RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (BP)–When James, a Brazilian known to call upon evil spirits, lost his home and family to floodwaters in early April, he begrudgingly took refuge in the Baptist church in his area of Rio de Janeiro.
The city — which sits beneath the iconic “Christ the Redeemer” statue — is suffering its heaviest rains in decades. More than 200 people have died, and that number continues to rise as rescue workers search for those still missing.
When James arrived at the church, he asked International Mission Board missionary Eric Reese many antagonistic questions about his motive for helping people. Reese, from Georgia, asked James how he was coping with the hurt of what had happened and offered to pray for him. Soon, the two men were hugging and crying. The next day, James committed his life to Christ.
“I found myself in tears because years ago we [Reese and some Brazilian Baptist partners] talked about an incarnational Jesus,” Reese said, “Well, in this situation Jesus is incarnated through the lives of His members. We believe that, as Christians, we need to be closer to the areas where people were hurt and be there to extend a hand as if it was Christ Himself.”
Reese, who is helping coordinate relief efforts among Brazilian Baptists, has worked with Rio’s urban poor since 2001. He knew how prone the area is to mudslides. When he heard a news report April 5 that thousands of people had been trapped overnight by floodwaters, he feared the worst was yet to come.
He alerted IMB administrators about the need for help from Southern Baptist relief funds and he asked two local radio stations to broadcast messages reminding the community about the importance of helping one another.
“My experience with [this type] of tragedy is that if you can help organize quickly, the public will assist you,” Reese said. “Jesus stated, ‘Love God with all your heart and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.’ This is what we charged the listeners with.”
Reese contacted pastor Amilton Vargas, social ministries director of the Fluminense Baptist Convention — which serves the areas surrounding the city — and expressed his desire to see Christ’s love demonstrated to people in need.
Vargas suggested selecting churches to serve as drop-off points for food and clothes and to provide shelter for displaced families. He and Reese drove through the city, asking churches to open their doors to the community. A church in each of the five areas hit hard with flooding and mudslides agreed to host displaced families.
“I’ve been a pastor for 22 years,” said Angelo Amoras Collares of Igreja Batista em Viçoso (the Baptist Church of Viçoso), “and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the church have such an impact on the community.”
Radio stations informed families where they could go to receive aid. Community members donated small quantities of water, food and medicine to help the displaced families arriving at the churches. And within three days of the initial call, $5,000 in Southern Baptist relief funds arrived to supplement the work that already had begun.
Today the five churches are providing food, clothing and shelter for more than 380 families.
“We are now moving on to the second part of our plan, which is to conduct [worship] services in the churches where people are being housed,” Reese said.
Because many of the people are unchurched, the services will focus on singing, praying and telling Bible stories.
Tristan Taylor is an International Mission Board writer in the Americas.