Tom and Libby Fife

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The Tom Fife family are often mistaken for Brazilians in Brazil, even though they are Anglo-Saxon by birth. Robert Ross, Minister of the Memorial Christian Church, their sponsoring church in Houston, Texas says, "The Tom Fife family look and act more Brazilian than North American". This is a good indication that they must be happy serving the Lord in Brazil.

Thomas W. Fife was born March 22, 1931 into a Christian family. His father is Earl Hanson Fife and his mother is Gwendolyn Elizabeth Thomas Fife. His father was a Texan and his mother a New Yorker. Both his father and grand-father, Roger hanson Fife, served the Christian Churches in pastoral and evangelistic ministries for many years. His brother, Robert O. Fife, is a professor at Milligan College and a lecturer at Emmanuel School of Religion. Another brother, Wayne E. Fife is in an inter-city ministry, The Christian Service Center of Chicago.

Tom is fluent in three languages: English, Portuguese and Spanish. His occupational discipline is in Christian communications whereby he edits literature for publication in Portuguese and Christian education whereby he teaches in the Bible Institute in Goiania, Brazil.

He was educated in Texas Christian University, University of Houston, Milligan College where he received the BA degree in history, and Louisiana State University where he received the MA degree in history. He has served several churches These include Central Chruch of Christ, Bato Rouge, Louisiana; Community Christian Church, Schertz, Texas; Northside Christian Church, San Antonio, Texas; and First Christian Church Maracaipo, Venezuela. He served also for a short period of time as a professor of Southern Christian College, San Antonio, Texas.

On June 15, 1956, Thomas W. Fife was married to Elizabeth Anne Warnick. She was born November 20, 1934 to Albert Emmons Warnick and Grace Coddington Warnick all of Garret County, Maryland. Tom and Libby met as students at Milligan College. Libby holds the BA degree in music from Milligan College.

Tom and Libby Fife joined Brazil Christian Mission (BCM) in 1964. Initially, the tasks set before Tom were to teach at the Christian Institute of Goiânia (Instituto Cristão de Goiânia) and serve as pastor of one of the churches in Goiânia. The school was later renamed Christian Institute of Education and Culture (Instituto Cristão de Educação e Cultura—ICEC) when it reopened in 1972 but was closed down for last time in 1975. Since then, the Christian Theological College ( FTCB) was founded in Brasília in 1981 and several of the larger churches in Brazil have also developed their own leadership training centers locally. Tom has taught several times in some of the local church settings over the years and both Tom and Libby have taught at the FTCB.

When the family arrived there in 1966, the four churches planted by Brazil Christian Mission missionaries, together with students from the Christian Institute, were located in Vila Nova, Setor Universitário, Setor Bueno and Vila Fama. After visiting all four of them, the one on the north side of town in the area then called Vila Fama, which was later renamed Setor Centro Oeste, seemed to be the one where Tom and Libby could be the most useful. And in an attempt to reflect the congregation’s identification with a broader geographical area, ICVF became ICNG in 1971.

After raising support and attending language school for a year in Campinas, in the state of São Paulo, Tom and Libby Fife arrived in Goiânia in 1966 and were deeply involved with the work at Igreja de Cristo—Norte de Goiânia until 1991. The strategy was not written on paper but this is how it happened. First of all, there was no mission station and neither did they build one. The Sanders and other missionaries who had arrived before 1966 just lived in homes among the people. They were usually bigger and better houses than those of the people in the churches but nevertheless they lived in Brazilian neighborhoods.

In an article written earlier for the college paper while he was teaching at Southern Christian College in San Antonio, Texas (1961-1963), Tom had affirmed that what they were doing there was preparing leaders from among the Mexican people who could lead the Mexican churches themselves. He was then and remained fully convinced that people in each people group would have to become the leaders of their own churches. In response to a reactive letter which asked whether he could cite an example of any Mexican who was capable of operating a “complete mission station,” Tom would write, “No, but we are not teaching people to operate mission stations; we are teaching them to build churches. Our goal is not a complete mission station anywhere. Our goal is preparing Mexican leaders to plant and lead self-supporting churches.” Secondly, having basically only enough support for the family with five small children, pouring money into mission work was never an option for Tom and Libby. The only furlough with the whole family was in 1969 during the summer holidays in Brazil, which begins in mid December and goes to the first or second week of February, so that the older children would not miss any school. It should be noted that Vila Fama at that time was a very small congregation in a very poor neighborhood. In 1953,New Tribes Mission(Missão Novas Tribos) had transferred the pastoral care of a small group of believers and donated the property to missionary David Sanders. The area was on the outskirts of town and was considered a “war zone.” The conflicts between settlers and the armed men of landowners and government officials would lead to its being called Coréia (Korea) for some time. In the sixties and early seventies, few people in the church were literate and no one had a car. For some time, even the Fifes had no car and used public transportation to get to church. Over time it seems as though it became evident to all that whatever resources were given, whether it be time, money or energy, not only by Tom and Libby but also by their children as they grew up in the church, were given as sacrificially as anybody else’s. Of course, some of Tom and Libby’s funds were used for certain kinds of mission work such as travel and benevolence but that was all they could afford to do. It was in 1969 that Libby got the church involved in a national benevolence program called Diaconia. Financially supported by the American government and sponsored by the Brazilian Adult Education Department ([[Departamento de Educação Básica para Adultos | DEBA], the program required the implementation of a literacy program and other classes such as nutrition, sewing, and different crafts in order for people within a certain income bracket to receive food and clothing. After six months or so of such classes, students were expected to be able to earn an income that allowed them to grow out of the benevolence program. Some teachers belonged to the church and others did not. Libby taught the Portuguese literacy classes. The Diaconia program was discontinued in 1973 after President Richard Nixon declared that Brazil was a country that no longer needed help from the American government. The Brazilian Literacy Movement (Movimento Brasileiro de Alfabetização—MOBRAL) program was then developed by the Brazilian government and ICNG continued to provide for such classes to occur with church member Madalena Sousa (Martins) as teacher.

