Violence in a Rio slum turned a suburban pastor into an activist
Antônio Carlos Costa was happy as a pastor in suburban Rio de Janeiro. But violence in a city slum changed his life forever.
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"You have to deal with the temptation of cynicism," says Costa, himself a son of a policeman whom he describes as having "actively pursued" leftist guerrillas during the country's 1964-85 dictatorship.Skip to next paragraph
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Costa recalls his father coming home with underground newspapers he had apprehended from guerrillas.
Raised in what he calls a nominally Christian tradition, Costa truly embraced and converted to the faith during his college years. "I had no political preoccupations, no existential worries," he says of himself before his conversion.
Costa was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. More than a decade later he was leading a church in a comfortable upper-middle-class neighborhood of Rio. But in late 2006, Costa and the church's members were jolted by a series of violent outbursts in the city that killed 19 people. Costa estimates that 10 families left his small church as he and other members began organizing to identify themselves as activists; that was the start of the Rio de Paz movement.
"I realized I was leaving the philosophical, apologetic world for the world of human rights," Costa says.
In contrast with the many nongovernmental organizations in Rio, staffed with career-track young professionals, Rio de Paz consists of volunteers – often middle-class adults who use their days off to visit prisoners and drug users. They refuse money from any politician and rely on small church donations – and on making their actions as inexpensive as possible.
"I never want to be in the position where we can't say what we want because of where our money comes from. The power of Rio de Paz is in its independence," Costa says.
For example, Rio de Paz volunteers visited – and fought for years to close – a series of illegal police-run jails for detainees around the city. One volunteer, a white-bearded dentist, spent his Saturdays for years frequenting a horse stable that had been turned into a jail for suspects detained on charges of drug trafficking, homicide, and paramilitary activity. By the time the jail was closed earlier this year, he knew the scores of inmates and jail keepers by name.
"I saw how the church can be subversive and do something to change the life of a city," Costa says.
Brazil has a rapidly growing evangelical Christian population, in addition to already being the world's largest Roman Catholic country. But Costa says traditional churches have been reluctant to take on social justice causes, even in a country where violence is so extreme.
He is frankly disappointed by mainstream churches that so often have a "preoccupation with sexual ethics" instead, he says.
"If you look in the Bible, it says little about sex, but so much about social justice, the defense of the poor," Costa says. "You find people outside the church more willing to talk about human rights than inside it."
A key to the success and visibility of Rio de Paz has been its enthusiastic engagement with the news media – and vice versa – which means its protests are often reported on by the largest media outlets in Rio and throughout Brazil.
Recently, disgusted by the fetid, sewage-clogged river running through a favela, Rio de Paz volunteers obtained a measurement of the poor water quality – and pictures of children playing in the river despite its lack of sanitation – from the state environmental service. They sent the material to the country's most influential columnist, who quickly published it in Rio de Janeiro's largest newspaper.