By Samantha M. Shapiro
June 11, 2015
It was fall in Brazil, and rain drizzled under a gray moon. The faithful were beginning to arrive at the International Mission of Miracles, a Pentecostal church in the poor and working-class city of São Gonçalo, 10 miles from Rio de Janeiro. In front of the church, which was located between a supermarket and an abandoned lot, a banner staked in the muddy ground advertised a young girl named Alani Santos, whose touch could heal.
Inside the boxy, bright room, a boy played gospel songs on a turntable while the opening preachers gave sermons. Two home-goods-store employees — still wearing their aprons and name tags — took their usual seats. A man in a soccer jersey rocked a crying toddler in a plastic chair. In the back, Levan Lomsadze, a 24-year-old from the Republic of Georgia, paced nervously; he had flown from the Caucasus to Brazil in the hope that Alani could cure his severe speech impediment. Sergio Teixeira, 33, rushed in late; lean and tall, with imitation Nikes on his feet and a muay Thai tattoo on his arm, Teixeira had taken the day off from a temp job painting gates to travel to the church by bus from his home on the outskirts of Rio. Though it was only 20 miles away, the trip through jammed traffic on shoulderless roads had taken nearly five hours.
After the room filled with about 60 people, Pastor Adauto Santos, Alani’s father, took the stage. Heavyset and slow-moving, he was dressed in a navy blue three-piece suit. Adauto built the Mission of Miracles himself, partly using materials he repurposed from odd jobs. It was modest — uncovered fluorescent bulbs glared over the white tile floor — but had a few regal touches, like sliding Plexiglas doors, a large multicolored banner showing Jesus rising above a saturated blue sky and, in the shed that served as the church office, a chair decorated to look like a throne, with hand-stapled leather and gold paint.
Adauto prepared the crowd to receive his daughter, who is now 11 and has been preaching since she was 3. On Monday nights, Alani lays on hands; on Wednesdays, she has a revelations service, in which she and other preachers make predictions about the future; on Saturdays, she hosts a radio show about the Bible. She also does Skype prayer sessions with followers who live far from her or are too sick to meet her, and preaches at other Pentecostal churches and gatherings.
The pastor offered practical reminders. There would be no need to touch Alani excessively; Jesus’ followers were able to receive miracles after only brief contact with his garments. And everyone needed to turn off cellphones, lest they ring and “interrupt a miracle.”
Adauto began pacing. “If you believe the name of Jesus, say: ‘I believe!’ ” he called out in Portuguese. “I believe it is in the hands of the little missionary Alani, her hands will touch us, I believe in miracles, father!” A few minutes into his sermon, two deacons turned the hall lights off and started to yell: “God is with you — he’s here! He’s here!” The boy at the turntable raised the volume of the music. The task at hand was to coax the Holy Spirit earthside, into this room with bare walls and harsh lighting, to ask him to transform the assembled congregants, who, having examined the resources available to them, saw a miracle as their best option. The man holding the toddler began to weep.
Adauto invited those in need of healing to the base of the stage. Roughly half the congregants made their way forward. Some hobbled, and some were held up by attendants. Many had copies of recent medical exams in their hands. Alani stood onstage wearing a pink dress and cardigan with matching sparkly shoes, nervously finger-combing her hair. She made her way slowly through the line of sufferers as they explained their symptoms: low platelet counts, chronic anxiety, swollen joints. She listened to each story with precocious focus and empathy, seeming to grasp both the gravity of their ailments and the gravity of her own power to ease them. When she had heard from everyone, Alani looked up at the deacons, who had positioned themselves behind the line. The men signaled that they were ready for her to begin.
Alani approached Teixeira. A year earlier, his wife miscarried; subsequent tests revealed that they both had H.I.V. The illness made it hard for Teixeira to do his job collecting used cooking oil, and when he was fired, he and his wife began fighting all the time. They separated three months before that night’s service. Teixeira said his father-in-law was convinced that an evil spirit was causing his problems and had suggested that the young preacher might drive it away.
Alani cautiously placed one hand on Teixeira’s forehead and the other on his hand. After a moment of deliberation, she moved a hand to touch his heart. Then, lightly, she blew on his face. Teixeira staggered backward. “Hallelujah, God!” called the deacons. Teixeira shuddered. The deacons caught him as he fell and eased him onto the tile floor, where he lay on his back, palms open, eyes closed.
After the service ended around 11, Teixeira lingered at the church, talking with people he had met. “When she touched me with her hands, it was an inexplicable thing,” he told me. “I felt a good presence, as if my blood was being renewed.” He planned to return to his neighborhood health clinic to get a second H.I.V. test. He liked the idea of showing people his first test and then the new one, to prove that a miracle had taken place.
