REDDING, Calif.—When Simpson University student Antonio Junior travels home for Easter break, his world changes.
The tall, unassuming 33-year-old gets recognized everywhere he goes. His face is on posters and signs throughout his city. He gets asked to pose for pictures with people in the mall and at the market.
Antonio, a Bible and theology major, and his wife, Bruna, are from São José dos Campos, in southeast Brazil. They moved to the U.S. in 2017, and Antonio started attending Simpson in 2018.
As other students head home or on mission trips for spring break, he and his wife fly back to Brazil. There, Antonio enters into an intense few days of rehearsals to play the part of Jesus in their church’s Easter production.
This is no ordinary Passion Play. The Auto de Pascoa, started 14 years ago by Igreja da Cidade (City Church), attracts nearly 50,000 viewers over eight performances. It takes 2,000 people and $200,000 to put it together each year. The production includes singers, dancers and actors.
“Every year I went and watched the play,” Antonio said. “It never came to my mind that I would ever be part of it.”
He returned in April for his third time in the production. He shares the role with the actor who has played the part of Jesus since the program’s inception. They each take four performances over the course of a week, playing to audiences of up to 6,000 each.
“Every year I talk to God and ask, what do you want me to show this crowd?” Antonio said. “I’m not an actor; I’m here to be used by you.”
The play results in hundreds of attendees raising their hands when asked at the end if they would like to accept Christ into their lives, Antonio said.
It’s an immensely humbling experience for a man who left Brazil’s third largest city in 2012 to start a new, quieter life with his wife.
With day jobs in electrical engineering and speech therapy, Antonio and Bruna became involved in a large nondenominational church in their new town, first attending small groups, then becoming small group leaders, serving in evangelism ministry, and then becoming church planters in 2014.
“In 2016 we have been working as volunteers on weekends planting churches, and working hard during the week,” Antonio said. “We were wanting something different. We have a heart for missions and evangelism and started thinking about learning English to be (better) able to go to the nations.”
Through prayerful conversations, Antonio and Bruna decided to sell their apartment and car, leave their jobs, and move to Redding to attend Bethel’s School of Supernatural Ministry.
“Life was going well, comfortable, quiet, normal,” he said, and smiled. “And then the Lord comes and messes up everything.”
Shortly before the couple left Brazil—as they were working on visas and a long to-do list—their pastor approached Antonio about playing Jesus in the Easter production. Antonio had amateur acting experience through early church evangelism ministries in schools and orphanages in his 20s. But nothing of this magnitude.
“I just start shaking,” he said. “My thought is, it’s a huge job for a little guy. I think my pastor’s lost his mind. I need to make it clear I’m not the right person to play Jesus.”
But as he met with the director and others, he realized he could not say no to such an opportunity.
“It is a chance to show the people a Jesus that they don’t know,” Antonio said. “You read about Jesus, the guy who touches people and died and was raised again. But when the words come out of the Bible and walk around on a stage, this touches people deeply.”
His portrayal of Jesus is an active, passionate one, he said. “I laugh, and I jump and cry and touch people.” The other actor plays the role in a more graceful, deliberate fashion, he said.
“I think Jesus was both – graceful and passionate,” he said.
After a year at BSSM, Antonio and Bruna received encouragement about staying in Redding to attend Simpson University, but with a 4-to-1 exchange rate in favor of the U.S. dollar, it was unaffordable. Simpson’s admissions counselors worked with him, and Antonio was given four scholarships and a job on campus in global impact leadership.
“It’s really a miracle,” said Antonio, who is considering shifting his major to business with a minor in Bible and theology.
Antonio’s faith and humility are evident in how he views the responsibility of playing Jesus before thousands of people each spring.
“I prayed before my test (for the role) in 2017 – I don’t want to be the guy looking for fame,” he said. “Every year I ask the Holy Spirit to protect my heart.”
Even before he stepped into the role, Antonio said he tried to “be Jesus” on a daily basis, by listening to and helping others and by being a good husband.
“When the Easter holiday finishes, I come back to my normal life, I keep being kind, keep being Jesus to people here. This is the thing that is most important – touching people day by day. That is my goal,” he said.
Simpson University, founded in 1921, moved to Redding 30 years ago and will celebrate its centennial in 2021. In addition to offering 25 majors in its traditional undergraduate program, the university has graduated more than 4,000 North State adults from its ASPIRE degree-completion program, and nearly 3,000 from its School of Education. It has a No. 8-ranked School of Nursing, a seminary, and master’s programs in counseling psychology and organizational leadership. Simpson University is recognized nationally by Colleges of Distinction.
Simpson is launching new athletics programs in track and field, swimming and diving, women’s wrestling, and men’s volleyball, as well as a bass fishing team. The university is also working to better serve transfer students from community colleges through its commitment to Associate Degree for Transfer agreements, and it is offering new scholarships.