Missionaries Reach Drug Infested Slums of Brazil

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More than 11 million people in Brazil live in the favelas, or slums, being bullied by gangs, threatened by drug wars, and scrambling just to make a living.

American missionary Eric Reese spends his days in the poverty and violence. By doing so, he's bringing light to one of darkest slums of Rio de Janiero.

"I see that every person here is a creation of God. And that when Christ went to the cross, He went to the cross for these people, too," Reese said.

Reese said he thinks often of the danger he faces in Rio, knowing he might go out one day and not come back.

"I wrote a letter to my wife [saying], 'If I don't return, you be strong. Let my girls know dad's going to miss them,'" Reese shared.

Ministry in the favelas is hard, even for Brazilians. A young resident said most Christians in Brazil "don't want to do this kind of job."

"[They] don't want to go to streets at night to speak the word of God, to preach the word of God," he explained. "They want to stay in their big church, just watch a good sermon."

Yet, Eric and his wife Ramona continue reaching out to drug dealers, gang members, and prostitutes.

"It's not so hard for us to understand the people that we're ministering to. It's just trying to ... minister to someone who needs Jesus. Who just so happens to be a drug trafficker, or a militia, or whatever," Ramona said.

Reese and his family came to Brazil 13 years ago as Southern Baptist missionaries from Albany, Ga.

He said his greatest challenge after coming to the country was gaining the confidence of a top favela gang leader, "The Godfather."

The Godfather originally wanted to kill Reese, but now speaks well of the missionary.

"[Eric] was a person who came to the community and helped the community, which has many needs, financial needs," he said. "He didn't come to help with the financial needs, but to bring the peace that many need."

Shortly after the interview, a rival gang assassinated The Godfather -- but not before he put his faith in Jesus Christ.

"I will not go back into a comfort zone for my comfort level, shorten the hand of Christ, shorten the hand of God, when people are dying, going to hell, needing to know there's a way their life can be changed, and changed radically," Reese said.

He now finds help from Peter, a Brazilian pastor with a favela background.

"I tried to steal a car. And when I looked behind there was a police car," Peter recalled. "At that time, they started shooting at us and I started running. And then they kept shooting and one of these shots got me here."

"My mother had always told me that even if it were the last minute of my life, if I repented, God would forgive me of my sins. And that time had come," he continued.

"The grace of God has brought that guy from near deaths and shootings to, now, a beautiful family, a lovely wife, awesome kids," Peter said of his life.

Ramona supports her husband in ministry and often befriends other women, including Viviane, a single mother and former prostitute.

"When that relationship has been established, and the Holy Spirit does His work, and that person receives Christ, and I can actually see them being baptized, and seeing them joining a church -- that's the greatest. That's the biggest reward," Ramona said.

And as the Reeses deal with the daily challenges of work in the favelas, people like Viviane remind them why they came to Rio in the first place.

"When you can see people go from being enslaved into prostitution, to being free through the love of God, through the transformation grace that Jesus gives us, it makes it worth it," Reese explained.

The International Mission Board provided CBN News with footage of the work Reese is doing in some of Brazil's toughest areas.

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Stan Jeter

Stan Jeter

CBN News Senior Producer

CBN News Senior Producer Stan Jeter specializes in Christian news and Latin American coverage.  He has lived and worked for many years in South and Central America, most recently developing the Spanish Christian news program, Mundo Cristiano.  Follow Stan on Twitter @StanJeterNews and "like" him at Facebook.com/StanJeterCBN.