In a corner of the church, Alani met with a reporter from an Italian TV station for an interview. He asked to photograph her, and she slipped into a practiced pose, extending her arms heavenward with a rapturous look. Then she went behind the church to the office in the shed, which had a small kitchen, and squirted ketchup and mayonnaise on some mini pizzas warmed up for her and a friend, Luiza Do Valle. Luiza, who was 11, explained what it was like to be in class with Alani. She told me shyly, “Kids at school treat her normally, except for occasionally asking her to pray for them if they have a headache or something.”
The Santos family lives in a low-slung concrete house in São Gonçalo. On the evening I visited last year, a car had just rolled off an overpass nearby, and the sound of gunfire briefly kept residents from leaving their houses. By the time I arrived, though, the street was quiet. On the corner sat an empty food truck covered with a mural of baile-funk dancers; drug dealers sometimes set up shop in it, the Santoses told me. The only store I saw sold window bars, but it was closed.
The family’s living room was tiny and tidy, with one cinder-block wall painted a cheery orange. Alani had finished her day at elementary school and was in her room, changing out of jean shorts and a school-uniform shirt. Her mother, Sandra, set out purple fruit punch and crackers as Adauto cued up a slide show of Alani’s preaching on the family’s computer.
Adauto and Sandra were each brought up Catholic. Adauto then converted to Umbanda, an Afro-Brazilian religion. When he was in his 20s, his brother, then the leader of a car-theft gang, went to jail. The prison had a Pentecostal church run by inmates, which held services for their families on Sundays. Adauto’s brother converted, and his family was impressed by the change in his behavior. He seemed happier, more purposeful. Soon Adauto decided to be baptized, too. He took a theology course to become a pastor and began evangelizing in poor neighborhoods, known as favelas, and in prisons, preaching in the long underground tunnels where inmates with tuberculosis or H.I.V. were held. He brought Sandra to Pentecostal services, and she was taken with the raw emotionality and the feeling of community; eventually, she and her entire extended family converted, too.
Sandra, who is shy and, at 37, a decade younger than her husband, told me that she tried to become pregnant for seven years. During that time, three different people in church prophesied that God would give the couple “a pearl,” which she and Adauto understood “to mean that we would have a daughter and she would be used by God. We just didn’t know how young it would start.”
Alani’s parents say she performed her first miracle at 51 days old. Her father placed her hand on the distended stomach of a woman who had come to his church for healing. The woman fell to the ground, and, Adauto said, her belly immediately deflated. When Alani was 1, her parents encouraged her to pray for miracles. At around 2, they allowed her to begin laying on hands at church services. “By the time she could speak, she could preach, and she was already being seen as a miracle worker,” Adauto recalled. He began taking Alani with him when he preached in prisons and favelas, to provide her an outlet for her talent. “Some kids who have this gift are probably in psychiatric wards, because it could be easily misunderstood,” he told me gravely. “It’s an extraterrestrial force.”
Adauto started his video slide show, which was set to an original ballad about his daughter, composed by an inmate at a prison where she had preached. On screen, a 3-year-old Alani, her hair in pigtails, grabbed the legs of a woman in a wheelchair and then stood nearby, wide-eyed and silent, as the woman staggered toward her and the audience cheered. A bit later, a 6-year-old Alani led a large public healing service for drug traffickers in a favela; after handing out small white cloths she had blessed, she took the stage in a little cardigan with a bow in her hair and, rocking from one foot to the other, sang a song composed for the occasion. Its lyrics translated as: “True happiness, only Jesus can give you/a blunt doesn’t cut it or sniffing powder/in the hour of danger they will leave you alone.”
While her parents and I were talking, Alani herself emerged from her bedroom, holding a pink Bible. She had inscribed it “Princess Alani.” After the slide show, she politely agreed to let me see her room, which was painted pink. Stuffed animals lined her bed; on a small table was a Portuguese translation of one of the “Dork Diaries” books, by Rachel Renée Russell, and a book published by a Christian company called “The Power of a Praying Kid,” by Stormie Omartian, in which children named McKenzie, Austin, Dillon and Dylan describe amazing outcomes from their prayers. Alani showed me a flowered diary, in which she recorded big days in her life. Jan. 24: “Thank you father today I’m complete — I was recorded by Polish TV!!” Feb. 20: “Today I am going on a trip to São Paulo for a birthday party woohoo!!”
To prepare for each healing service, Alani told me, she sometimes fasts for 12 hours or has a long private prayer session. For that night’s service, though, her only preparation was to write a short sermon while she lay on her beanbag chair.
“I’ve written down a few words,” she said. “Sometimes I write more if I am going to give a big sermon, but it’s not a scheduled thing. God makes a scene happen if God wants something.”
