Movements Behind Bars in Brazil (6)

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War Cry

This story will give you an insight into the world in which multiplying movements of disciples and churches are flourishing inside the prisons of Rio de Janeiro. It shows the vitality of the churches and how they have adapted to the gang-controlled culture of the prisons.

At exactly six o’clock the Comando Vermelho’s grito de guerra (war cry) rang out from the cells in Salgado’s south wing, started by the throaty shout from a single detainee. The lone voice was immediately answered by the four hundred inmates living in the gang-controlled cells, and everyone else throughout the facility stopped what they were doing and stood silent when the gang’s call-and-response ritual began. The war cry built to a crescendo, then ended with the repetition of the powerful final phrase five times:

“Comando … Vermelho, Comando … Vermelho, Comando … Vermelho, Comando … Vermelho, Comando … Vermelho.”

A somber hush fell over the building, and in the silence that followed I asked an inmate standing next to me what I had just heard. He responded, “It’s their war cry. They do this every day and always at six o’clock.” The daily ritual reminds both the inmates and the guards that Rio de Janeiro’s most powerful gang, the Comando Vermelho (Red Command), controls the south wing of the jail.

But that wasn’t the first grito de guerra I had heard that day. Fewer than thirty minutes earlier, on the other side of the facility, the members of the Heroes for Christ Prison Church performed a strikingly similar ritual. After the ninety-minute worship service, the pastor of Heroes for Christ, an inmate himself, yelled at the top of his lungs, “By what are we saved?” Then the thirty participants answered, “By the blood of Christ!”

The pastor continued, this time with more intensity, “If he is your shepherd?” The inmates responded, matching the pastor’s heightened passion: “Then we will lack nothing!” The inmate pastor continued leading the call and response, pacing through his incarcerated congregation to make his final, most dramatic declaration: “Church, together with all the inmates here, with tremendous faith, give us Lord Jesus …” and all of the men let loose with everything they had—“FREEDOM!!!”

In Rio de Janeiro, autonomous, inmate-led prison churches like the Heroes for Christ Prison Church are the heart of Pentecostal practice behind bars. “The church is ours. It belongs to those of us on the inside,” Cristiano, a Salgado inmate and the leader of the church’s war cry, told me.

Andrew Johnson, If I Give My Soul