Convert or die: Washington Post profiles evangelicals reaching gang members in Brazil

Criminal gangs and their rampages through society are a cancer in Central and Latin America and very few governments have a clue as to how to change the situation.

Prisons are beyond overcrowded, the economies are poor and many people are unemployed, which ramps up gang membership. And yet some nervy evangelical pastors in the hinterlands of Brazil have come up with an idea of how to use social media to pull people out of gangs.

That brings me back to this Washington Post piece, which I’ve been meaning to get around to for some while, since came out a month ago. It’s quite a read and worth a flashback.

RIO BRANCO, Brazil — As the sound of gunshots grew closer, Janderson Viera knew that the rival gang that had taken over his neighborhood was coming for him.

Running to his bedroom, he called the only lifeline he had left: the Rev. Arnaldo Barros.

“I want to convert,” he said.

As gang wars drive Brazil’s homicide rate to historic highs, evangelical pastors — long revered in the nation’s slums and prisons — have come up with a new way to protect members looking for a way out.

For anyone wondering why evangelical Christianity has exploded in Brazil, this story explains why (click here for a classic blast of Pew Forum data on this).

For those of you needing a review of the past few decades, this story summarizes the enormous growth of evangelical Protestants, particularly Pentecostals, in Brazil. Most seem to be former Catholics.

Back to the Post:

Gang leaders say the only way to leave the business alive is to convert to Christianity. So Barros, a televangelist popular here in western Brazil, memorializes a gang member’s embrace of the ancient articles of faith using the most modern of tools: He records the conversion on his smartphone and posts the videos on YouTube, Facebook and WhatsApp. The converts gain immunity against retribution by rival gangs and their own.

Gang leaders and law enforcement officials say it works.

“We aren’t going to go against the will of God,” a local leader of the powerful Comando Vermelho, the gang that was pursuing Viera, told The Washington Post. “God comes first, above everything.”

So not only do you have gunshot conversions (akin to gunshot weddings), but you also have God-fearing gang leaders. This is bizarre mix. The video with this blog, for those who don’t speak Portuguese, shows this pastor “disconnecting” young men from gangs.

Believe it or not, the details get better.

Barros, meanwhile, keeps close watch on each new Christian to make sure the conversion sticks.

If it doesn’t, he lets the gangs know.

I haven’t seen this story anywhere else, so kudos to the Post’s Brazil correspondent for ferreting it out.

Making converts has long been Barros’s business. As the death toll mounted, so did the calls. But it was a challenge spreading the message that the new Christians were out of the game in time to save their lives.

“They come to me desperate for help,” the 56-year-old pastor said. “This is the only exit, the only way out. I thought, ‘How am I going to get the gang leaders to see this?’ ”

The gangs were filming decapitations of their enemies and worse on YouTube. This led the pastor to come up with, believe it or not, an idea for online evangelism.

Barros, pastor of Rio Branco’s Igreja Geração Eleita — the Elected Generation Church — saw these videos circulating on his feeds and decided to co-opt the approach. The social-media-savvy televangelist began to film gang members’ conversions and post them online to declare that the new converts were off- limits. Other pastors in Acre have followed his example.

Brazil isn’t the only place where evangelical pastors are working with gangs. A year ago, the Economist wrote of churches in El Salvador that are trying similar things. NPR did a similar story. A very impressive piece from, tells how evangelicals have changed the prison culture also in El Salvador.

You have to hand it to the pastors willing to work with such a clientele that they deserve every convert they get. I suspect there are a lot more pastors like this working in places other than El Salvador and Brazil. I’m hoping reporters will ferret them out.

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