One of the main voices of the Brazilian and Latin American ecumenical movement, Jether Pereira Ramalho passed away on 28 June, in Rio de Janeiro, leaving behind a legacy of inspiration, dedication and transformation to many generations.
“It was with great sadness that we received the news of the passing of Jether Ramalho,” said Rev. Prof. Dr Ioan Sauca, interim general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC). “He was committed to the mutual flourishing of all, especially the poor and oppressed, through expressions of ecumenism rooted in the transformative power of the Gospel and the sharing of the dream for a democratic, just, and participatory society.”
An Evangelical Congregationalist, Ramalho was the son of a rural worker who later became a pastor serving in poor communities. Born in 1922, Ramalho overcame poverty and became a successful dentist. However, following his dream, he abandoned dentistry, studied social sciences and education and went to work passionately on the social responsibility of churches and building the ecumenical movement in Brazil and Latin America.
Ramalho dedicated most of his life to social projects of the Brazilian ecumenical movement, starting at the Evangelical Confederation of Brazil in the 1950s. He was also one of the organizers of the historical “Northeast Conference,” which had the theme “Christ and the Revolutionary Process in Brazil,” in 1962. The conference is considered a landmark in the Brazilian ecumenical movement in relation to the public responsibility of the churches.
In the years following the 1964 military coup, the Evangelical Confederation of Brazil started to suffer a slow process of dismantling both by the military rule and internal repression in churches. In that context, his brothers and sisters of faith dared to continue to raise the message of the Gospel as an important step of resistance and struggle for democracy.
Ramalho was one of the inspirers and founders of the Ecumenical Center of Information, that became the Ecumenical Center for Documentation and Information – and later Koinonia.
For 15 years, Ramalho was the editor of the magazine “Tempo e Presença,” where he opened its pages to social movements of the poor, ecumenism, children and women’s rights.
Rubem Alves, one of the pioneers of Liberation Theology, once said that Jether was a teenager who always liked to play. “In fact, at first contact, his apparently formal manner soon gave way to candor,” said Alves.
Rafael Soares de Oliveira, director of Koinonia, in Rio, said that his organization carries a lot of Ramalhos’s legacy. “Jether’s life and work always meant love and dedication to the cause of liberation of the oppressed,” he said.
Ramalho was behind the foundation of the Center for Bible Studies and the Ecumenical Center for Services to Evangelization and Popular Education. He was also one of the main advisers to the Ecclesial Base Communities of the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil.
“Jether leaves an immeasurable legacy to the Latin American ecumenical movement,” said Magali do Nascimento Cunha, from the Methodist Church of Brazil. “My education for ecumenism went through Jether Ramalho, to whom I also owe the incentive to embrace any and all causes around dialogue and the promotion of life. Jether is no longer with us but will remain alive in the hope that continues to move perseverance and resistance!”
In 1979, Ramalho was appointed as a consultant in to work with WCC Commission for the Churches' Participation in Development on the project “The Church and the Poor.” Working under the leadership of Julio de Santa Ana, his main task was providing advice to ecumenical movements in Latin America, mainly in the area of youth.
Santa Ana remembers that during the military dictatorship many persecuted ones found shelter in Ramalho’s home, including Paulo Freire, Brazilian educator and leading advocate of critical pedagogy, who received support from Ramalho in his process of moving to Geneva to work at the WCC in 1970.
“I will miss how much I learned from him, and the moments I had the chance to share with him in the broad process of affirmation of the Brazilian, Latin American, and global ecumenical movement that incorporates popular movements and their diversity,” said Eliana Rolemberg, former director of CESE.
Fray Carlos Mesters, a well-known biblist of Liberation movements in Brazil, remembered how Ramalho’s suggestions and decisions revealed the importance of his contribution to the origin and journey of the Center for Bible Studies. “I always say and repeat: ‘he was the most ecumenical person I ever met,’ ” said Mesters.
In a formal statement published a few days after Ramalho’s passing, the National Council of Christian Churches of Brazil stated: "Jether stood out for his coherence of a Christian life totally committed to the cause of the Kingdom of God and the defense of Human Rights.”
Passionate for the ecumenical cause his entire life, Ramalho once wrote: “ecumenism is such a rich process that it cannot be reduced to institutionalized expressions, which are undoubtedly important and significant. It is not a monopoly of any group, nor is it a simple ecclesiastical strategy. Ecumenism is beautifully expressed at the grassroots of churches and popular movements.”
Jether Ramalho was married to Lucília Ramalho, who died in 2017. He is survived by his children José Ricardo, Luiz Augusto, Jair Felipe e Maria Judith, his grandchildren Emiliano, Tomás, Gabriel, Carolina, André and Max, and his great-grandson Pedro.