In Brazil, where the FIFA World Cup begins today, soccer has traditionally salved the wounds of the country’s slums and prostitution zones.
“When the soccer starts...they forget about the child that was murdered minutes ago,” said Craig Weyandt, an American who has been in Brazil for 14 years with ReachGlobal, a ministry of the Evangelical Free Church of America.
But this year, not everyone is getting into the game. Corruption, industry strikes, and fragmented protests weigh heavier on Brazilians’ hearts and minds than soccer. A Pew survey this month found that two-thirds of Brazilians think hosting the World Cup is a bad idea. Transit workers this week in both Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have threatened to strike.
In that atmosphere of discontent, more than 200 teams of Christian evangelists are working together across Brazil during the World Cup according to Operation Mobilization (OM), an evangelistic and humanitarian organization. “These are not U.S. teams. These are Brazilians,” said Silas Mullis, the OM sports ministry coordinator.
Nearly universal Roman Catholicism has declined in recent decades, and the number of Brazilian Protestants has risen to more than 40 million. Such growth means many infant churches, but “the believers are maturing,” said Gary Stevens, who helped coordinate a mission team from Roswell Street Baptist Church in Georgia. “And they’re now doing missions trips on their own.”
The International Missions Board of the Southern Baptist Convention has students staying with locals less than two miles from Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. Individual congregations such as Roswell Street and Georgia’s Rosemont Baptist Church are taking part in teams to Sao Paulo and Porto Alegre, respectively.
Whether they are evangelizing in fan zones and transit areas on game days or performing random acts of kindness, the American missionaries always team with Brazilian Christians.
American and Brazilian Christians also are teaming up for literature distribution. Kentucky-based Wings Bearing Precious Seed sent 1 million books of John and Romans. Director Allen Johnson’s American group will stay in Sao Paulo, but Brazilian churches and pastors throughout the 12 World Cup host cities will help distribute the books. Ligonier Ministries is distributing more than 140,000 copies of R.C. Sproul’s books through Brazilian publishing partner Editora Fiel and its church partners.
Despite widespread cooperation on missions during the World Cup, Weyandt said the Brazilian church remains fragmented. It can be political, like the wider Brazilian populace. Social brokenness, especially legal prostitution, has become routine. Rio de Janeiro alone has nearly 280 prostitution zones.
The Brazilian church doesn’t view prostitutes as exploited victims like many people in the U.S do, said Blaire Pilkington, the director intervention for Exodus Cry, an anti-human trafficking organization born out of the International House of Prayer. In one Rio de Janeiro brothel, a teenage girl told her, “the people that come from the church, they throw tracts at us, and they end up in the gutter on the ground.”
The World Cup missionaries seek not only to evangelize, but also to engage Brazil’s church. “It’s theirs, and we’re basically helping them to see new opportunities and then say, ‘How can we serve you in that?’” Weyandt said. He and ReachGlobal are part of Exodus Cry’s Liberdade (Liberty) project. In the 12 host cities, they’ve tried to find places in prostitution zones to hold 24/7 prayer and worship during the World Cup.
With permission and knowledge of the zone “businessmen,” they’ve invited dozens of Brazilian congregations to go to areas they have avoided in the past. Exodus will meet and minister to women outside the prayer meetings, but Brazil’s believers hold the key to any change, Pilkington said. “You can save one woman, but if you change the mindset of one woman in a church who will go out and save many women, you’re really having a long-term impact,“ she said.
What lies ahead for the games is anything but certain. Some are calling for boycotts as they stare at half-billion-dollar stadiums that won’t be used after the games. People are angry. But Exodus Cry and Weyandt have a prayer, especially with the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on the horizon.
“They were built because God knew the only place big enough for his movement would be these stadiums,” Weyandt said. “It would be a miracle, but tor the first time, people are lifting up the social problems of the day as high as or higher” than soccer.