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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.

(Page 3 of 3)

Dos Santos says he can stay calm in such situations because he carries the shield of God, but certainly his personal experience in a gang helps him.

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He began using drugs at age 8, and quickly climbed the ranks of one of the local gangs. He and Christiane married when he was 16, she was 13. It wasn't until his life was threatened – by his own gang – that he converted.

He walks the same streets today, but now with a Bible in his hand. On a recent day he walked past the drug den he once protected. Nearby is an apartment that he rents out to tenants today. He and his wife, who have three young children, also own a popular hamburger joint at the edge of Mangueira. He still lives carefully – refusing to talk about the violence in his neighborhood while in public, even though he says he always walks with faith in God.

He doesn't know how long after he was shoved to the ground that the group's leader walked onto the scene, and held out his hand to dos Santos. "You aren't spies; if you were I'd kill you all. You are believers for real, you are welcome here any time," he said to him.

"One day I was in the same place," dos Santos explains later, when asked why he puts himself at such risk. "God got me out of this place."

That night they preached to the Lord. But not every intervention helps people put the thug life behind them. That gang leader was killed a couple of months later.

Few situations are as dangerous for the "Fishermen of the Night" as that night two years ago, but it's never easy. They say they intervene when God tells them to, which could be several times one month, none the next.

But are they having a lasting impact? John Burdick, an associate professor of anthropology at Syracuse University, says that pastors will take credit for reducing crime in their neighborhoods, but he says that no academic has been able to clearly show that this is an effective tool in the long run.

Still, few doubt that on a small scale they are making a difference.

Their mission is to convert as many Brazilians as possible, and the poor and disadvantaged are their perfect targets. Favelas, where many potential converts live, have traditionally fallen off the political radar, says Jurema Batista, the president of a government-run agency child and adolescent rights. In that sense Pentecostals are doing a job that the government is not. "They are filling a role that no one else is."

"They regard themselves as engaged constantly, as getting [nonbelievers] out of the drug trade, alcoholism, aggressive behavior, and all the things that lead to fights and violence," adds Professor Burdick. "And as they do convert, their behavior does change. They stop being involved in a whole array of things that generate violence, directly or indirectly."

They also offer hope to people who thought there was none left.

Dos Santos, who drives around in a 1991 brown Ford station wagon with a bumper sticker that reads "Exclusive Property of Jesus," says he often has little idea whether the criminals they preach to end up converting.

Probably most don't, he admits. But the work of the "Fishermen of the Night" has spread around town. And one letter he received gives him all the proof he needs to forge ahead.

It was a couple of years ago, on a Friday night. A gang member called his home, telling dos Santos that he felt he was going to get shot dead soon unless he quit. He asked dos Santos for help.

This time dos Santos had no time to fast, which the group usually does for two days to purify body and soul before setting out on an intervention.

He gathered as many people as he could. They arrived at 1:30 a.m., while the gang was still eating dinner near the spot where the drugs were sold. En route, Christiane, dos Santos's wife, says she had a vision of the gang member being buried.

When they arrived at the scene, she told the gang member about her vision, and he began to weep. They prayed for him for hours, and left him a Bible. He handed them his rifle.

Two months later, dos Santos received another call from the man. But this time it was to invite dos Santos to a new church.

The gang member had become a pastor. That was two years ago. "I still get goose bumps," dos Santos says, the flesh rising on his arms.