Movements behind bars in Brazil

Sociologist Andrew Johnson wanted to understand the impact of Pentecostalism in Brazil’s prison system. So he went behind bars to find out.

Rio de Janeiro’s impoverished favelas are ruled by drug-gangs. The police dare not enter. The prison system is an extension of the favelas. It’s the gangs, not the prison officials who rule on the inside. Wherever the gangs are strongest, Pentecostalism thrives.

Carlos was born to alcoholic parents in one of Rio de Janeiro’s /favelas/. As a boy he would head down to Copacabana Beach and rob tourists. By the time he was fourteen, both of his parents had died, and Carlos had found a new family—the drug gang that controlled his neighborhood.

Carlos graduated from petty theft to armed robbery. One night he was ambushed by police who were after the proceeds of an armed robbery he’d committed—around $20,000. They took the money and let him go. Carlos went looking for the neighbor who had tipped off the police in return for a cut of the money—and killed him. The police arrested Carlos, and he was tried, convicted of murder, and jailed. But Carlos knew how to survive in difficult places, so he survived in prison.

One night about ten years later, Carlos was listening to a group of prisoners sing and clap their hands in worship. He had heard them hundreds of times before, but he had no interest in religion. He thought Christians were crazy.

But prison had worn Carlos down. He later said,

“I was already tired of the life I was living. I didn’t know who to turn to and I found myself desperate, in a dead end. I was looking for something that would embrace me, something that would help me. I saw the brothers from the church and I saw their sincerity and I saw their commitment to God. I went to see if God would truly set me free.”

Carlos left his cell and joined the worship. The pastor, who was an inmate, read from John’s Gospel, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 10:10).

Carlos surrendered his life to Christ, and as his fellow prisoners prayed, he fell to the ground and was freed from a legion of demons. Immediately he gave away his last cigarettes and stopped snorting cocaine. He no longer used prostitutes. He traded membership in a prison gang for membership in the prisoner-led church.

Carlos walked out of prison two years later, a free man and a follower of Jesus. Back in the favela, his former gang offered him work that would pay ten times what he could earn legally. He turned them down and spent the next month sleeping under a bridge. He joined the local Pentecostal church and rebuilt his life. His faith didn’t magically catapult him out of poverty, but it provided him with a new identity and a new community.

Carlos is one of thousands of people who have been converted in Rio de Janeiro’s notorious prisons. It takes a movement to penetrate and thrive in the gang-controlled prisons and favelas of Rio.

Movements behind bars in Brazil (2)