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Once-rich Brazilian finds riches in Christ


EDITOR’S NOTE: The 2008 Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions focuses on missionaries who serve in South America as well as churches partnering with them, exemplifying the global outreach supported by Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Lottie Moon offering. The 2008 theme is “Go Tell the Story of Jesus,” and the national offering goal is $170 million.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (BP)–Skyscraper apartment buildings line the coast of the wealthy section of Rio de Janeiro, each a testament to the privileged living within its security gates.

This is where Felix Alves once lived.

He was rich, successful and popular. After obtaining an engineering degree, he soon basked in earning six figures a year working for an American diet-supplement company.

Then the cash at his fingertips began leaving his hands faster than he could close his wallet. New cars. Expensive clothes. Dining in swanky restaurants.

But, as the saying goes, “What goes up, must come down.”

“I lost all my money,” Felix said. “For three months I only ate rice and beans. I had my electricity cut off twice because I didn’t have $10 to pay it.

“In two and a half years I earned $350,000. Over the next two and a half years I became … $25,000 [in debt].”

Looking back on his financial misfortunes, Felix knows that everything happened for a reason.

“I believe that God used [the debt] to call my attention to Him,” he said.

If it hadn’t been for this bottom-of-the-barrel lifestyle he and his wife Luciana found themselves in, Felix may not have fervently searched for spiritual peace. He certainly would not have begun leading a church-planting ministry among the rich of Rio.

But first he had to turn to God.

Broke, Felix and Luciana were forced to sell their possessions and move into his parents’ house.

The corners and wall space of their living space were adorned with murals of the Virgin Mary, oriental charms and talisman-like statues of different gods and spirits that Felix’s mother felt protected the home.

Felix and Luciana began dabbling in Buddhism, Hinduism and spiritism. “[We] tried every kind of religion and philosophy,” he said. “But still that void was not filled.”

NO EXCUSES

Then a Christian friend encouraged the couple to come to church with her. In a two-year time frame they attended only about four times, Felix said, making excuses for all the other missed Sundays.

But the friend finally reached her quota for accepting excuses. She called one Sunday to tell them about a church they needed to try. She also informed them she was on her way to pick them up. “No” was never an option, Felix recalled with a chuckle.

“We were very well-received,” he said. “I liked the style [of the service]. The preacher was talking about … what the Bible said about stress.”

Felix had never heard a sermon preached like this before. The pastor spoke plainly, addressing Felix’s needs. This was something new for him.

In the past, Felix never felt part of any type of church service he attended. He didn’t understand most of the “religious” words that were used. Nothing the speaker taught pertained to everyday life. The people in attendance seemed more like lifeless puppets attending out of obligation or just to be seen.

This time, however, “All the things I was looking for in other religions, that day I discovered in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

“I know the Holy Spirit touched my heart,” he said. “But I didn’t pray because I didn’t know what to do.”

Felix and his wife continued to attend church every Sunday; in less than a year, they became Christians when they realized Jesus was the missing piece from their lives.

Through church, Felix met Southern Baptist missionary Guy Key of Texas, who began helping him outline a plan to be debt-free in two years. Above all, Key stressed the importance of giving back to God through tithing.

“I told him ‘I don’t have one dollar,'” Felix said. “He said to make a plan to pay my debt … as well as start by giving 1 percent … and increase it every month by 1 percent till I reached 10 percent.”

Felix and Luciana chose to give more -— while still paying off their $25,000 debt.

“We decided to give 3 percent, then 5, 7, 9 and 10,” he said. “In six months we were out of debt and [tithing 10 percent]. It was a question about faith, not about having money or not.”

PREPARATION FOR MINISTRY

Felix began to feel the Holy Spirit tugging at his heart.

“… I was being called to be a pastor,” he said. “All the things I did, all the experiences I had [were] to prepare me [for ministry].”

Key began inviting Felix to go for runs with him. Through exercise, their friendship grew into what is now more than six years of spiritual discipleship. Felix began to pray about giving his life to plant churches in different parts of Rio de Janeiro.

Felix is a “spiritually sensitive” person, Key said, and relationships are a must for him. It was a sense of relationship that prompted him and his wife to continue visiting the church where they eventually became Christians.

“It wasn’t a temple or a church building. It was a ‘normal’ building. If you invite someone to a place that is friendly to them, it is more welcoming,” Felix said of the noticeable differences at this church.

“That is why I started my first church in a hotel,” he added. The church is now located on the first floor of a small shopping center. Strategically placed — in the center of the fastest growing part of Rio, called Barra da Tijuca -– the new congregation is targeting the hard to reach middle- and upper-class segments.

Among the challenges: security walls and gates that surround apartment buildings. Unless an acquaintance lives within the walls of an apartment building, Felix cannot step foot on the property.

Money is another challenge. The majority of people living in Barra da Tijuca are very well off. Secure, comfortable, rich and lacking nothing, why would they want to change?

Felix can relate.

But the biggest challenge for him now is simply bearing the pain of knowing what they’re missing.

“Every day my heart breaks again because people are dying here, and they don’t have Jesus Christ,” Felix said. “[We need churches in the] area that speak the language of the people who live here.”
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Emilee Brandon is a writer for the International Mission Board. Gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering provide vital support to the International Mission Board’s more than 5,300 missionaries worldwide, including missionaries such as Guy Key who are planting churches in Rio de Janeiro. To find out more about the offering and how to give, go to imb.org/offering.

    About the Author

  • Emilee Brandon