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.
Visit to a gang controlled neighborhood
Andrew Johnson describes his first visit to a Comando Vermelho (CV)–controlled neighborhood in the company of a pastor, an Assemblies of God deacon and a recently converted Pentecostal who had recently ended a multiyear crack cocaine addiction.
The story will give you a feel for the environment in which multiplying movements of disciples and churches are spreading in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas and prisons.
After waiting fifteen minutes we were summoned by an armed teenager who told us that the CV leader was ready to speak to us. The pastor had called for the meeting because the gang decided to shut down Cracolandia, the open-air crack market that had been operating thirty yards from the table where they sold marijuana and powder cocaine.
The number of crack users had dropped from a few hundred to a few dozen since the CV announced that crack sales would stop, and the remaining users smoked the small, pale-yellow rocks under printed signs that read “THE SALE OF CRACK WILL SOON BE PROHIBITED HERE.”
The CV leader arrived with a semiautomatic pistol tucked into his shorts, a thick Rolex on one wrist, a two-inch-wide gold bracelet on the other, and chunky gold rings on three of his fingers. Two bodyguards, who were also dripping in gold, accompanied the CV leader everywhere he went.
We all shook hands, and the pastor started the conversation by telling them that God was pleased with their decision to stop selling crack because the drug destroys individuals and families. The gang leader shrugged in agreement and continued to listen to the pastor as he told the gang members how he hoped God would continue his work in the community and eventually end the “rest of this,” pointing to the three sofas full of teenagers and the open-air drug buffet.
Though the pastor made it clear that the drug business was not a neutral activity in God’s eyes, he did not vilify the gang members. He did not accuse them of anything immoral or imply that they were the root of the problems facing the neighborhood and city.
I could sense that the men lowered their emotional defenses in response to the firm but respectful way the pastor spoke with them. He brought a positive message, telling them that God was pleased with their decision to stop selling crack, as opposed to saying God was displeased with them selling drugs.
Building on the moment, the pastor then asked if he could pray with the three men. The gang leader nodded in consent, and the pastor, deacon, and former crack user placed their hands on the men’s shoulders and began to pray. Though the gang members were not Pentecostals, when the pastor started to pray, all three immediately bowed their heads, closed their eyes, and accepted the prayers, as well as the touch of the other men. The pastor prayed that God would protect these three men and thanked God for their decision to stop the sale of crack cocaine in the space they controlled. He prayed for blessings and peace in the neighborhood, which had been one of Rio’s most violent over the last decade, and ended by thanking God for the men’s lives.
In stark contrast to how much of the city talks about and treats gang members, the pastor prayed as if the gang members’ lives had value. He affirmed their dignity even though they all were carrying weapons and the leader held a sack of drug money in his hands. The pastor’s interaction with the men was radically different from the interactions these men have with the police, government officials, the media, and the rest of society. The pastor directly spoke against the gang’s drug business and indirectly against their control of their neighborhood, but not against the gang members as people. In short, he treated them with dignity.
I argue that this sort of interaction is one of the primary reasons that Pentecostals are treated with respect in these areas. There were no tears from the gang members, no signs of remorse, no confessions, and no promises to change their affiliation with the Comando Vermelho. But after the final amen the gang members thanked us for coming and we all hugged each other.
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.
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.
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.
“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.