Prison ministry

Movements Behind Bars in Brazil (6)


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


This is a Movement of God


This movement of God behind bars is one of the case studies in The Rise and Fall of Movements. An update just came in from Don Waybright.

He walks into the room, handcuffed, escorted by the guard that brought him from his 5’x9’ cell on L line of solitary confinement at Darrington Maximum Security Prison. From head to toe his body is covered with prison tattoos. The teardrop tattoos around his eyes symbolize murder – taking the life of another man.

The guard hands him off to our team and we allow him to say a few words of thanks to the prisoners celebrating behind the cage – the ones who have shared the Gospel and demonstrated to him the love of Jesus, but aren’t allowed to have physical contact with him. Now his eyes swell with real tears – symbolizing the suffering Lamb of God who died for the forgiveness of his sins and has transformed him from the inside out. We guide him into the portable baptismal, and soon he rises from the water to the sounds of cheers filling the room – his face glowing with the full awareness of the radical lifechange his baptism represents.

Today we baptized 13 men just like this…in the past year Sugar Creek has baptized 77 men in solitary confinement at Darrington. Next month, the new Warden, embracing the movement of God breaking out, will allow the inmates who discipled the men to conduct the baptisms for the first time. 

At Coffield Prison in Palestine TX, the largest prison in the state, over 225 disciple making groups meet weekly in every living area of the prison. They average 30-40 baptisms each month.

One of the inmate leaders of this movement, in for life with no parole, was recently transferred to Darrington. Last week he began a 12-week high intensity, high accountability group disciple-making training at Darrington…the 40 participants are already starting groups throughout the general population.

There are over 100 men on the wait list to attend this training…a genuine movement of God is taking place – no man can control it, nor take credit for it since this is the unstoppable, unshakable Kingdom of God! The fruit of surrender to the Spirit – obedience to the Word of God – and pursuit of the mission of No Place Left where the Gospel has penetrated every person in the prison and beyond! 

Find out more about this movement of God: 182-NoPlaceLeft Behind Bars.

Read the case study and others in The Rise and Fall of Movements.

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)

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)


182-NoPlaceLeft Behind Bars

Don Waybright describes how a Texas megachurch is fueling disciple making movements in prisons and around the world.

A previous interview with Don Waybright, missions pastor at Sugar Creek Baptist Church.

Don recommends Steve Smith’s book Spirit Walk: