It is 5 p.m., and the church bells in the center of the city begin to toll. Hundreds of commuters stream across the Praca da Se square, passing in front of the headquarters of the largest archdiocese in the nation with the most Catholics in the world.
But over the pealing sounds of the cathedral, many commuters are hearing a very different religious message.
“The world is dominated by sin! Only the Gospel can save you! Only evangelism can save you!” shouts a middle-aged man, gesticulating wildly and increasing volume as he utters each sentence. A rapt crowd of 30 or 40, mostly men, listens as the street preacher seeks to draw in additional passersby, warning them of danger to their souls.
“Satan is hidden everywhere! If you’re with a religion, you’re wrong! If you’re Catholic, you’re wrong! Put your hands together for Jesus!” The crowd obliges.
Nearby, homeless youths huddle together, passing a crack pipe back and forth. A young woman, apparently mentally ill, sits among the worshipers, playing with leaves and sticks on the ground.
Street preachers maintain a daily presence here and elsewhere around Brazil, calling upon believers to accept Jesus directly, rejecting the need for the Roman Catholic Church to serve as mediator.
Whereas some leaders behind Brazil’s large evangelical churches have become famously wealthy and powerful, these men sweat on the street among Sao Paulo’s downtrodden. They’re foot soldiers on the front lines of a religious battle that their side seems to be winning.
When Josemar Bento Mendes was born, 50 years ago, more than 90% of Brazilians declared themselves Catholic. But by 2013, at the time that Pope Francis, the first pontiff from the Americas, visited, just 57% of Brazilians claimed allegiance to Rome. About 28% declared a commitment to some kind of evangelical Christian faith.
“I was born and raised Catholic like everyone else. But it’s full of false doctrine and tradition which has nothing to do with the word,” says Bento Mendes, who is preaching in the harsh cold of a wintry June day. “I come here because everyone in the city comes through the plaza. It’s ground zero. It’s a river with many fish, and many people suffering.”
Mendes and others preach that the Bible is God’s authoritative word, which should be spread evangelically, and that the Catholic Church is not necessary to interpret it.
Most of the fish in the river move along quickly, heading into the crowded metro station. But those loitering in the square tend to respect the seriousness of the gathering. After one young man, visibly high, spends a few minutes giggling, his perceived insolence is quickly singled out.
A tough-looking man in a hoodie and gold chains threatens him, instructing, “Respect the word of God!” The youth is soon clapping and praying along with the rest.
Preachers change off every hour or so and switch up styles. But they all rely on their intensity and passion, which could not contrast more sharply with the inside of the Catholic cathedral.
There, a priest’s sermon is scarcely audible over the PA as he calmly explains the meaning of the church calendar. The audience for his Mass is barely larger than the circle formed around the preachers outside. Their slight presence in the pews is dwarfed by the ornate and grand structure built to hold thousands.
The format of the lessons outside is also looser, with the preachers reading select passages from the Bible, then expounding on their meaning. They may seem to be closer to adhering to Jesus’ message of embracing the poor and sick, but these teachings — and indeed the Gospels themselves — are almost never the main point. Over the course of days and various preachers, a few dominant themes emerge: the imminent apocalypse, the influence of Satan and the evils of homosexuality.
“There are men sleeping with other men! We should see shame in your faces! You are worse than a dog or a pig. I have never seen a pig lie down with another pig,” says one. Some in the crowd just listen intently, while others cry out spontaneously, or raise their eyes to the sky and tremble.
The preacher now turns his wrath on Edir Macedo, the media mogul billionaire leader of the evangelical Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, for airing sexually charged shows on his Record TV network. Bento Mendes and preacher Waldo Silvio Santos belong to the competing Assembly of God congregation. “Woe to you who pays his tithes to men who put naked women on TV to make millions. False prophets love money.”
The evangelical movement has been criticized for profiting off Brazil’s most destitute and sometimes offering a version of Christianity that they consider fundamentalist and reactionary, rejecting much of modern society. Within the complicated rules of Brazil’s brutal class system, however, many middle-class liberals have also felt uncomfortable criticizing any movement that is largely working class.
But in the last few months, evangelical figures have risen to top positions of political power, causing liberals to panic. Eduardo Cunha, an evangelical who serves as president of the lower house of Congress, is considered a dangerous, cynical schemer by progressives, and he has said he will bar any vote on liberalizing abortion, which is illegal here.
After evangelical congressmen staged a protest against Sao Paulo’s recent Gay Pride Parade, the major Folha de S.Paulo newspaper printed a scathing indictment: “A growing spirit of fundamentalism is manifesting itself ... and Congress seems committed to reflect this trend, intensify it, and use it to demagogic ends.”
But the halls of the capitol in Brasilia are very far away from Praca da Se. As a Catholic priest and a Franciscan friar walk slowly, Bento Mendes has no time for focus on matters of politics.
“It is a thousand times better to trust in God than to trust in princes,” he booms. “And I tell you this: Christ’s return is coming sooner than we imagine. If it doesn’t, I’ll stop preaching. I’ll rip up my Bible, if terrible things don’t rain down upon us soon.”
Bevins is a special correspondent.