The Answer to the Favelas

“The angel fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer that fetched the angel.” Thomas Watson

I doubt that the families of the 21 murdered victims will ever be able to forgive the police for the  massacre in the Rio de Janeiro slum of Vigário Giral,  The police killed these innocent people as payback for the a gang’s killing of four policemen who had been shaking down the drug dealers in this favela.

The homes that make up the favelas, the shantytowns, are often dug into hills at such a steep angle, it seems they must have special finger nails to hang onto the soil. In fact disasters do occasionally strike a favela. After long periods of wet weather the foundations loosen on the side of a hill. Suddenly a whole series of homes collapse one on top of another to end up far below. Lives are lost and families are left homeless.

Generally the city supplies free electricity with a spider’s web of wires running willy-nilly across the hillside. Water is also often free but intermittent so that every home has a storage tank on its roof. Narrow pathways separate houses and provide routes that allow access to the favela. Often sewage runs beside the path in a ditch—except when it rains. You’d not want to smell that.

What can the Christian church do in this situation when the favelados—those who live in the shantytowns are trapped between the drug traffickers who recruit children and the police who respond with unreasonable force?

The answer is in the upbeat spirit of the Christian church in Brazil. This is their tactic. They plant churches and schools to counter drugs and violence. Youth and children are a special focus. They offer hope by laying out the Gospel message of forgiveness and a future of changed lives.

I recall visiting an early education school sponsored by a church where the children sang Gospel choruses. Not all the children seated on the floor of the small auditorium sang on tune but it was all done at the top of their voices. A small clinic administered by a teacher provided a minimum of medications for the children. Perhaps without it the children would get nothing at all. And then came lunch.

This program benefited the families of those children for child care allowed the adults in the family to get a job and then to meet their wider needs. These schools and churches do not provide quick answers to the drugs and violence in slums. But the presence of Jesus is the best answer. for lives are changed.

I recall driving across the city of São Paulo with the children and wife of a dentist named Tércio. She said, “I don’t know whether my husband is a dentist or a missionary. This dentist has taken teams to work in Africa, the Far East and among an Indian tribe. On top of that he is working to plant a church in the favela called Eldorado.

Little by little that small congregation has developed so that youth from the area have become involved in a team that goes to minister in other areas of the city. Tell, me isn’t that better than delivering drugs? These churches provide hope for a better future. It is a “wow” experience to visit some of these congregations that are having such a wonderful influence in their communities. The old Gospel song says it well, “Jesus Saves.”

With the Olympics soon to be in Rio de Janeiro, it is interesting to note that Rio has more than 500 favelas with at least 1.5 million slum dweller. In preparation for the Games, police and the army are doing what they can to pacify the slums. Police kill about 1,000 people a year, some of them totally innocent though the police imagine them under suspicion.

Then a different story I heard during one visit to Brazil. A dentist with help from his church had started a free dental clinic in a Rio slum. In such a situation it is necessary to be on good terms with the local drug lord. All went well till one night his little clinic was cleaned out by thieves. The dentist went to the only area authority, the drug king and asked for help. That night the dentist left the clinic unlocked. The next morning all the stolen contents had been returned.

With the work of churches all across the favelas the downtrodden and oppressed learn to sing the praises of God. They find He is always present. That is the answer to the violence, even bitterness and vengeance that occurs in a shantytown. In fact it is the answer  to needs around the world


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