During the first few years, Tom was also involved in rural evangelism in the north of the state of Goiás. First of all, Tom decided to take the train to Silvânia and look for two elderly ladies who were the remnant of previous missionaries’ and students’ efforts when it had become too dangerous to hold meetings there. Even before coming to Brazil, Tom and Libby had read in the BCM newsletter the news about rocks being thrown at the windows during services and how those who attended were persecuted by the local Roman Catholic priest to the point that shop owners were told not to sell any goods to them. Tom usually took one or more of his children with him on his monthly visits to Silvânia and each time they found twice as many people gathered: four, eight, sixteen, and thirty-two, exactly. After about six months, Tom suggested to Artur Silva, who lived in the nearby town of Luziânia, that he move to Silvânia, take over the work there and make it go, which Artur in fact did.

During 1967 and especially 1968, Tom started traveling farther north every month with missionary Dale McAfee, who lived in Ceres then, to visit church plants in Estrela do Norte, Córrego do Sapato, Porangatu, and Gurupi. The farthest they went was Paraíso do Norte, now called Paraíso do Tocantins, where Tom actually started a church in 1968. Most of those people, however, would eventually move to Goiânia in search of work and better living conditions and none of those churches survived. Fortunately, however, as Brazilian churches began to thrive decades later, new churches were planted in all these cities. Nevertheless, those trips were quite an exciting experience for Tom. In a way, it was an opportunity to relive some of the stories his father Earl Hanson Fife used to tell about when he drove across Texas and other states holding countless tent meetings back in the 1910s.

Also beginning in 1967, Tom worked with Carol Louis Lowe in a printing ministry, previously started by Bill Loft and Ed Knowles. The Association for Christian Literature ( APLIC) became Tom’s main activity until 1976 when, in the midst of the Church Growth Movement in the United States, some supporters withdrew their support because they did not consider the publication of Christian literature vital “church work.” His job was to edit Christian books, Sunday School and leadership training materials both written in and translated into Portuguese. Such resources were in turn sold, not given away, to churches and individuals across the country.

In 1968, a new church building was built at the Vila Fama site to replace the one that was being completely undermined by ants. Even then most of the effort came from the people at ICNG with their contributions and especially their hours of volunteer labor.

Thirdly, Tom and Libby’s children were enrolled in Brazilian schools and three of them earned college degrees in the Brazilian school system. They were convinced that in order to have any impact, they would have to contact Brazilians in their own culture: speaking the Portuguese language, going to Brazilian schools, and being a part of the Brazilian culture so they could tell about Jesus Christ without implying that it had anything to do with becoming Americanized. They had no problem with their children dating and eventually marrying Brazilians which actually did happen with four of them. In fact, after being in Brazil for some time, their intention was to stay there for the rest of their lives. Eventually, Tom and Libby did return with their youngest daughter Ellie to the United States so that Libby, who is an only child, could care for her aging parents until they both passed away. As of 2006, Tom continues to travel to both Portuguese-speaking and other countries several times a year in order to teach.

All four of the boys began their professional careers in Brazil as well and the younger sons have lived in Brazil most of their lives. Thomas (Chico) and Érica Fife live in Goiânia with their two sons, while Jeff, and Mônica Fife, and their two sons currently live in Campo Limpo Paulista, in the state of São Paulo.

Besides the housing approach, the finances and their children’s formal education, Tom refused to assume pastoral leadership of the church. Learning about and adapting to new cultures, getting more and more involved in the way they do things and the way they think has always been an enjoyable experience for him. Unless done unconsciously, he has never sought to impose the American culture on others. While he was willing to teach and preach regularly, he believed the church should come up with its own leaders. It was only after a sequence of bad experiences with Brazilian leaders who had not been equipped for the ministry that he reluctantly accepted the function of pastor of the congregation during the years of 1977-1986.

Finally, Tom and Libby had learned from experience that, while they did seek to change people’s misconceptions about Jesus, there was no need to change their cultural orientation.

Beginning in 1972, Tom started working with what would become his passion and his main effort until the date this work was completed. He began teaching TEE in the facilities of the Christian Institute of Education and Culture ( ICEC) in Goiânia. The following year, however, he started going to the then six churches in Goiânia, including ICNG, teaching all who expressed an interest in theological education. Leaders belonging to other Christian groups in Goiânia became interested in the TEE program as well.

By 1983, at the invitations of missionary Wayne Long in São Paulo and of one of the first graduates from the Christian Institute Ozório Rodrigues, working in Belo Horizonte, in the state of Minas Gerais, at the time, Tom began traveling every three weeks from Goiânia to Brasília, São Paulo and Belo Horizonte to teach TEE courses. This eighteen-hundred-mile (2,880 km) round trip was continued for four years and it was during this time that he participated in the Evangelical Association of Theological Training by Extension ( AETTE). Tom also became a board member with founder of the Antioch Mission (Missão Antioquia) Jonathan Santos, among others, and was elected president of the association for two consecutive terms in 1986-1987. As for the churches in Goiânia, local tutors were then assigned to keep up with the classes while Tom was away. To his passion for education and leadership training has been credited the higher academic achievements of many of ICNG’s members to this day.

In 1981-1982, however, Tom and Libby spent a one-year-long furlough in the United States for the first time. The three older children stayed in Brazil.