No one keeps track of the number of child preachers in Brazil, but Pastor Walter Luz, who coordinates a 10-day conference for preachers ages 5 to 18 in São Paulo, estimates there are thousands. Most come from poor or lower-middle-class families, and nearly all of them are affiliated with Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination started in America in 1914 and taken to South America by missionaries. Assemblies of God is now the largest Pentecostal group in Brazil.
The central tenet of Pentecostalism is that God remains an active presence in the world; people can access his divine power just as Jesus, Peter and Paul did, to prophesy, speak in tongues and heal the sick. Assemblies of God, in particular, emphasizes that the Holy Spirit acts not just through trained priests but through anyone — the poor, the uneducated, even children.
The growth of Pentecostalism and other charismatic movements influenced by it — which also emphasize the Holy Spirit and miracles — has been responsible for an epochal shift in Christianity. In the 1970s, less than 10 percent of Christians were affiliated with these charismatic or “renewalist” churches. Today it is estimated that one-quarter are, and their rapid growth outpaces that of other denominations. With this expansion, Pentecostalism has shifted the center of world Christianity from Europe to what is sometimes called the Global South — Africa, Asia and Latin America. As Philip Jenkins, a history professor at Baylor University and the author of “The New Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity,” writes: “The era of Western Christianity has passed within our lifetimes.”
In Brazil, Pentecostalism — and especially Assemblies of God — has its strongest foothold in poorer neighborhoods, where residents are often overlooked by the government and too transient to be easily reached by the Catholic Church, which is structured around place-based dioceses. Scholars once thought that Catholic liberation theologies, which arose in the 1960s and 1970s, preaching a connection between faith and socioeconomic justice, would be the religion of choice for the poor, but Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on the supernatural, has proved far more appealing. Improvised storefront Pentecostal churches bloom like mushrooms in the cities’ cracks, jutting out behind a gas station or wedged into the ground floor of a home.
Among charismatic denominations, competition to produce fantastic miracles and emotional release is fierce. Startling stories of redemption — from former prostitutes, for example, or drug dealers or murderers — are prized. (One famous preacher, Aldidudima Salles, is the former head of the Red Command, a drug-trafficking gang in Rio, and claims he was so depraved before he converted that he broke into tombs and ate human flesh.) Child preachers fill a special niche: They embody the charisma and showmanship of older preachers, but filtered through a child’s inherent innocence. As Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of “Born Again in Brazil,” explains it: “These child preachers are something that Assemblies of God have found that sets them apart.”
The phenomenon is controversial, earning scorn from other Pentecostal denominations and even criticism from within Assemblies of God. Silas Malafaia, a high-profile Brazilian Pentecostal pastor whose TV show airs internationally and who has preached at American megachurches, says that children who are preaching are being exploited. “It’s absurd,” Malafaia says. “These are commercial interests on behalf of the parents in receiving donations and selling DVDs. It is not about God, and I am firmly against this.”
But the Internet and social media have helped young preachers find wide, sometimes international audiences. Today Brazil’s most successful child preachers work nearly every day and travel extensively.
There’s 14-year-old Daniel Pentecoste, who crisscrosses central Brazil leading outdoor revivals in new farming communities and services in drug-rehab centers, dressing in a shiny red shirt and tie, his hair carefully slicked back. He dreams of someday acquiring a passport so he can meet his hero, the American evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. There’s Alex Silva, who is now 21 and left a tiny town in the Brazilian state of Bahia with his mother when he was 11 to take up preaching in São Paulo. The family slept on floors while he was getting his start; soon he was informally adopted by a church elder, who began managing his career. By the time he was 13, Alex had preached at Brazil’s main Pentecostal conference for an audience of 500,000 and had been to Angola three times to speak in a stadium there. For Alex, preaching was a way out of poverty, as well as a genuine mission; his brother is hoping that soccer will serve that purpose.
There’s also Victor Gabriel, a 17-year-old with braces who lives in a grim white-concrete public-housing project on the periphery of São Paulo, four miles from the nearest metro stop. Victor told me that he frequently missed school to preach three to five times a week. He made anywhere from the equivalent of $150 to $250 for a weekday Mass to $3,000 for an overnight vigil or conference. He decided long ago that his preaching career was worth sacrificing what he called his “lost childhood.” Victor told me he did not socialize much with other teenagers: “The majority of my friends are older preachers — I feel I have more in common with them than people my own age.”
Then there is Matheus Moraes, one of Brazil’s best-known child preachers. He started playing drums and singing in his church’s band at age 2. By the time he was 10, in 2008, he was traveling to Switzerland, Ireland, England, Portugal, Australia, Paraguay and the United States. He preached five days a week — occasionally at stadiums in Brazil filled with 6,000 people — and also produced DVDs of his sermons, which sold 500 to 1,000 copies a month.
