Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Bullets fly in Rio!

Mission team in Rio
The Rio Olympics has brought back a lot of memories for me.  I’ve been to Rio four times on mission trips and those that have been to Rio de Janeiro will agree it is the most beautiful city in the world. The pictures you get on your television don't quite capture the magnificent beauty. And yet what makes the city even more fascinating is the great contrast between the breathtaking landscape and the poverty, crime, and trash.  I can attest to the danger first hand. The reports are not exaggerated. On my second trip to Rio, our mission team experienced two shootings within three days. Below is the story (much longer than my usual blog post) but it has an interesting ending and will give you a first hand look at Rio.

"We are not in Texas anymore!", I recall one of our team members remarking as our mission team sat in a church in the heart of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil trying to make sense of the crazy events of the past three days. We were getting some counsel from two different Brazilian pastors concerning two hair-raising experiences since we had arrived in Rio four days earlier. The first occurred following a Sunday night worship service in the small Juaniza favela (Brazilian slum).

We had divided our mission team into two groups for worship at two different churches. The larger group went with pastor Daniel Camaforte to his church in the favela. We were doing most of our work with his church. I kept a smaller group with me as I was preaching in the church which was our lodging for the week, located closer to the downtown area.

The team at Pastor Daniel's church had a great worship service and were fellowshipping with the members of the church outside in the courtyard beside the main road of the favela when the Rio police drove into the favela. All of a sudden, shots began to ring out coming from the drug gang in the favela directed at the police. The church members were suddenly in the crossfire of a shootout between police and the drug gang.

Pastor Daniel quickly and calmly urged everyone back into the church. He directed all of our team into a back room to avoid being hit by stray bullets and waited for the shooting to die down. During a lull he tried to get our team to leave but the shooting started once again, and so the team returned to the room. Finally the shooting stopped and Pastor Daniel got our team back on the bus and walked down a couple of blocks beside the bus to the exit of the favela to make sure we were safe.

You can imagine how disturbed and worked up everyone was when they returned to the church where we were staying. Two of the young ladies explained that they had just returned from the small store a couple of blocks from the church before the shooting occurred. If the police had come in a minute or too sooner, they would have been right in the middle of the shootout. Needless to say, our team spent a restless night but got back to work the next day doing some construction on the church in the favela and ministering.

The following day, Tuesday,  our team took the morning off to go to Copacabana beach. On the way back to the bus, about 10 of the team were walking through a nice neighborhood. Four of the team had stopped in a magazine stand to buy some refreshments. I was about 20 feet back from the stand when I heard a shot ring out. Now we were all very sensitive to the sound of gunfire, and so my first reaction was someone was shooting at us, the Americans. I heard someone yell get down, and I fell face first beside a tree. I looked up and saw a Brazilian man staggering from the magazine stand muttering something in Portuguese. The front of his chest was covered in blood. Obviously he was the one who had been shot. Todd Riddle, our Singles minister, hollered "let's get back to the van. Run!" I wanted to help the man but I couldn't understand just what was happening. I'm sorry to say, my fear took precedence over the care of the man and I along with the others took off toward our van. As I began to run I saw some police on the far corner of the street and hollered for everyone to not run but walk fast. I didn't want the police to think we had committed the shooting.

We made it back to the van where we met the rest of the team. There I found out what had happened. Those that were in the magazine stand said a young Brazilian man was in the stand with them. He pulled out a gun and shot the manager in the chest and took off running. They didn't know exactly why he had shot the manager, perhaps he had been caught stealing something. But you can imagine how distraught they were. One of the ladies on the team who was in the magazine stand just wanted to go home. She had been involved in two shootings within days.

We had planned to go to another favela to do a sports camp with kids that afternoon. But the shootings had unnerved the team to the extent I thought it best to take the afternoon off and allow the team to process what had happened and pray. I asked both the pastors, the pastor of the church in which we were staying and Pastor Daniel from the favela to talk to the team to help us understand what had happened. It was interesting the different perspectives from the pastors. The pastor of the church where we were staying, which was in an upper income area of Rio, was very surprised at what had happened. He said he had lived in Rio a long time and never had witnessed anything like this. Pastor Daniel, on the other hand, said it occurred all the time in the favela and it was something that those who lived in the favela dealt with on a regular basis. He assured us that God was in control but that we should realize that we were in a dangerous place.

We prayed a long time and then talked about how none of us had been injured, that God had protected us. We prayed for the man that had been shot and later heard that he was in critical but stable condition. We prayed for the people in the favela, for Daniel's church members who lived in the danger zone. We prayed that our mission would not be deterred, that fear would not cause us to divert what we were called to do in Rio.

That night our plan was to go to preach in a church in the favela in which we were to work that afternoon. I told the team that I was going to go and anyone that wanted could go with me but if there were any that felt uncomfortable, they could stay behind. Everyone would understand. All but a couple of the team went with me. We had a tremendous service where I challenged the men to step out and lead their families and the church. Afterward the pastor of the church took us to a house half way up the mountain of the favela which had an open porch that overlooked the city of Rio. A lot of the favelas as this one are built on the side of the mountain. The view was unbelievable. The pastor introduced us to a man who had once been a drug lord and sold drugs from this very spot. The former drug dealer explained that he had given his life to Jesus Christ and walked away from his old lifestyle and now led a Bible study on this porch where he once sold drugs.

The pastor then asked me, "Pastor John, would you like to meet the Drug Lord of this favela?" The question caught me somewhat by surprise. My wife, Barbara, was with me and I glanced over at her to get an idea of what she thought about this. I could tell she was very concerned but she gave the approval, saying "I understand, it is up you."

I looked over the team and asked Nick, one of our young guys, if he wanted to go. He agreed and we took off along with the pastor, our Brazilian guide, Caesar, and a female translator. There are no roads in the favela, just a small path up through the neighborhood. It was dark and very creepy, the only light coming from inside the houses. We would stop from time to time to visit with the neighbors as we made our way up the mountain.

After some time we stopped to talk to some men that were sitting on a porch alongside the pathway. They were dressed in army camouflage, three on the porch with several others hanging out behind them. I leaned over and asked our translator if this was the man. She said yes, he is the Drug Lord. I still remember his name, Carlos Gabriella, and he was much younger than I anticipated, in his mid twenties.

I was introduced to him and I began to tell him about our interesting adventures with bullets and shootings. As I told about the shooting of the magazine stand manager, he looked very agitated and indicated he would like to find the man who did the shooting and deliver the punishment. I was to learn that the drug gangs acted as the police of most of the favelas. They keep order and control over their neighborhoods.

I remember talking to him about King David of the Bible and how David was a leader but was not a perfect man. In spite of his sin and shortcomings as King, the Bible said he was a man after God's own heart. I told him that I realized he was the leader of this favela and I urged him to be a leader like David. I encouraged him to be a man after God's own heart, that God would forgive him of his sins if he just asked. I asked if I could pray for him and he said yes. I put my hand on his shoulder and prayed for him. I was told he had just become a new father and so I prayed for his new baby boy. A funny thing was that the translator told me that Carlos' baby was a girl, not a boy, but she had translated girl for me! Whew. Thanks for catching my mistake!

As we walked back to the church I had so many thoughts and feelings. I remember thinking how God so often turns tragedy into opportunities for him. Yes, Rio is a dangerous place but the only way out is transformation and redemption from Jesus Christ! If only the people of Brazil would look up and see the statue of Jesus as more than a statue or symbol but as a Savior wanting a real relationship. How great is the courage and faith of those like Pastor Camaforte who live and minister every day, risking his family and life for Christ!

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