Police helicopters twirl ominously over a favela (slum) controlled by drug traffickers as elite police sharpshooters bang on doors and one by one enter each home in the community. The favela has been the site of weekly police incursions as a growing number of crack cocaine users congregate there and members of Rio's largest street gang move in – pushed out of favelas elsewhere by new police units.
Antônio Carlos Costa, a bespectacled, gray-haired pastor in Converse high-top sneakers, strolls past the cops with a few volunteers from his middle-class church across town and residents of this favela. They decide to take an early lunch to wait out the police operation before returning to their project: cooking nutritious meals for crack addicts in the favela.
"When I come back from a prison or a place like this favela, and I tell the other pastors what I've seen, and they don't take action, it gives me such fury," Pastor Costa says. "The church doesn't even know how the state works. They think that politics is necessarily dirty."
Costa leads a growing ad hoc group of church members and nonreligious allies whose goal is to protest violence and address the inequality and neglect behind it in Rio de Janeiro.
The numbers here are staggering: Brazil has the most murders of any country in the world, tallying 43,909 in 2009, ahead of India (40,752) and Russia (15,954). Half a million Brazilians have been murdered in the past decade. The state of Rio de Janeiro has a homicide rate of 30 per 100,000 residents. (By contrast, the global average is less than 7 per 100,000 residents. In New York State the number is 4 per 100,000.)
Police confrontations like the one Costa passed through add to the toll. Rio has averaged one killing a day by police so far in 2012 – and that's down from more than three a day in 2007.
That's why Costa began what has become one of Rio's most respected and visible human rights and protest movements. In a city where political apathy is the norm, Rio de Paz ("River of Peace") has become a regular in the local news media as it calls together volunteers wielding Brazilian flag-colored brooms to protest state corruption. The volunteers also place thousands of crosses and roses across the Copacabana beach to symbolize the number of homicide victims and have had a thousand people lay down in black outfits along the beachside.
After an adolescent boy went missing last July following a police shootout with alleged drug traffickers in the oft-forgotten western suburbs of Rio, Rio de Paz protested for days on end with "Where is Juan?" signs on the beach. The boy's body was found more than a week after his disappearance – dumped in a river near a police station with a bullet in his body that was traced to an officer who already had 13 on-duty killings to his name.
"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.
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.
"Rio residents, with good reason, complain about pollution on the beach," columnist Ancelmo Gois wrote. "Well, look at the case of the kids in the favela ... who don't even have a beach."
The Rio de Paz volunteers are as present on the street as they are in social media: Costa's iPhone sends out a steady stream of tweets, ranging from Bible verses to updates on the new freedom of information law to existential musings ("What does it mean to be a Christian in a country of misery and inequality?" "Thousands of non-Christians stumble with the lack of commitment the church has to social justice.")
In a recent interview, Costa has strong words for church leaders in Brazil. But he then backtracks.
"I feel revolted with the church. But if I returned to look at myself five years ago, I would have found myself considering myself completely Christian and not having the least bit of social concern," Costa says one recent weekday after leaving a public audience in the state legislature on overcrowding in prisons. Afterward he is planning to meet with transparency and anticorruption activists from around Brazil at a downtown bookstore.
Then Costa softens his tone and says he needs to show the same "mercy" toward mainstream churches that Rio de Paz strives to show to those in need around Rio de Janeiro.
"I have a lot to be ashamed of in all of the years since I was ordained," he says. "In those years, there were massacres, violations of human rights.
"And I was quiet."
• For more, visit http://riodepaz.org.
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