Rio de Janeiro is South America’s third largest urban area but perhaps its most recognisable. The Christ the Redeemer statue that watches over the city is an icon to a country with more Roman Catholics and now more Pentecostals than any other. And Rio, which means river in Spanish or Portuguese, is not built on one river but a stinking bay, fed by dozens of stinking rivers and canals. There is disunity in the Church, division in society and degradation of the environment.
In 2014 I moved with my wife, Jess, to Magé, at the top end of the Rio’s bay, to work with the local Anglican church. It’s a small, swampy town of maybe 60,000 people. We were urged to go and visit the community living down by one of the canals. We saw the lack of healthy stimulation for children, heard the fights of families and gangs, and smelt the humiliating neglect of a neighbourhood surrounded by the city’s waste.
For over two and half years now the children won’t let us miss a Saturday morning. The club started by a bar, and word of mouth and a game of dodgeball were enough to draw local children along. They know it as Teatro Bíblico do Canal (Canal Biblical Theatre). It’s a small church, so we play to our strengths: a guitar-playing psychotherapist smiles and encourages harmony; a retired teacher distributes cake and chocolate milk and colouring-in exercises; a poet-cum-handiman has banged together a table and chairs, and bangs heads together when necessary (merely a figure of speech, you understand). Another lady makes the costumes for our dramatised readings of the Bible, and her very handy husband has built a toilet block with three-stage biodigestor filtration.
A few short-termers from the UK brought the energy to kick things off, helping to gather a crowd with their strange features. And a modest cash injection from the UK enabled us to buy a 500 square metre plot and put up a fence. The parents seem much happier now that we have a fence, and numbers have increased.
Old Testament heroes have grabbed the children’s imagination
Old Testament heroes have grabbed the children’s imagination: Joseph being bullied by his brothers, but vindicated in the end. David the little shepherd boy felling mighty Goliath. Ruth sticking with her mother-in-law and being looked after by Boaz: “Your people will be my people, your God will be my God” (Ruth 1:16).
When Caio first came along, his father had recently been imprisoned. His mother was absent, her life absorbed in drugs and gangsters. His grandmother told us he had started to suffer strange fits. We prayed with him, and these stopped, and his countenance has gradually transformed as he has grown into a steady and joyful young lad. God hasn’t asked us to do more than is within our power to do. He has provided all the resources. He just calls us to ‘go’.
We’re not waving an Anglican flag, we’re not looking to compete with other churches. We’re not looking to pull people out of their own neighbourhood, but going to them, using their skills. We’re not going after the tithing adults, but investing in children. And we’re not dumping our sewage in the canal. Nor are we picketing local politicians, though perhaps we should. Part of our aim is not to rely on foreign funding, to go slowly, to go together, to go in a way, we dare to hope, that other churches can follow. Because in Brazil, no organisation has a better reach to heal the disunity, the division and the degradation.
Read more about working with children in our Footsteps magazine dedicated to Child Participation
Mark Simpson is chaplain of Christ Church, Rio de Janeiro, an international English-speaking church in the city centre. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org