Braving bullets to reach the forgotten

Church team survives firefight between police, gang in Rio slum

About midnight, the team heads out, almost 100 of them.

They walk single-file down a narrow road leading into a steamy Rio de Janeiro slum called Arará. They head toward the baile funk music pounding through giant speakers in the town square.

They’re crashing a boca de fuma – a drug-fueled party thrown by the local boss. Around them, prostitutes work the square. Dealers sell crack, meth and cocaine openly on tables. Other drug traffickers, many just boys, tote AK-47s.

Suddenly the music cuts out. Traffickers whip out their cell phones, quickly scanning texts. Motorcycles rev up and bolt out of the square.

Then, gunshots. Lots of them.

It’s the BOPE – a military police battalion charged with pacifying drug-controlled slums like Arará and the surrounding barrio, Benfica. As the party vaporizes, BOPE troops hurry to block both ends of the road with tanks.

Continued gunfire sends everyone still caught in the square bounding for cover – inside houses, apartments, storefronts, wherever there’s shelter.

Most of the team makes it out. The seven who don’t scramble to a walk-up lunch counter and hide behind the garage-type metal door.

Amid the mayhem, team member Chris starts talking about Jesus with a 12-year-old boy who’s also pinned down in the shop. Team members pray for the neighborhood. Soon the gunfire stops, and the seven seize the opportunity to get out of Arará.

“For hours afterward, we sat as a team and just said, ‘Wow,’” remembers Craig, a ReachGlobal missionary who was one of the seven.

“The police were firing into the boca from two directions,” Craig recalls. “Eventually you could hear it right outside our door – guns being fired. We didn’t know at this point who they were. The fear was it could be another gang coming, regular police looking for payoffs; it could be BOPE. Either way, I was worried about where we were.”

Burden for the forgotten

The team, mostly from Baptist Life Church based in the nearby barrio of Caju, is doing a ministry they call madrugado do carinho – literally, middle of the night care.

The midnight care outreaches are the brainchild of Fabio, a 31-year-old pastor from Rio de Janeiro who took over Baptist Life Church eight years ago, when it had two people attending. The church now has almost 700 people in discipleship groups.

Caju is home to about 50,000 people, most of them poor migrants from northeast Brazil who came looking for a better life in the city.

It’s known as a forgotten neighborhood. That reputation deeply attracted Fabio, who for years has felt a push from God to share the love of Christ with “excluded people,” and to go to places that other people don’t want to go.

“So whether that’s persecuted countries – that captures my attention – or going into a favela at nighttime, these are places that most people don’t want to go to, and they are neighborhoods where there aren’t many evangelical churches,” Fabio says.

But those drug traffickers need to know that there’s a place in the kingdom of Christ even for them, says Mike, a minister from California who led Chris’ short-term team. The night before the shootout, in fact, Mike talked with five drug traffickers in Arará. He told them that he’s lived in their shoes, and that they can be forgiven for everything they’ve done.

Mike’s history gives him an automatic in with these guys. He left a life of drugs and gang violence 12 years ago to follow Jesus after God miraculously spared him from a suicide attempt.

“I know from seeing the situation down there that the only hope for that area is the church,” says Mike, who has led teams to minister in the favelas for the past five years. “I don’t see the government or the police being able to fix it. The only way you can kill a snake is to [twist] off its head. So I figure if I can get to the top guys and get them to accept the gospel message and bring the rest of their men with them into the church, then there’s hope.”

Earning respect

Fabio’s years of ministry in the favelas and his willingness to tell even the drug bosses there about Jesus have earned him their respect. He has leveraged that respect to the hilt, going so far as to rescue people being tortured for crossing drug traffickers.

The first person Fabio rescued was a young man who had been shot through both hands as punishment for a robbery. People who break the no-stealing code inside a favela will often get fingers cut off or get shot through the hand by traffickers. The traffickers double as enforcers for the drug bosses, whose word is law in hundreds of favelas like Arará and Benfica and Caju, where Baptist Life ministers.

“By and large, the drug traffickers, they respect pastors – pastors who are serious about their work,” Fabio says. “Unless I cross them over, they’re not going to harm me or the church. The fact that I’ve been doing this a long time and understand the way of the favela, I don’t have the same fear I Íused to have years ago.”

Neighborhoods like Caju teem with people involved in drugs – bosses, sellers, and users. Because those people tend be out more in the middle of the night, Baptist Life has made a point of being out then, too – even at the risk of walking into gunfights.

“There are missionaries and pastors there that are absolute modern-day heroes for Jesus Christ, risking their necks every day to spread the gospel to people the rest of the world would just hate and turn their backs on,” Mike says. “And those are the very people who, if they can be reached, will make the difference to turn that country around.”

Pray

  • For the continued mission of Baptist Life Church – that they would be able to expand their discipleship groups into places like Arará and across Rio de Janeiro.
  • That God would use Baptist Life and its discipleship and evangelism ministries to put an end to drug trafficking in places like Caju and Benfica.
  • That God would protect Fabio and his people as they minister in the neighborhoods.

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