Opinion, by Michael D. Kerlin
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Government agencies, private businesses, and secular non-governmental organizations are all chipping in to the development and pacification in Rio’s favelas. These organizations have been spending huge sums of money, with noble aspirations. At the end of last year, the Rio state government announced R$2.2 billion in upcoming state and federal grants and loans for favela urbanization.
NGOs like Viva Rio are investing millions of reais in human security, communication, and community action, targeted primarily at favelas. Banco Itaú and Banco Santander have been opening branches and automatic teller machines in some favelas.
Where residents spend more time than inside any business, government agency, or secular NGO, however, is church. For favelas to achieve real progress in education, health, security, and overall wellbeing, secular and religious institutions alike will have to embrace further the potential of favela churches. Some small and makeshift, others large and established, the churches dot almost every favela with their bright pastel exteriors and blaring sound systems.
Many favela residents spend hours in church every Sunday and Wednesday and join small groups with other church members on other days. For most of these churchgoers, it is their pastors to whom they listen, not the presidents of their residents associations or their local government outreach workers.
On a recent Wednesday, I stopped in at a service in an Assemblies of God church high atop the hill in one favela. There, the pastor read the Biblical story of Gideon, an ordinary leader during a time of oppression, who asked, “But sir, if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us?”
The answer from on high: “Go in the strength you have…I will be with you.” Church members nodded their heads and smiled, empowered that they might be able to determine their future, despite everyone—drug gangs, militias, police, and army troops—trying to determine it for them.
Beyond building dignity and confidence, churches already play a significant role in stabilizing otherwise poor and perilous favelas. Congregation members look after other members in greater need, and often help one another build an extra floor atop a brick shack, start a business, or take care of a sick child.
Many churches discourage drinking and drug activity that could otherwise draw residents closer to local gangs. Finally, churches provide residents with an “alternative cool,” by offering subcultures as strong as the drug gangs. Some pastors have even successfully counseled gang leaders to reduce their violence.
To be sure, favela churches aren’t perfect. Some have gotten too cozy with gang leaders, often to ensure their own survival, and yet have failed to disarm the gangs or reduce their drug sales and other criminal activity. Others push conservative social agendas that threaten tolerance and social diversity in places already suffering from a dearth of dignity. Still others push their members too hard for financial and time investments that could alternatively flow toward education.
Independent of their merits and faults, churches are in the favelas to stay. Various incarnations of Rio’s underclass have been relying on churches through the centuries. According to a new book by James H. Sweet, an African diaspora scholar at the University of Wisconsin, “Catholic brotherhoods” embraced Rio’s newly arrived slaves back in the eighteenth century. However imperfect, “the brotherhoods represented an opportunity to build new communities of kin, even in a repressive slave culture,” writes Sweet.
Today, evangelical Christian churches are leading the way in favelas. Recent IBGE research found that Brazil’s evangelicals roughly doubled in number from 1991 through 2010. Evangelical churches have grown even faster in favelas, while Catholic churches have lost members and priests. Some Catholic churches are adopting the best of the evangelical approaches to outreach and community-building in order to compete for members and better make a local difference.
All kinds of churches will best serve their congregations and nearby favelas if they recognize their opportunity to offer much more than religion. Given the share of time, mind, and money they capture, churches could increasingly offer afterschool programs for primary school students, college entrance exam preparation courses for high school students, and vocational training for adults. Likewise, government agencies, NGOs, and social-impact oriented businesses could partner more with favela churches to offer services to people in need but beyond the reach of conventional channels.
The future of Rio’s favelas is too fragile and the power of their churches too great to do anything but embrace and harness the potential of these institutions.
Michael D. Kerlin began working in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas fifteen years ago. An international management consultant, he has written about economic development in the Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Philadelphia Inquirer, and several other publications.