Quite a few of my friends don’t know that I wound up in Brazil due to my family and their religious proselytizing. My father was born in Germany and taken to the United States by his maternal uncle after my grandfather was incapacitated in a mining accident around 1910. In the US, my father learned English and became a Baptist minister. In the mid 1950’s he and my oldest brother went to Brazil as evangelical protestant missionaries in what was then a very Catholic country.
Most Brazilians, some 70 plus percent are still nominally members of the Catholic Church. In the 50’s, the percentage was well over 90. So my father, my brother and many others made inroads and successfully legitimized Protestantism there. My father’s Portuguese was never that great and when I was a teenager, I did simultaneous interpretation as he preached on the street or in little one-room churches.
In very Catholic and traditional Minas Gerais, my brother and my father received numerous threats and an angry Catholic once tried to run over my older sibling with a Chevrolet truck. Later, that same man converted and became one of my brother’s best friends and an acolyte.
I give this background, not so much to validate my own Christianity or theology, but more as a personal reference point in my understanding of religiosity in Brazil.
Tomorrow is Easter or more precisely Resurrection Sunday. Although it may not seem like it for many, it is the most important date in the calendar for Christians. We celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead and the fulfillment of Biblical history and prophecy. Jesus Christ, fully man and fully God, come back to life offering the solution for the perennial problem of sin and evil.
Now, two thousand years later, there is no shortage of ills in the world and in Brazil, in particular, there always seems to be a perhaps disproportionate share. During Holy Week, a mix of secular and religious holiday, the police in Rio once again invaded Morro do Alemao, a very large shanty town there. A UPP (“police pacification unit”) has been there for numerous years, theoretically taking the territory back from the drug gangs. In this most recent intervention, police killed several people including a 10-year-old sitting on the stoop of his house. The 10-year-old was apparently killed in front of his poor mother.
On the same day in Sao Paulo, a helicopter accident took the life of Thomaz Alckmin, the youngest son of the governor. Alckmin is in the PSDB, the main opposition party and lost the presidential election to Lula in 2006. The funeral was a solemn affair and a political event with Dilma and other members of the ruling PT party present.
In Rio, the state government promised an investigation into the killings and met the family’s request to pay for the child’s burial in his home state in the northeast of Brazil. At the same time, residents of Alemao are demonstrating in the street but fearful that the police will return not to pacify but to carelessly kill and then steal.
The wealthy in Brazil tend to display their religious belief mostly symbolically at Catholic mass on an occasional basis and celebrating life as in a wedding or dealing with death. The poor, on the other hand, are deeply religious but poorly served by the traditional Catholic hierarchy and thus the tremendous growth evangelicals amongst the poor. Insecurity, poverty, ignorance plus the search for meaning and significance provide fertile ground for a message that promises solutions to those who strive and have faith.
The elite rightly complains about the billionaire wealth of Edir Macedo, leader of the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus, and a main supporter of the political growth of Brazil’s evangelical politicians. But Macedo’s church and imitators have encountered resonance and smoothly read and interpreted the desire for a saving promise. This is something that Brazil’s traditional elite fails to fully comprehend.
Caught up in formal rituals, suspicious of transcendental belief and selfish in the need to preserve its separation from the poor, Brazil’s middle and upper classes cannot readily find the grace to embrace the excluded. The poor, in turn, aspire yet are frustrated on the path.
On Easter Sunday, we hope that the Christ who so proudly stands over Rio will bring something positive out of the deaths of a 10 year old and the son of a politician. Resurrection means reconciliation and that is something that we all need not only on Morro do Alemao but also all over Brazil and amongst the many different deep divisions.