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Brazilian Street Preacher Spreads Progressive Message

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Evangelical Christians are the fastest-growing political movement in Brazil. Their might was on display in 2016. They encouraged the Brazilian Congress to impeach the president. But as their strength grows in Brazil, so does the diversity of their political views. Catherine Osborn reports.

RONILSO PACHECO: (Speaking Portuguese).

CATHERINE OSBORN, BYLINE: On a recent night in Rio de Janeiro, 40-year-old Ronilso Pacheco spoke to a crowd assembled in a downtown square. Pacheco's black, wears a T-shirt and short dreadlocks and reaches his long arms out when he speaks.

PACHECO: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: He quotes the book of Acts. The multitude of believers are of one soul and heart.

PACHECO: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: "This is about the power of joining forces," he says, "not to obey groupthink but to subvert it" - crucial in a place like Rio where inequality and urban violence are the status quo. Pacheco, a Brazilian Baptist, is part of a growing group of progressive evangelicals who go against the current of conservative evangelical megachurches.

PACHECO: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: What Pacheco describes as a call for disobedient Christians has attracted people like high school student Jessica Lene. She's 18 and grew up going to the evangelical church in her low-income neighborhood, or favela, of Manguinhos.

JESSICA LENE: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: There, she says issues that she thinks are important don't get discussed. One is abortion - illegal but still common in Brazil and especially dangerous for poor women. Another is the effect of the war on drugs on her community, where any day could be interrupted by gunfire. She says her pastor tells her to face difficulties by having faith so she'll go to heaven.

LENE: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: But she thinks there's work to be done here on Earth, and that's exactly what Pacheco preaches about. He finds inspiration from the 1960s in Brazil when progressive Protestants mixed with Catholic liberation theologists to become major players in leftist organizing. Here's theologian Lusmarina Campos Garcia.

LUZMARINA CAMPOS GARCIA: As Brazil has been historically a country where there are too many differences between the rich and the poor, churches started being concerned about all these differences. And they started thinking, OK, so how do we act?

OSBORN: The key, says Garcia, is these groups took a structural look at problems. They talked about not only inequality but also capitalism, not only urban violence but also the role of prisons.

Based on these views, today's progressive evangelicals founded a network that supports social activists in 10 Brazilian states. Conservative evangelical churches, including that of Rio's new mayor, teach a different approach.

GARCIA: Their morality is very much centered in the individual in their own private lives than in social or historical structures.

OSBORN: Their leaders have pushed back against the increasingly organized evangelical progressives. One influential pastor, Silas Malafaia, told his followers in a video message never to vote for any leftist parties.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SILAS MALAFAIA: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: "We follow Jesus, not Marx, whose ideology has failed," he says. Political clashes among Brazilian evangelicals are likely to intensify in upcoming debates over gun control and incarceration. And so for preachers like Pacheco, work continues one conversation at a time. He speaks in plazas, on the street and in favelas like Manguinhos, home to frequent conflict between police and drug traffickers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PACHECO: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: There, Pacheco spoke recently at a memorial for an unarmed 18-year-old who was killed by the police. It was held in a public basketball court to encourage neighbors to join. But as things were getting started, the residents had to instinctively duck down when they heard a noise in the distance.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

OSBORN: The shots didn't continue, so the service rolled forward. Pacheco explained that racism is part of what determines which neighborhoods suffer the most gun violence. It resonated with Lene.

LENE: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: She says listening to a discussion of Jesus as an activist gives her hope. She agrees with Pacheco that what's sacred is not a far off future but today's difficult journey to making things right. For NPR News, I'm Catherine Osborn in Rio de Janeiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIEUX FARKA TOURE SONG, "FUTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.