Every once in awhile, there’s a story that just sings. And this New York Times Magazine feature on the child pentecostal preachers of Brazil is such a piece.
Some background: Although Pentecostalism began in the United States in the early 1900s, it has really taken off in Latin America (see the massive Pew Forum studies of this), especially Brazil even more than in the U.S. This growth along with that of other religious movements, especially in the closing decades of the 20th century, was enough to alarm the Catholic authorities that held sway over much of Latin America for four centuries. Some say one reason for the election of Pope Francis, from neighboring Argentina, was part of a Catholic effort to regain lost ground on this continent.
But child preachers? Pentecostalism in the U.S. has such a tradition but Brazil? And female ones at that? The article starts thus:
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 …
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 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 … The task at hand was to coax the Holy Spirit earthside, into this room with bare walls and harsh lighting, to ask him to transform the assembled congregants, who, having examined the resources available to them, saw a miracle as their best option.
Yep, this definitely makes you want to read further. Of course it helped that a gorgeous photo of Alani, dressed in a simple blouse and long skirt praying with outstretched arms on a hillside overlooking the city, kicked off the article.
The story goes on with a visit to the family’s home where you learn her parents had tried for years to conceive a child until Alani arrived -- and that her first miracle occurred when she was 51 days old. The writer adds more details from the home visit, including a description of Alani’s pink-painted room, then switches to an overview of the thousands of child preachers in Brazil and how they came to be. There are plenty of YouTube videos out there of Alani, but nothing I could immediately find that medically documented any of the healings she or her fellow child preachers have performed.
Usually one's editors insist on including this. At least the writer gives some theological background:
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…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.
Many news accounts of Pentecostalism often get it wrong, but with a few succinct paragraphs, this reporter gets it right.
Well, almost. She describes one child preacher as bringing in “$150 to $250 for a weekday Mass to $3,000 for an overnight vigil or conference” which caused me some mental whiplash. Pentecostals don’t have Masses. So what was she referring to? Mass meetings?
Other details included the father of one of the preachers who demanded $500 from each journalist wanting to interview his son and how that son -- now a teenager -- seems embarrassed by his early career as a preacher and more interested in Britney Spears and Beyoncé music.
Which brings up an interesting question: Do these preachers ever grow out of their calling? And once they’re grown, do they lose their luster? In the reporter's interviews with several preachers, most say that they want to do something else, such as become doctors or psychologists.
This being a magazine piece, the reporter is free to slip into first person occasionally, which she does when it comes to describing the fetid neighborhoods in which these kids live and the disarming innocence of these preachers.
These kids' parents may be taking full advantage of their fame, but the preachers seem to be aware of this. Preaching may be the family business, but the writer makes it clear these are not abused children. The article assumes goodness on the part of these kids and their families, unlike ABC's NIghtline scornful piece that led last year with the suggestion that the preachers are getting rich off their healing services.
Yes, we see people putting money in the offering plate, but does that mean they're making obscene profits? The Times piece gives the impression these children and their families aren't dirt poor but they're not rolling in wealth, either. After all, having hordes of people visit your congregation results in unseen expenses. I'll always remember interviewing some pastors at a Pensacola, Fla., revival in the 1990s that was bringing thousands of visitors each day to their church. I asked them if there had been any unforeseen costs. "Toilet paper," one pastor responded. They couldn't stock enough of it.
My one question that goes unanswered is: How these children and pre-teens perceive God? How does He communicate with them and what sort of relationship do they have with Someone in whose name they so often preach? Do they take any kind of inspiration from stories of Jesus' healing miracles?
I know that it's hard to get theologically deep answers from kids. But one can try. When in doubt, ask questions and then quote the results.