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.
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.
If there is a hell on earth it would be an El Salvardorian prison. Two reports of what God is doing through multiplying movements among the gang controlled prisons of El Salvador.
Sirens blare and helicopters roar as the sun rises over the hills of San Salvador. It’s 10.30am on February 2nd, and nine police officers have just been ambushed. They got a call an hour ago about a stash house where members of the Barrio 18 gang were hiding guns. When they showed up, the gangsters blitzed them with bullets. One officer is dead. Five are in the hospital. Two corpses, identifiable as gang members by the tattoos that cover their bodies, lie sprawled on the ground.
Less than three miles away, in a neighbourhood controlled by the same gang, another group of tattooed men prepare for action in a dark hallway. Loud music, clanging metal and frenzied chatter bounce off the walls. Dressing carefully, the men watch the clock. At 2pm, they nod to each other, gather their supplies and open the heavy metal door.
Light streams in and the smell of fresh bread wafts out. The men break into pairs, hoisting cloth-covered plastic crates onto their shoulders, and head off in different directions. “Sweet bread! Garlic bread! Bread with ham! Pizza!” they shout. When the crates are empty and their pockets full of coins, the men return to the constricted quarters in the back of the Eben-Ezer church where they run the small bakery.
Over the past year, the church has become a refuge for recently released prisoners who are trying to leave the Barrio 18 gang and pledge themselves to God.
Notice the type of Christianity that is spreading in the darkest places. This movement is characterized by obedience to the living Word, dependence on the Holy Spirit and faithfulness to the Mission of multiplying disciples and churches. Exactly what we would expect.
Oggie and Jeanette Martin are on their way home from three months in Peru. Oggie writes,
After three months in the field, in Peru, we are returning home to Florida, I want to thank everyone that prayed for us and invested in this awesome work that God is doing. Many churches where planted by locals, and leaders are being raised from the harvest, a witch doctor in Cusco got healed and now six people from his family turned to follow Christ and his wife is sharing Jesus with everyone in the neighborhood. Different cities now have teams that are working together and getting in the harvest weekly and many more stories from the harvest that I can't fit here.
Oggie's mission field is the world's 500 million Spanish-speakers. If you speak Spanish or know someone who does, here's how Oggie trains in Spanish.
My recent interview with Oggie.