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Bars And Churches Compete For Brazil's Youth

Jul 15, 2018
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

To Brazil now. These are turbulent times in Latin America's biggest country. Its economy is struggling to emerge from a deep recession. Homicides have reached record levels. And the outcome of a presidential election this October is so uncertain that some Brazilians want the army to intervene. All of this is especially hard on young Brazilians trying to carve out a future. For this weekend's Long Listen, NPR's Philip Reeves takes us to a remote rural community where bars and churches compete for youthful hearts and minds.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: We're taking a stroll through a small farming town. Evening is setting in over the palm trees and dirt lanes and grazing horses.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

REEVES: Alderi Monteiro is doing what he always does around now. He's playing songs from loudspeakers on a roof beside his home.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

REEVES: Monteiro was a presenter with the town's only radio station. The station shut down recently because its equipment broke. Monteiro has carried on, piping music from the rooftop.

ALDERI MONTEIRO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Just to spread a little joy," he says.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONGREGATION SINGING)

REEVES: In the town center, inside the big, white Catholic church, the evening service is underway. Nearby, Evangelical Christians are praying in one of their churches.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONGREGATION SINGING)

REEVES: And singing in another.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONGREGATION SINGING)

REEVES: This is Central do Maranhao, in northeast Brazil's sugarcane belt - or just Central as everyone calls it. It's one of the poorest towns in rural Brazil. Being young here is especially tough. More than 30 percent of people under 25 in this region do not have a job. Vitor Hugo Costa is one of them. He's 19.

VITOR HUGO COSTA: (Through interpreter) Life here is complicated. There are no jobs. There's nothing for anyone.

REEVES: Costa says he's tried countless times to find work in Central. He dreams of being a soccer pro, although right now he'd settle for anything that pays.

COSTA: (Through interpreter) Builder, builder's assistant, painting - anything.

REEVES: Costa plays in a local soccer team. His team keeps losing players as they leave town to find work, and because Central has so little to offer. Central's Residents' Association says about a third of the town's young people have left in recent years. Those that stay often run into trouble.

MARIA RAIMUNDA PIEDADE: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Some start families in their early teens," says Maria Raimunda Piedade, the association's president. About 9,000 people live here, yet there's only one tiny police post. Outside, a donkey is tethered to a rope on a nearby green. Inside sits Iragilson Froes. He's one of the town's two cops. Froes says drug abuse is rampant here, especially involving...

IRAGILSON FROES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Marijuana, crack and cocaine." Froes believes young people here are particularly easy prey for drug dealers.

FROES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Because there's nothing else to distract them. Central has no sports center, no cinema, no theater, not even a mall.

(CROSSTALK)

REEVES: Yet there are more than 40 bars - most no bigger than a small front room. Luis Ribeiro is standing on the porch of one of these, sipping cachaca, liquor made from sugarcane. He says he's drinking because he's in despair. Ribeiro's just received a call saying his son, who's 22, is in big trouble...

LUIS RIBEIRO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: ...Because he's been arrested in Brazil's capital, Brasilia, for alleged drug offenses and is in jail. Ribeiro says his son was a good student who only went off the rails after moving to the big city to find employment.

RIBEIRO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "I don't know what to do," he says. "I've tried to help, but my son's now in the hands of God."

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO MESSAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Ribeiro pulls out his cell phone and plays messages of support from his one source of comfort right now, his friends from church. Here religion is the other big show in town. Forty years ago, Central had one church, which was Catholic. Then the evangelicals started to arrive. Now there are 18.

JADSON SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Jadson Silva is a youth leader with the Assembly of God. He's 26 and a school bus driver. Right now, he's addressing a group of other young evangelicals in his church. Silva says the Assembly of God alone now has eight churches in town and is building a ninth.

SILVA: (Through interpreter) We think that number's low. There could be more.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONGREGATION SINGING)

REEVES: The town's religious leaders say they don't know exactly how many young people go to church here. The highest estimate is about 1,000. Silva says his church has hundreds.

SILVA: (Through interpreter) Many people have family troubles. They end up looking to the church for some guidance.

REEVES: The music also helps, says Silva.

SILVA: (Through interpreter) We have the band. They play electric guitar, keyboard, drums. All that lures them to the church.

REEVES: The rise of evangelism here mirrors a trend across Brazil. Over the last 40 years, the number of Brazilians who identify as evangelical has gone from 1 in 15 to almost 1 in 4. This growth has brought political clout. The evangelical caucus in Brazil's parliament has more than 80 lawmakers. Evangelical organizations run TV channels and hundreds of radio stations, and have a multitude of internet activists. Silva says he never brings his politics to church, yet he's clear about where Brazil's evangelical churches generally stand on the political spectrum.

SILVA: (Through interpreter) They tend to conservatism rather than the left because the left is liberal and wants to legalize everything - drugs, abortion, everything that is evil.

REEVES: As for his own church...

SILVA: (Through interpreter) The Assembly of God across all of Brazil is conservative.

REEVES: So is he. Silva supports arming the Brazilian public for self-defense. He describes homosexuality as a choice. In Brazil's presidential election, Silva plans to vote for a candidate from the far-right. Wandering this town, you meet people who say government has failed here and that churches are trying to fill the vacuum.

LUISA VIEGAS: (Through interpreter) Churches are taking over the leadership role, which was supposed to be in the hands of the political powers.

REEVES: Luisa Viegas is 17. She's deeply concerned about what's happening to her generation here. Viegas belongs to a Catholic youth group that reaches out to local youngsters struggling with drugs. She's not at all sure it's achieving much.

VIEGAS: (Through interpreter) We try and we try, but if it keeps going the way it is, drugs will take over everything and we'll lose this battle.

REEVES: When she finishes school, Viegas plans to follow the path of so many other young people in rural Brazil. Viegas says she's moving to a city to study. She doesn't plan to live here again. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Central do Maranhao. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.