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.
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.
Society for Pentecostal Studies President Paul Alexander’s address was suffused with liberation theology themes in which he denounced “white racing,” “male sexing” and urged gathered Pentecostal academics to accept “LGBTQI* realities” in their churches and seminaries. ... In his address to the society, Alexander noted that some Christians who are “gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex” are also Pentecostals and Charismatics, urging that the society should openly discuss “our diversity of perspectives” without “fear of reprisal.” keep reading... http://juicyecumenism.com/2013/04/08/race-sex-and-liberation-pentecostal-studies-president-steers-society-in-new-direction/ *LGBTQI stands for: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex
Attendances grew from 9,446 people to 215,000 between 1977-2007 — a staggering 2276%. The number of churches grew from 152 to 1120 — or 736%.
Despite this history, the number of ACC churches has recently fallen — from 1133 in 2008, to 1073 in 2011.
If the number of ACC churches continues to shrink, so will attendances.
What could be at the heart of this dramatic turnaround?
The ACC may be suffering from is the “failure of success.” In their early stages, movements risk everything for the cause they believe in. Success can change movements. They become risk averse. They have attained a place in society, they have resources, their clergy are increasingly educated and respected. They have more to lose.
In a plateaued movement, the next generation of leaders would prefer to be on the staff of a large successful church, than take the risk of planting a new church. Larger churches would prefer to reproduce what they know works, rather than risk planting new churches.
Growing something bigger is safer than starting something new. Success is measured by the size of a church, rather than the number of generations of new churches it has produced.
The challenge for the ACC is to make an innovative return to the best of its traditions . . .
*The Australian Christian Churches was formally known as the Assemblies of God in Australia