The Believers

The crentes, or “believers,” can be found regularly preaching in the plazas and streets of Latin America. With megaphones and bibles in hand, members of a special breed of Pentecostal Protestants testify to their salvation from the evils of wine, women and song, and from the errors they see in Catholicism.

Long considered the world stronghold of the Roman Catholic Church, Latin America is swelling with home-grown Pentecostal sects. The Catholic identity has been virtually inseparable from the social and political fabric of the region since the arrival of the Conquistadors. Only 30 years ago, just 2-3 percent of Latin Americans declared themselves Protestant. Today 15 percent do, and their numbers are growing at a rate double that of population growth in the region. By the year 2010 some sociologists estimate the percentage of evangelicals in Latin America could reach 31 percent. Some countries, such as Brazil, could hit 57 percent, with over 100 million evangelical Protestants.

According to a study by Brazil’s Religious Studies Institute, 90% of new growing churches in the state of Rio de Janeiro are Pentecostal. And Rio, a city of nine million where five new evangelical churches open every week, “is the center of the Pentecostal earthquake,” says researcher André Mello.

All images ©Kevin Moloney 1995-1998

Members of the Deus É Amor, or God is Love, congregation in Rio de Janeiro pray with bibles in hand during one of the many orations that fill the entire day at the church. Deus É Amor has opened 7,500 churches throughout Brazil and others in almost every country on the South American continent in the last 30 years. Other evangelical churches claim similar growth rates.

A congregation member at Deus É Amor kneels below the dais to bring a written petition closer to orating ministers. Traditionally the home of nearly half the world's Roman Catholics, now one person in seven in Latin America is a Protestant. The 1991 census for Brazil showed 12.6 million evangelical Protestants, but estimates have run as high as 25 million.

A congregation member, allegedly possessed by a demonic spirit from an Afro-Brazilian religion called umbanda, is dragged screaming to the dais at the front of the church where the spirit will be cast out through fervent prayer.

A young woman claiming to carry a demonic spirit is exorcised by ministers at the Deus É Amor church. Pastor Odair Gomes had called all the spirits of umbanda to show themselves. Each spirit was then cast out by fervent prayer and the ‘laying on of hands.’

Pastor Odair Gomes, 34, of the Deus É Amor church in Rio de Janeiro, addresses his congregation during an evening service at the church. Gomes is responsible for the State of Rio de Janeiro and oversees more than 600 churches.

A member of the Deus É Amor church in Rio testifies in a Rio plaza about how her life was changed by becoming Pentecostal. At rear, fellow congregation members pray through a megaphone for passers-by. Some 65 percent of converts to evangelical sects in Rio associate a life problem with their conversion.

A young boy joins his grandmother and a group of Assembly of God worshipers in bible readings and testimonies in Rio’s Largo do Machado square. Groups from three churches appeared in the plaza on one Sunday last fall to preach to passers-by and distribute food to the area’s homeless.

Children enrolled in a daycare program at the Fábrica de Esperança, or Hope Factory, in Rio pray before they receive their morning snack of juice and crackers. Located in a bankrupt 55,000-square-meter factory in the Acarí slum, the community center offers classes, daycare and jobs to area residents. The outreach program is staffed by evangelicals who try to both serve the community and attract converts.

Maria José da Silva, a recent convert to the Assembly of God church in Brazil, is blessed by the pastor of her church and local missionaries as she holds her daughter Mécia in the livingroom of her home. Abandoned by her hsuband years earlier, the mother of five and grandmother of two barely supports her family in one of Rio’s toughest slums.

Mécia da Silva, 2, and sister Diane, 8, lean against a refrigerator painted with the words, “Jesus Loves You,” as their mother Maria José da Silva washes her hands in the kitchen of the family’s home in the Vigário Geral slum of Rio de Janeiro.

Maria José da Silva marches through the dirt streets of the Vigário Geral slum in Rio de Janeiro, armed with a bible, a grandaughter, and a bag of clothes she sells door-to-door to make her living. New evengelical sects gain converts most heavily among the poor of Latin America who look for new answers to their economic and personal problems.

Da Silva pages through a bible in search of a particular passage she feels condemns the Catholic church for what she considers the worship of saints. Daughter Mécia and grandaughter Gabriela nap on the one bed she has for the eight people in the house.

Descendants of sun-worshiping Incas, Quechua Indians predominate at a service of the Iglesia en Cuzco, or simply, Church in Cuzco. One of Perú’s fast-growing evangelical congregations, the Iglesia en Cuzco is located below a metal shop in a commercial district of the city.

Cuzco evangelist Raul Huaco stops for a prayer with friend Calixta Cruz in the village of Angostura, south of the city of Cuzco. Cruz said her husband was an alcoholic and she suffered “seven sad years” as he beat her and lost a succession of jobs. Trips to a Catholic shrine of Our Lord of Huanca in the mountains failed to answer her problems. With the help of her father, already a Pentecostal convert, Cruz was able to solve her husband’s drinking and abuse problems by bringing him to a local Pentecostal church.

Hanging in one of Rio de Janeiro’s notoriously poor and dangerous slums, a banner declares, “Stop Suffering,” to advertise services at one of the city’s many temples of the controversial Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Poverty throughout Latin America has provided an open door for the work of a growing number of native Pentecostal evangelists — in the case of the Universal church, a door to massive income as well.

“I said yes to Jesus, and you?” asks a banner on Rio de Janeiro’s infamous Ipanema beach. Known worldwide as a sun-drenched capitol of flesh, Rio, where five new evangelical churches open every week is “the center of the Pentecostal earthquake.”

Kevin Moloney