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.