Photo: Lianne Milton Panos Pictures
Speaking from a stage encircled by 12 large wooden crosses, Gabriel Camargo held up wads of fake Brazilian money, showing his flock what could be theirs.
“God will bless you if you give a lot more to the church,” said Camargo, a Pentecostal pastor with the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.
Then he extended an arm and pointed a black pouch toward his parishioners in the working-class neighborhood of Osasco.
Pick up your wallets and purses, he said, instructing his flock to look for Brazilian reais. About a dozen people hurried forward to dump bills and coins into the bag.
Those without cash didn’t have to worry: An usher held out a credit card machine. “You’ll have so much money” after giving generously to the church, the pastor boomed, that “smoke is going to come out of the machine.”
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In a country struggling with the worst economic crisis in its history, with long lines at unemployment offices and public health clinics, perhaps it’s not surprising that Brazilians increasingly are drawn to the promises of personal wealth.
The belief that faith can lead to riches – known as the prosperity gospel – is a form of Pentecostalism, a Protestant movement that, in a modern-day version of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago, is challenging the dominance of the Catholic Church in Latin America’s most populous country.
Brazil, which has the most Catholics of any country in the world, is undergoing religious debates similar to those sparked in 1517 by a fiery German preacher named Martin Luther – over church riches and corruption, political power, and the proper way to read the Bible. By 2030, Catholics, now the religious majority in Brazil, are projected to become a religious minority.
Pentecostalism, which is sweeping across Latin America and Africa, also is challenging Catholicism worldwide. The Catholic Church has 1.1 billion members worldwide, about half of all Christians. But much of the global growth in Christianity is found in Pentecostalism, with about 300 million followers, according to the Pew Research Center.
Known for charismatic practices such as the laying on of hands for healing, exorcisms and speaking in tongues, and its emphasis on cultivating a personal relationship with Jesus, Pentecostalism has done a particularly good job of adapting itself to Brazilian culture, with pastors who tend to look and talk more like their flocks than Catholic priests do.
The prosperity gospel has spread quickly in poorer neighborhoods as the unemployment rate has climbed to a record 13 percent. The movement’s promises of a better material life through actions such as giving and prayer, as well as its strict social rules in Brazil banning urban ills such as drinking and smoking, give followers a sense of structure and agency over their lives, said Paul Freston, a sociologist and an expert in Pentecostalism in Latin America.
“You learn to see yourself as an agent who has possibilities, who has the ability with God’s help to achieve things, to get control of yourself,” Freston said. “It doesn’t mean you become rich, but it often means you rise from absolute destitution to dignified poverty.”
Much as they do in the United States, prosperity-gospel pastors also serve as role models for wealth attainment. Yet standing by the pool outside his $1.5 million house, Silas Malafaia, one of Brazil’s most famous prosperity preachers, insists he doesn’t live extravagantly.
Malafaia is one of the country’s most prominent and controversial preachers, wielding enormous political clout on behalf of the evangelical population. In Brazil, the term “evangelical” is used synonymously with “Protestant,” and about 70 percent of the country’s Protestants are Pentecostal.
Many Brazilian pastors, like Malafaia, take their cues from prominent American prosperity-gospel preachers who have grown in influence as advisers to President Trump – even though only 3.6 percent of Americans are Pentecostal, compared with about a quarter of Brazilians. Evangelicals in Brazil have harnessed a voting bloc in the National Congress that enables them to lobby against gay rights and abortion and for the death penalty and limited government.
“Pentecostals have been a decisive element in tilting the Brazilian agenda toward conservative views and policies,” said Joanildo Burity, who researches Brazilian evangelicals and politics.
Wearing a purple shirt, his hair slicked back, the 59-year-old Malafaia compared himself to evangelist Billy Graham, who was a friend of several U.S. presidents. There’s nothing wrong with ministers having wealth if they get their money through side projects, he said, as he does through his spiritual bestsellers.
Pastors also should be compensated for the size of their ministries, Malafaia said.
“God wants me to be mediocre? The devil would give riches to everyone else,” he said.
Malafaia said he is like Luther because he, too, wants the Bible in the hands of average parishioners instead of interpreted for them primarily by a religious elite.
“Have you ever seen the pope with a Bible in his hand?” Malafaia said. “The Catholic Church doesn’t incentivize you to have the Bible in your hands. Catholics believe in leaders and the pope. Evangelicals believe in the Bible.”
Indeed, most of the 4,000 people who streamed into his Assembly of God Victory in Christ church in a lower-class neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro for a Thursday night service came bearing Bibles in their hands. But even many Protestants in Brazil find it laughable that Malafaia is leading a reformation, because they believe leaders who focus on prosperity are selling a false gospel.
They put Pentecostalism’s promise of personal wealth in exchange for donations on a level with the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences in exchange for the forgiveness of sins in the 16th century, a practice that was famously criticized by Luther.
Augustus Nicodemus Lopes, a Presbyterian minister, called the churches that promote a prosperity gospel “cults” and criticized their pastors for distributing healing cloths anointed with oil while asking for donations. “They’re saying, ‘Your pocket needs religion,’ ” Lopes said. He hopes for a reformation in Brazil – of Pentecostal churches.
Pope Francis took his first overseas trip to Brazil right before it hosted the World Cup and the Olympics, when the country was riding a global commodities boom to prosperity. Many people here at the time felt the 2013 papal visit confirmed Brazil’s position at the top of the world.
Manuel Jose da Penho and his wife, Maria, remember the exhilaration they felt when the pope showed up at their home. The couple recalled how their parish held Mass just once on Sundays before Francis’s visit. Now the parish offers two Masses on Sundays and five on weekdays.
“After he came it was like a spiritual revival,” said da Penho, who recently listed his two-bedroom house in a Rio de Janeiro slum for a premium price with the pitch “Pope Francis was here.”
But experts say it’s still too soon to tell whether enthusiasm for the first Latin American pope can counteract the rise of Pentecostalism, which had been well underway before the pope’s visit.
The 2014 recession in Brazil complicated the church’s challenge.
Now even with a popular pope, the church is desperately trying to keep young people like 28-year-old Marina Silva, who is unemployed, from leaving the faith. The prosperity gospel’s promise of riches, however, is just one front in the competition.
Sipping orange juice in a Sao Paulo cafe before her next job interview, Silva explained that Brazilians are known for picking and choosing from different traditions in everything from food to art and music.
“We don’t have strict characteristics,” she said. “We mix things together to make them good. We are not like good little lambs.”
To win over Brazilians, the Catholic Church is attempting to appeal to people such as Silva by mixing in charismatic components of Pentecostalism that have more emotional elements, including catchier music.
Catholic priests such as Marcelo Rossi, who has sold millions of CDs, have become increasingly popular. Rossi’s Masses attract people from all over the city to his outdoor sanctuary.
At a recent service Silva attended, teenagers took selfies, live-streamed the service on Instagram and swayed along with their hands waving back and forth as if they were at a rock concert.
“Glory, glory hallelujah.” Rossi sang, holding out his mic.
The competition for souls is so fierce in Brazil that every church must try mightily to stand out from the rest, said Odilo Scherer, archbishop of Sao Paulo.
“Today, people go by their personal subjective tastes and experiences,” said Scherer, who was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI. “In our Brazilian context, religion is presented as a product in a marketplace which seeks to please the customer and present a product that is appetizing.”