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On Rio's mean streets, a rare credibility

Pentecostals' message of transformation is helping Brazil's drug dealers give up their guns for Jesus.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 18, 2007

Rio de Janeiro

He felt weak physically. But spiritually, he had never felt stronger.

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Alexandre dos Santos, a converted Pentecostal, fasted for two days in the favela, or slum, where he grew up, before getting on his knees to lead 18 others in prayer.

"God protect us," they chanted, before going to persuade a gang of drug traffickers in a violent struggle with the police to put down their arms and accept Jesus.

The group, named "Fishermen of the Night," had no idea what to expect that evening two years ago, Mr. dos Santos recalls. Since then, they have seen men killed. They have been threatened with death. But God has sent them as emissaries, they say, to stop the violence that is suffocating many of Brazil's poor communities.

"You cannot shake. You must demonstrate courage," says dos Santos.

"You cannot stutter," adds his wife Christiane in their modest home in Mangueira, a favela that winds up the side of a hill, where homes seem like blocks stacked upon one another. "You say, 'I am from Jesus.' There is no room for doubt."

The group's core purpose is not to fight crime, but to convert as many as possible. More law and order is often a byproduct.

In Rio's favelas,crowded with men and women on the margins, they find fertile ground. To outsiders they are called "the Evangelicals," and for the most part, people here don't challenge their missionary work.

In fact, Pentecostals – for theological, cultural, and personal reasons – have apparently won the respect of the same criminals who may think little of shooting a lifelong neighbor.

So in a city that is considered one of the most dangerous in the world, which registers 6,000 murders a year, and where the police and military are distrusted at best, Pentecostals are among the few who are facing up to organized crime.

"They are viewed as staying out of all the conflict that exists in the world. They live separate from the world, not inside the factions that are everywhere else," says Patricia Birman, an anthropologist at the State University of Rio De Janeiro. "They can intervene because of that."

In absolute numbers, Brazil, the region's biggest country, has more Pentecostals than anywhere else in Latin America. Over 10 percent of the population identified itself as Pentecostal in Brazil's 2000 census, double the figures from a decade earlier. According to a 2006, 10-country survey of Pentecostals by the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, nearly 21 percent of urban residents surveyed identified themselves as Protestant, the majority Pentecostal.

It takes only a trek into a favela on a Sunday night to understand the traction of the movement.

In the dark, winding alleys of the Mangueira favela, joyous music pours from Pentecostal churches, most of them drab cement structures on the outside but full of dance and song within.

To get to dos Santos's church, Assembly of God New Zion, visitors pass young teens with guns guarding homes and a local drug den where a pile of white cocaine powder sits on a table in full view. Before the church was founded seven years ago, it was an abandoned building.

One reason Pentecostals can approach drug traffickers is that so many of them were once violent felons themselves. Some have committed murder. Their pastors have served time. And, reborn, they now believe their calling is to bring the word of God to the same streets they once terrorized.

Dos Santos converted to Pentecostalism after more than 15 years dealing drugs and robbing passengers at knife-point on city buses. His pastor, Marcos Lourenço, served time for drug trafficking. Pastor Lourenço points to the man sitting to his left. "He just got out of jail; his wife is still there," he says. He rests his hand on the man to his right. "This used to be my No. 1 enemy."

On a recent night, Lourenço works his tiny congregation into a frenzy of "glorias" and "amens." Men and women squeeze their eyes shut as Lourenço, a squat man with a baby face, breaks into a sweat. They all dance to drums, a keyboard, and a tambourine, played by a group of teens. They are off-key, but no one seems to care or notice. "Oh gloria, gloria, gloria," shouts one young woman, clutching her chest.

"How can people change so much? I ask myself that all the time," muses Lourenço.