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The Child Preachers of Brazil

Journey Everwhere Feature: The youngest evangelists in the country’s Pentecostal churches try to balance the demands of their youth with those of their faith.

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Alani Santos, 11, praying at the Mount of Olives in São Gonçalo, Brazil. CreditSebastián Liste/Noor Images, for The New York Times

Alani Santos, 11, praying at the Mount of Olives in São Gonçalo, Brazil. CreditSebastián Liste/Noor Images, for The New York Times

From The New York Times Magazine:

It was fall in Brazil, and rain drizzled under a gray moon. The faithful were beginning to arrive at the International Mission of Miracles, a Pentecostal church in the poor and working-class city of São Gonçalo, 10 miles from Rio de Janeiro. In front of the church, which was located between a supermarket and an abandoned lot, a banner staked in the muddy ground advertised a young girl named Alani Santos, whose touch could heal.

Inside the boxy, bright room, a boy played gospel songs on a turntable while the opening preachers gave sermons. Two home-goods-store employees — still wearing their aprons and name tags — took their usual seats. A man in a soccer jersey rocked a crying toddler in a plastic chair. In the back, Levan Lomsadze, a 24-year-old from the Republic of Georgia, paced nervously; he had flown from the Caucasus to Brazil in the hope that Alani could cure his severe speech impediment. Sergio Teixeira, 33, rushed in late; lean and tall, with imitation Nikes on his feet and a muay Thai tattoo on his arm, Teixeira had taken the day off from a temp job painting gates to travel to the church by bus from his home on the outskirts of Rio. Though it was only 20 miles away, the trip through jammed traffic on shoulderless roads had taken nearly five hours.

After the room filled with about 60 people, Pastor Adauto Santos, Alani’s father, took the stage. Heavyset and slow-moving, he was dressed in a navy blue three-piece suit. Adauto built the Mission of Miracles himself, partly using materials he repurposed from odd jobs. It was modest — uncovered fluorescent bulbs glared over the white tile floor — but had a few regal touches, like sliding Plexiglas doors, a large multicolored banner showing Jesus rising above a saturated blue sky and, in the shed that served as the church office, a chair decorated to look like a throne, with hand-stapled leather and gold paint.

Adauto prepared the crowd to receive his daughter, who is now 11 and has been preaching since she was 3. On Monday nights, Alani lays on hands; on Wednesdays, she has a revelations service, in which she and other preachers make predictions about the future; on Saturdays, she hosts a radio show about the Bible. She also does Skype prayer sessions with followers who live far from her or are too sick to meet her, and preaches at other Pentecostal churches and gatherings. …

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Adauto invited those in need of healing to the base of the stage. Roughly half the congregants made their way forward. Some hobbled, and some were held up by attendants. Many had copies of recent medical exams in their hands. Alani stood onstage wearing a pink dress and cardigan with matching sparkly shoes, nervously finger-combing her hair. She made her way slowly through the line of sufferers as they explained their symptoms: low platelet counts, chronic anxiety, swollen joints. She listened to each story with precocious focus and empathy, seeming to grasp both the gravity of their ailments and the gravity of her own power to ease them. When she had heard from everyone, Alani looked up at the deacons, who had positioned themselves behind the line. The men signaled that they were ready for her to begin.

Alani approached Teixeira. A year earlier, his wife miscarried; subsequent tests revealed that they both had H.I.V. The illness made it hard for Teixeira to do his job collecting used cooking oil, and when he was fired, he and his wife began fighting all the time. They separated three months before that night’s service. Teixeira said his father-in-law was convinced that an evil spirit was causing his problems and had suggested that the young preacher might drive it away.

Alani cautiously placed one hand on Teixeira’s forehead and the other on his hand. After a moment of deliberation, she moved a hand to touch his heart. Then, lightly, she blew on his face. Teixeira staggered backward. “Hallelujah, God!” called the deacons. Teixeira shuddered. The deacons caught him as he fell and eased him onto the tile floor, where he lay on his back, palms open, eyes closed.

After the service ended around 11, Teixeira lingered at the church, talking with people he had met. “When she touched me with her hands, it was an inexplicable thing,” he told me. “I felt a good presence, as if my blood was being renewed.” He planned to return to his neighborhood health clinic to get a second H.I.V. test. He liked the idea of showing people his first test and then the new one, to prove that a miracle had taken place.

In a corner of the church, Alani met with a reporter from an Italian TV station for an interview. He asked to photograph her, and she slipped into a practiced pose, extending her arms heavenward with a rapturous look. Then she went behind the church to the office in the shed, which had a small kitchen, and squirted ketchup and mayonnaise on some mini pizzas warmed up for her and a friend, Luiza Do Valle. Luiza, who was 11, explained what it was like to be in class with Alani. She told me shyly, “Kids at school treat her normally, except for occasionally asking her to pray for them if they have a headache or something.” …

Alani Santos blessing attendees of a Monday-night miracles and healing service as they pray. Photo: Sebastian Liste/Noor Images, for The New York Times

Alani Santos blessing attendees of a Monday-night miracles and healing service as they pray. Photo: Sebastian Liste/Noor Images, for The New York Times

No one keeps track of the number of child preachers in Brazil, but Pastor Walter Luz, who coordinates a 10-day conference for preachers ages 5 to 18 in São Paulo, estimates there are thousands. Most come from poor or lower-middle-class families, and nearly all of them are affiliated with Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination started in America in 1914 and taken to South America by missionaries. Assemblies of God is now the largest Pentecostal group in Brazil.

The central tenet of Pentecostalism is that God remains an active presence in the world; people can access his divine power just as Jesus, Peter and Paul did, to prophesy, speak in tongues and heal the sick. Assemblies of God, in particular, emphasizes that the Holy Spirit acts not just through trained priests but through anyone — the poor, the uneducated, even children.

The growth of Pentecostalism and other charismatic movements influenced by it — which also emphasize the Holy Spirit and miracles — has been responsible for an epochal shift in Christianity. In the 1970s, less than 10 percent of Christians were affiliated with these charismatic or “renewalist” churches. Today it is estimated that one-quarter are, and their rapid growth outpaces that of other denominations. With this expansion, Pentecostalism has shifted the center of world Christianity from Europe to what is sometimes called the Global South — Africa, Asia and Latin America. As Philip Jenkins, a history professor at Baylor University and the author of “The New Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity,” writes: “The era of Western Christianity has passed within our lifetimes.”

In Brazil, Pentecostalism — and especially Assemblies of God — has its strongest foothold in poorer neighborhoods, where residents are often overlooked by the government and too transient to be easily reached by the Catholic Church, which is structured around place-based dioceses. Scholars once thought that Catholic liberation theologies, which arose in the 1960s and 1970s, preaching a connection between faith and socioeconomic justice, would be the religion of choice for the poor, but Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on the supernatural, has proved far more appealing. Improvised storefront Pentecostal churches bloom like mushrooms in the cities’ cracks, jutting out behind a gas station or wedged into the ground floor of a home. …

Alani never grew impatient with the line of people who approached her after her three-hour service for still more laying on of hands, more blessings, more attention. She never rolled her eyes; in fact, she sometimes wept quietly at a particularly powerful healing…. "When I grow up, my greatest dream is to be a doctor, because there are people who don’t believe in Jesus. So through medicine, I can tell them about Jesus." ...

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Be sure to read the rest of this example of "sympathetic objecitivity" along with video

and slideshow: The New York Times Magazine, June 11, 2015. [20150611_1816]

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