On Rio's mean streets, a rare credibility
Pentecostals' message of transformation is helping Brazil's drug dealers give up their guns for Jesus.
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Many of today's Pentecostals were brought into the faith by other Pentecostals. But new converts also come on their own to the doors of churches or the homes of pastors. For those in gangs, who conclude that their only way out is death or jail, conversion offers a third option, says David Smilde who studies the phenomenon in Caracas, Venezuela, and is the author of "Reason to Believe," published this past summer.Skip to next paragraph
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"It's a way of stepping out of an impossible situation; they are no longer feared by the [criminal] network," says Mr. Smilde, a sociologist at the University of Georgia. Where there is little police presence or institutional support, he says, "Pentecostalism is one way out."
"The only path to live in peace is this path," agrees Thiago de Castro Cosia, a young convert from New Zion. "It's the only way to make your enemies your friends. It's the only way to be free."
It is a drastic mind shift, but it is supported by theology. Because many Pentecostals consider themselves "reborn," they are able to step away from their past sins, and reemerge with a new identity. They believe the devil's hand is behind urban violence and drugs, and often turn to exorcism to root out evil.
The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, says Ms. Birman, focuses on the larger idea of civic consciousness, such as drawing attention to the root causes of violence. But for people faced with crime every day, the response is often seen as institutional or out of touch.
Academics who study this phenomenon say that Pentecostals are able to penetrate areas where even census workers won't go, not just because they hail from the same tough neighborhoods, but because most churches are independent, grass-roots efforts – unlike the Catholic Church, which is run under strict hierarchy that starts at the Vatican.
"It works precisely because it is informal," says Clara Mafra, an anthropologist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. "They don't have to ask someone's permission. The Holy Spirit talks to them."
Pastors are largely autonomous, so an idea that comes to them in the middle of the night can be implemented the next day. It is a format that lends itself to a more local, and often more innovative, response.
"The Catholic Church is slow. They repeat the same model in different areas of the city, if you have a lot of violence or not," says Ms. Mafra. "The Pentecostals, they try different solutions and different arrangements."
Gang members leave Pentecostals alone because, although they don't necessarily practice any religious doctrine, they still overwhelmingly believe in God, say researchers. Catholicism has traditionally reflected the political elite here, who are seen as having done little to combat crime. Pentecostals are seen by the community as operating in a separate, uncorrupted sphere, says Birman.
If converting is a strategic way out for many young men, some question how deep and lasting their faith is. For every convert there is another who is leaving the religion, as backsliding is rampant. But Smilde says many do end up as long-term believers. Their entire sense of self and purpose changes, he says, whether they've converted to leave a gang, because their wives made them, or simply because they were drawn to God.
On a recent evening, a group of young men from the New Zion church sits in a circle sharing testimonials, the stories of their conversion. They are dressed in tennis shoes and running pants, not unlike the men outside carrying guns and dealing drugs.
They say the nerve they had as gangsters came from the devil. "I feel more courageous now; more like a man," says Hugo Leonardo da Silva, a 22-year-old with a young wife and daughter.
His path to Pentecostalism was not easy.
He tried to convert many times but says he lacked strength. Even now, he says the easy money and temptation of gang life is around him every day.
He deals with it by staying away, he says, "unless it is to spread the word of God."
That is where the two worlds converge for "Fishermen of the Night."
"Who are you?" barked a gang member, seeing dos Santos's group approaching them in the middle of the night, right at the spot where they used to carry out their briskest drug sales. Dos Santos stood in the front, and was pushed to the ground with the butt of a rifle.
"We come with the word of God," dos Santos said, suddenly surrounded by 40 men from the Red Command, one of the fiercest factions operating in Rio de Janeiro. The Pentecostals prayed, trancelike, as they called out for God to reach the gang. dos Santos says he doesn't remember what he was saying, or what was happening around him. He kept repeating, "You are not alone, you are with Jesus." Someone suggested they were spies for the police or a rival drug gang.