South America

Movements behind bars in Brazil (4)

I’m following the story of multiplying movements in the prisons of Rio de Janeiro as told by Andrew Johnson.

We’ve seen how prison Pentecostalism provides broken men with dignity and the hope of a new life in community.

Johnson went behind bars and witnessed how Rio’s most stigmatized residents, had built a church where they experienced joy, brotherhood, and dignity in one of the city’s most apparently god-forsaken places.

How do these prison churches survive and function?

The prison churches were independent, self-sustaining organizations. They set the membership bar high. Members are easy to identify, they dress differently, they quit drugs, and spend them time studying the Bible.

Many gang members have parents, aunts, cousins, and siblings who are active in Pentecostal churches. The social and class differences that exist between gang members and other institutions—the government, politics, universities, middle-class employment, for example—do not exist between the gangs and the Pentecostals in poor neighborhoods. And conversely, many pastors and active Pentecostal church leaders were once gang members themselves or have family members currently in the gang.

According to Johnson, the relationship between Pentecostal churches and the narco-gangs is characterized by mutual respect. The Pentecostals do not challenge the gang’s power in their neighborhoods. Nor do they condone the gang’s drug traffic, violence, and hedonism. They treat gang members as people worthy of redemption.

The gangs in turn command their members to treat the church members and pastors with respect and to acknowledge their authority in the community.

As long as the Pentecostals were known as a group who practiced what they preached, they would be protected from prison violence and allowed to occupy space in the prison.

Movements behind bars in Brazil (1)
Movements behind bars in Brazil (2)
Movements behind bars in Brazil (3)
Movements behind bars in Brazil (5)

Movements behind bars in Brazil (3)

Dignity is my central argument and I contend that dignity is the driving force behind Pentecostal practice inside of the prison and jails I studied.

Andrew Johnson

I’m following the story of the spread of Pentecostalism in the jails and favelas of Rio de Janeiro as told by Andrew Johnson.

We’ve seen how Pentecostalism adapts to the local environment and produces local leaders. But what’ the appeal of Pentecostalism in the first place?

As a sociologist Johnson argues it’s about the transformation of identity,

“Pentecostalism resonates so deeply with inmates like Carlos because it offers a belief system and a set of practices that enable an inmate to embody a new, publicly recognizable identity and a platform for prisoners to live a moral and dignified life both in prison and after they are released.”

Johnson witnessed firsthand how,

“Through their actions the Pentecostal pastors and volunteers literally embodied their belief that regardless of whether the inmates in Rio’s prisons were innocent or guilty of the crimes of which they were convicted, they were human beings worthy of redemption and deserving certain fundamental rights.

Faith in Christ enabled these desperate men in appalling conditions “to reject annihilation and affirm a terrible right to live.”

No government or social program can meet a prisoner’s deepest need. Only in Christ can they become a new creation—forgiven and set free to live a new life in him in the fellowship of God’s people behind bars.

Movements behind bars in Brazil (1)
Movements behind bars in Brazil (2)
Movements behind bars in Brazil (4)

Movements behind bars in Brazil (2)

“The church is ours. It belongs to those of us on the inside.”

I’m following the story of Pentecostalism’s impact in Brazil’s prisons as told by Andrew Johnson. Only a movement could thrive in such a harsh environment.

Throughout Latin America, Pentecostalism flourishes because it adapts itself to the local culture and produces local leaders.

Pentecostalism thrives behind bars because it has adapted to this harsh environment by taking on the structure and function of the prison gangs.

According to Johnson,

“Both gang and prison church claim part of the prison as their own, each implements and enforces a set of rules for their members, and each provides a strong identity to participants and offers them protection and community.”

The music in the churches has the same beat as the music in the streets, and pastors preach in the same language used in conversations at the bus stop, in corner cafés, and in the local markets. Leaders can rise from the congregations without having to go through seminaries or other educational institutions that are available to the middle and upper classes but largely closed to others.

The incarcerated leader preaches, sings, prays, fasts, suffers, and praises alongside the other church members. Inmates not only set the vision for the future of the prison churches, they also negotiate with gang and prison officials and make themselves available to meet the spiritual and sometimes physical and emotional needs of inmates twenty-four hours a day.

Movements behind bars in Brazil (1)
Movements behind bars in Brazil (3)