Andrew Johnson. 2017. If I Give My Soul: Faith Behind Bars in Rio de Janeiro. New York: Oxford.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Confession time. I came to Christ through the testimony of a young and violent gang leader, Nicky Cruz, who came to Christ himself in the middle of a gang fight. His conversion took place in response to an Assembly of God (Pentecostal) mission in New York City. Thus, the convergence of Pentecostalism and witness to violent young men played a key role in my own faith journey so when I learned about Andrew Johnson’s book, If I Give My Soul: Faith Behind Bars in Rio de Janeiro, I immediately ordered a copy.
“Prison Pentecostalism represents a hidden but important part of the Pentecostal movement that has swept through Rio de Janeiro and much of Brazil over the past three decades. This book responds to a simple research question, ‘Why is Pentecostalism so widely practiced inside Rio de Janeiro’s prisons and jails?’” (4)
To find out, Johnson, a sociologist, spent two weeks living inside several jails in Rio de Janeiro and interviewed numerous prisoners and former prisoners. He observes:
“the prison churches not only survive but also thrive in this difficult space … because in many ways they resemble the prison gangs in structure and function. Both gang and prison church claim part of the prison as their own, each implements and enforces a set of rules for their members, and each provides a strong identity to participants and offers them protection and community.” (10-11)
What is perhaps most surprising is the level of respect afforded pastors among the poor generally, prisoners, and even the narco-gangs to the point that:
“gangs generally allow members to leave if they join a Pentecostal church as long as their conversion and subsequent [religious] practice are deemed genuine.” (10; 77).
This option is all the more striking because gang membership generally requires an oath of allegiance until death (“hasta la morgue”; 77), much like the MAFIA in North America. Similar rules and relationships with the Pentecostal churches have also been reported for Central American gangs, like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13; 76-77).
Pentecostals and Gangs
Obviously, the pastors and their church neither condone nor excuse violence or drug use. The support for prisoners in jail under the most inhumane conditions speaks loudly against the attitude that gang members are sub-human, “killable people” (“seres matáves”). Killable people in Rio de Janeiro are generally poor, unemployed, descendants of slaves who live in the “favelas” and who “Brazilians do not cry for” (39-61).
When Pentecostal pastors show up at the prison gates weekly with volunteers to provide food, clothing, medical supplies, and encouragement to prisoners packed so tightly that some must sleep standing up, they get noticed even if they preach against the very things that the gangs stand for—narcotics, sex trafficking, and violence. The respect that they earn is rooted in offering the prisoners something very basic—human dignity (85).
Pentecostals and Political Action
Although Pentecostal pastors are often maligned for not engaging in political action, Johnson writes:
“When the pastors embraced rapists, prayed with murderers, sang worship songs with drug dealers, and treated all the inmates as people endowed with inherent worth, they were participating in an activity that subverted the social order.” (165)
He coined the phrase “politics of presence” to describe how they have changed the dynamics of prison life and raised the awareness of the brutality of prison life when they preached back home in their congregations (143-166).
Andrew Johnson’s book, If I Give My Soul: Faith Behind Bars in Rio de Janeiro, is a striking work. Clearly, his research transformed his own attitude about Pentecostals and reading it transformed mine. It is hard to be neutral about brutality, even if it takes place a world away and among people that are hard to love. This is a book likely to be talked widely for a long time. Read it if you dare.
Peterson, Eugene H. 2011. The Pastor: A Memoir. New York: HarperOne.
Wilkerson, David. 1962. The Cross and the Switchblade. Pyramid Communications.
As an adult working in Hispanic ministry, I learned that Nicky Cruz was both Puerto Rican and a lifelong evangelist (Wilkerson).
Although I then joined a Presbyterian church, one might describe me as a lifelong Presbycostal, a term that I first heard from Eugene Peterson (217).