contracted typhoid fever–a serious illness at that time–and after a few weeks of struggle, he died. I was 10. The sudden tragedy completely changed our life. We moved to a two-story house behind an Adventist school, where my mother worked as a laundress to care for me and my younger brother. I took over some responsibilities and even worked at a factory. Life was very hard, and I developed a big inferiority complex. But the Lord provides help just when you need it most. For me, help came from one of my school teachers. She took a deep interest in me, and with a word here and a tap on the shoulder there, she made me realize that I am precious to God and that God will use me for His purposes. She would read my school assignments and would commend my work. She instilled in me self-confidence and a dependence on God. Slowly I overcame my feelings of inadequacy.
Do you think those early difficulties contributed to the fulfillment you found later in life?
Certainly. Generally, we don’t understand why certain things happen to us, particularly difficult things. But God transforms pain and losses into valuable lessons. He did that to me and strengthened me to face the next challenge. When I finished teaching school, I got married, and I went through a major change. I moved to live in the country side of the State of Amazon, a place of great natural beauty, but social misery. God used me there. I not only taught, but helped build 127 schools, contributing to the elimination of illiteracy in that region. I had the Adventist education as a model. The challenges were many. At one point, a varicella epidemic hit the region and many people died. The Adventist upbringing and philosophy of service made me get involved. I was fully immersed in relief work, worked with health teams, and saw literally so many saved from the jaws of the epidemic. During my social work, some people asked for prayers. That was when I felt truly needed. One day, a man sent for me. He was in his final moments of life. He asked me to recite Psalm 23. When I finished, he died in my arms. Those were years of intense self-sacrifice–and spiritual fulfillment. I discovered that God had a special purpose for me.
How did you get involved into politics?
My husband’s family was really involved in politics. I preferred to remain in the humanitarian and teaching fields. When we moved with my four children to the capital of Amazon, I began to manage an enterprise. I soon found out that I could not be far from humanitarian work, so I decided to run for public office. I faced a lot of prejudice and political persecution. But God had a plan, and in five years I became the first woman senator in Brazil.
Is it possible to promote peace through politics?
Jeremiah 29:7 says: “And seek the peace of the city…for in its peace you will have peace” (NKJV). We cannot talk about peace when there is social injustice, misery, when the laws go against biblical principles, and when people are prevented from worshiping God. I worked on legislation involving religious liberty and environmental matters that have gained global importance today. Gender equality is another issue that is dear to my heart. There are many other areas in which we should labor to bring Christian values and concern, and as a result bring about transforming changes. Through politics, the Christian community has the opportunity to put biblical teachings into practice and fight for the promotion of peace in the most diverse spheres.
How did you live the biblical principles during your service?
I’ll give you one example. In the Amazon, I saw women dying, weakened by successive pregnancies. It was urgent that they receive information about family planning. Besides that, women’s rights in the Constitution itself were limited. Thus, I sought to propose and write new laws. By invitation of other countries, I lectured on the importance of women’s participation in politics and their right to equality before the law. My involvement in such issues took me to countries as far away as Iraq and China. To this day, the matter of women’s rights is a subject of great importance. The participation of women in politics and leadership roles is still limited. In many countries, for instance, the working woman does not have access to child care within her own workplace.
Such conditions related to gender prejudices are contrary to biblical teachings. Doesn’t the Bible picture women of prominence like Deborah, who was a spiritual and political leader in times of war? Or the virtuous woman of Proverbs, who successfully reconciled her professional life, humanitarian activities, and her family? Or Mary, the woman chosen by God to be the mother of our Savior? We need to take the biblical teaching on the equality of men and women seriously and implement them in real life–in politics, church life, workplace, or wherever. The Bible should be at the foundation of our actions in private and public life, in the pulpit, in our business, and at home. We are challenged to do that. The way Jesus treated people should be our model.
How can Christians get involved in public matters to promote peace?
We can get involved in many ways. Consider serving in public office. Get involved in the process of legislation and the debates that circle around them. Pray for the instituted authorities. Be alert and involved in great social issues pertaining to matters that must be a source of concern to Christians: alcohol and drug questions; matters relating to religious liberty, including the right to keep the Sabbath; educational priorities, etc. Make the Christian concern felt in such areas without getting partisan or sectarian. Our involvement must be wholesome and positive.
Could such participations pose any threat to Christian life?
In any human enterprise, even in Christian environments, we have to choose: Are we going to act according to human will or divine orientation? The same with politics. In fact, the challenges here may be even greater. Don’t you think Daniel in Babylonian politics faced more challenges than a common Jew living not far from Daniel? Daniel had the keys to the kingdom, and money may have been a great temptation to him. He must have suffered strong political pressures to accept laws and behaviors that were contrary to biblical convictions. The challenges to a Christian involved in politics are not few, and the risks to move away from God are real. But Daniel was faithful, just as Joseph and Esther were. We cannot lose sight of the fact that our kingdom is not of this world and that all our political action should have the sole purpose of helping others to see a kingdom beyond this one.
What final message would you like to leave to the readers of Dialogue?
Challenges and difficulties will come in life. Without them, life is not normal. But the main point is, never give up. You will suffer injustices, but cultivate love and act with concern to change the world. Give love the first place in all your relationships. Keep your focus on God, and you can make a difference in the world. Each day, allow the Word to become flesh in your life. Let the Christian ideal govern your actions. This is the principle of any political action capable of promoting and establishing peace.
Henrianne Barbosa is a journalist and is the author of Eunice Michiles: A Primeira Senadora do Brasil (Eunice Michiles: The First Woman Senator of Brazil). Currently she is working toward completing her doctoral degree. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eunice Michiles e-mail address: email@example.com. Website: http://www.eunicemichiles.com.