Friday, June 12, 2015
Brazil's Child Preachers
The New York Times recently published an article on child preachers in Brazil's Pentecostal communities. "The Child Preachers of Brazil" explores the phenomenon of child preachers in the Assemblies of God denomination and the rapid growth of Pentecostalism among Brazil's poor and marginalized.
The author, Samantha M. Shapiro, describes the poverty and crime of the favelas out of which some child preachers come. Is it any surprise that some parents guide their children into a lucrative preaching niche, as an alternative to lives of destitution and bleakness?
The article profiles child preachers such as 11 year-old Alani Santos, celebrated for her alleged faith healing abilities, and 17 year-old Matheus Moraes, whose infectious charisma has earned him many followers. The parents of Alani and Matheus claim that God set them aside for special fates. According to Alani's parents, church members prophesied that God would give them a "pearl", a daughter who would be used by God.
Matheus' father claims that he and his wife received a sign from God that Matheus would be special. Sadly, they did not believe the same about Matheus' younger brother Nathan. “Nathan is a normal person, not special,” Juanez told Shapiro. “God didn’t give a message about him. His role was to help Matheus be a child, since his career did not leave him much time to play and do things normal children do.” Ouch.
Preaching leaves little room for normalcy in the lives of some young preachers. The article describes Matheus' grueling preaching schedule, which forces him to neglect his schooling, and the ways in which his father Juanez dominates his preaching life. For example, Juanez demanded $500 per day for access to Matheus, which Shapiro refused to pay. Shapiro depicts Matheus as a teenage boy interested in music, soccer, and dreams of attending college someday, but whose preaching obligations prevent him from living a normal life.
According to the article, the use of child preachers has come under fire from some Pentecostal denominations and leaders. Brazilian televangelist Silas Malafaia blasted the use of child preachers as "commercial interests on behalf of the parents", insisting that the practice is not about God. I hope that the practice continues to draw scrutiny.
The article brought to mind Marjoe Gortner, an American child preacher from the 1940s and 1950s. As a child, Gortner's parents compelled him to preach and raise money at revivals, abusing him with pillow-smothering and mock drowning to ensure his obedience. As an adult, Gortner shed light on the manipulative practices of charismatic preachers in the 1972 documentary Marjoe. When I read about the Brazilian child preachers, I envisioned modern-day Marjoes, forced into deranged lifestyles of faith healing and theatrics. Are their parents inflicting this lifestyle on them for money, like Gortner's parents, or do their parents genuinely believe that these children have divine callings? I'm not sure which is more alarming.
I was saddened by the demand for faith healing in Brazil's Pentecostal congregations, a demand met by child preachers such as Alani. Faith healing appeals to the uneducated and the desperate, a dangerous kind of make-believe that can bring only disappointment. The popularity of faith healing in Brazil is a sign of desperation among some Brazilians, who long for wellness but find it out of their reach. Believers have been swept up in a practice with no basis in reality, and now children have been swept up in the superstition. Faith healing grants no healing, only false hope.
Brazil's child preachers deserve better than this. They deserve to have happy, healthy childhoods, not grueling preaching schedules. They deserve to live normal lives, not to be paraded around for their imagined magical powers.
(Hat tip to Friendly Atheist.)