Filmed over eight months in 1999, the documentary Santa Cruz, directed by the Brazilians Joao Moreira Sales and Marcos Sá Correa, follows the construction of a neo-Pentecostal church in a slum, an illegally occupied terrain, on lowlands called Santa Cruz in Rio de Janeiro. The film is part of a series of six stories about the faces of Brazil that mainstream media usually ignores. Though the filmmakers are not Christians, they search for the reasons why neo-Pentecostal religion grows despite forbidding so much. The growth of this denomination seems counter-intuitive considering that the festive Brazilian people, in general, oppose rigid laws and structures. Why do these churches have a higher growth ratio than any other religion in Brazil, especially in areas of extreme poverty like Santa Cruz?
The documentary follows the life of Pastor Jamil. He is a middle-aged man, a retired blue-collar worker who lives in a neighborhood close to Santa Cruz, where he establishes the little church. Jamil rides his cheap bicycle every day to the slum because, living on a retiree’s income, he cannot afford other means of transportation. He had no theological training and probably no formal education beyond elementary school. The film shows Jamil’s daily struggle to supervise the construction of a small meeting room, which he called, “House of Prayer: Jesus is the General.” He goes around visiting the homes in search for “lost souls” open to receive spiritual help, praying for the sick, praying for jobs, restoring marriages. Jamil leads prayer meetings in the little meeting room and recruits believers to do the same.
Life in the lowlands of Rio is hard. The government does not provide proper infrastructure like water, sewage, or policing. Every day people face tragedy. The residents of Santa Cruz are trapped. Most men suffer from chronic alcoholism, and their only reference to family life is one of violence and discord. Women resign themselves to continuous, uninterrupted suffering, without relief. They work in what some conventionally call the “informal economy” in low-paying jobs. For the most part, they are illiterate, which in Brazil means that they are isolated from the mechanisms of socialization. They live at the margins of most societal institutions, excluded from the literary and religious culture. The popular culture that is accessible to them consists of songs about mating, vengeance, betrayal, and lost loves. There is very little or no culture that is passed through the generations. Every individual is condemned to have to learn by himself or herself most of the tacit codes of society, which in other contexts are transmitted either by family or by the school. Santa Cruz residents live at the mercy of their passions and anxieties, with nothing to educate them socially. The most basic structure of social life, the family, only exists as a biological event. The moral references that organize and stabilize family life do not exist. Religion is either a vague and distant notion represented by a symbol that is mostly out of reach, the big Catholic cathedral, or it is a syncretic ritualistic mechanism for obtaining favors. There is no religion that informs them how to be, and what to expect from life. Life is just a continuous and courageous daily struggle for survival.
That is how the Gospel of the congregation “Jesus is the General” found the residents when they arrived in the slum. So in the first meetings of the little congregation, all viewers see in Jamil’s church are a few women. They are thirsty for some comfort, and have the intuition, like all human beings, that existence must point to something other than omnipresent hopelessness. In the new church, they learn to read the Bible, practice prayer, sing, and praise. They find hope to call their men into this new thing. The men approach more carefully, taking some time before trusting the pastor and his people. They receive prayer, and day by day, through the work of the congregation their lives are completely transformed. Many of them share on camera different versions of the same story: For the first time, our lives met order. We found a direction on how to live. One of the women shows the camera a picture of her man, before and after. The “before” is a young man looking aged, swollen by alcohol addiction. For the “after,” the young man himself comes to the camera and testifies. He is now free from addiction and is being trained as a pastor by Jamil. He has found a mission, to help others like him.
Only eight months after its beginning, the influence of “Jesus is the General” is felt way beyond its four walls. The lots close to the congregation, sold to newcomers despite being illegal, have ten times the market value than the ones further away. One of the believers explains, “Close to the church things are peaceful, the neighbors are friendly, and they help each other.” The men, used to living in bars, now stay home and are kinder to their wives and kids. The faithful learn to read in their Bibles, usually a translation in archaic Portuguese, which makes the “church language” sound sophisticated and educated to the slum residents. The testimonials of “conversion” point to very concrete transformations—believers go from being socially alienated to having a basic knowledge of how to live morally. More than anything else, they have a mission.
The economic limitations of both the congregation and pastor do not change much while the film crew follows the believers. Of course, a man who is impaired by his alcoholism finds himself capable of holding better jobs and spending more time with his family. But that is not what is considered the most important thing in the eyes of the believers. They seem to rejoice mainly in one thing; the discovery of the meaning of existence, which includes a sense of personal mission. This sense of personal value was revealed to them when they felt loved by Jesus.
Christians in America should not forget this essential element of life. Here is the answer to the question, What is poverty? In the eyes of the Santa Cruz believers, poverty is not an economic status. People are miserable when they are not aware of their eternal nature. The encounter with transcendent love is the most powerful transformational force. Where salvation from a chaotic and painful reality is a possibility, the socializing power of Christ is actualized. Where people see themselves as eternal beings who live beyond this terrestrial existence, they find healing.
The activity to locate oneself in the transcendent universe transports individual existence. That is the contention of Eric Voegelin in his work about the order of history. Transcendence positions the individual in the flow of history, beyond what the immanent society offers to him or her. It attributes meaning to concrete experience without devaluing it. The person’s participation in the terrestrial community in connection as well to a higher plane of existence alleviates human beings from the despair of “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces.” It does not matter if the transcendent experience happens in a big beautiful cathedral or in a small, one-door Pentecostal church; the Gospel turns chaos into order, darkness into light. Transcendence makes the individual independent from the crashing social order. That is why Antonio Gramsci’s strategy to achieve a Marxian hegemony was to “terrestrialize” everything.
Unfortunately, a great part of the Protestant and evangelical hope is now focused on this world; our hope has been terrestrialized, immanentized. I don’t need to say that the inner transformation of the Gospel eventually turns into practical transformation, better jobs, better life, better families, or even good education for some who are motivated to pursue these things. But as good as they are, they cannot replace eternal hope. Political hope does not have redemptive power. If we allow our religion to be immanentized by political influence, we lose everything. So going back to old-time religion continues to be America’s best bet out of the darkness.