Before I met Matheus, I studied a few of the roughly 40 DVDs of his preaching that are available for sale. One, called “Captive No More,” was filmed in the United States at an overnight vigil for Brazilian Pentecostals in Danbury, Conn., in 2008, when Matheus was not quite 10. It plays like a one-man vaudeville show in Portuguese. Matheus wears a crew cut and a too-big, wide-lapeled white suit with a bubble of belly poking through his suspenders. He opens confident, launching into classic borscht-belt stage patter: “It’s 3:30 in the morning and people are still happy — how great it is to be here in this vigil!” He pauses to acknowledge the “people who will see this on the screen from a distance, or over the Internet,” and thanks the pastors in attendance, noting that one, Ana Paula, “is beautiful as always, like a girl of 15 years.”
Over the course of 75 minutes, Matheus sings, summons the Holy Spirit and dramatically retells the biblical story of God freeing the slaves in Egypt. He seems to be enjoying himself the entire time, hamming it up. He reminds the crowd, “A true Pentecostal makes more noise than a funk boombox,” and sternly promises that “if a demon has come close to the city of Danbury tonight, it will be banished by the power of Jesus Christ.”
When Matheus channels the Holy Spirit, he hops on one foot, churning his arms as if running in place. He speaks and sometimes shrieks in vaguely Hebrew-sounding tongues, pausing to gasp for air, and wails, “Agora! Agora!” (Now! Now!), as older Brazilian Pentecostal preachers do. “God is sending you a hug!” he cries. “Receive it — receive it now!” At one point, he frantically announces where the Holy Spirit will hit next, yelling, “Hold that man over there!” as he brings his hands back over his head and throws them forward, as if to push the spirit toward a congregant.
I was surprised, then, when I met Matheus, now a teenager, in Rio last year. Slender and a bit aloof, he bore little resemblance to the exuberant boy I had watched in videos. He was 16 and was dressed in Vans, pressed skinny jeans and a T-shirt, his hair styled into a parted Bruno Mars pompadour.
Matheus grew up in a favela called Gardênia Azul, where a dense web of wires, which residents use to poach electricity, sags above narrow, unmarked streets lined with storefront churches, bars, Afro-Brazilian religious shops and a run-down pet store. After Matheus was born, his father, Juanez, bought a roach- and rat-infested wood shack in the favela. Over time, as he could afford it, he added glass to cover window holes, tile to cover the concrete and eventually two more stories. Juanez himself grew up in several favelas, where drugs, crime and violence were rampant. “It was an experience that I didn’t want for Matheus,” he said.
Juanez is a believer, but he is also pragmatic about what Pentecostalism gave Matheus: the only clear path he could find to keep his son away from the streets. He promoted Matheus’s career with the pride of a stage parent and also the shrewdness; he told me it would cost $500 a day for access to Matheus, and he requested that sum several times. (Per New York Times policy, I declined.) When Matheus was about 9, preaching at churches in Brazil and around the world, the family moved from their home in Gardênia Azul to one 15 minutes away, in a gated apartment complex with lawns. Though it was not clear why, Juanez did not want me to see the new apartment; every time we got together, I picked up Matheus and his father outside a Honda dealership and then dropped them there afterward.
The first time we met, Matheus sat next to me in the van, looking straight ahead, offering one-syllable answers to every question I asked. But Juanez, seated in the row behind us, was eager to talk. He described how he and Matheus’s mother, Francinete, a retired janitor, converted to Pentecostalism 23 years ago when they happened upon a morning service as they made their way home after a night of drinking. After she and Juanez converted, they received a sign from God, they say, that they would have a special child. But Francinete had a tubal ligation when she was a teenager because she already had three children. She decided to undergo a procedure, which had only a 30-percent success rate, Juanez said, to reverse the tubal ligation. When she became pregnant with Matheus, the couple viewed it as a miracle. They say they received numerous signs throughout the pregnancy that he would be “used by God.”
Matheus has a younger brother, Nathan, who occupies the unfortunate position in the family of being the child not used by God. “Nathan is a normal person, not special,” Juanez told me. “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.”
Our van bounced along a dirt road past a horse and buggy; groups of children ate passion fruit by the roadside. While Juanez spoke to me, Matheus held his cellphone impatiently, looking bored. I told him that if he wanted to check his phone, it was O.K. with me. We sat in silence for a bit as he scrolled through Instagram. After a few minutes, Matheus turned and, to my surprise, asked in halting English what kind of music I liked. He showed me music on his phone — Britney Spears, Beyoncé and Bruno Mars — and we looked at his Twitter page.
Juanez operates Matheus’s website and Facebook page, each of which features pictures of him dressed in a suit, looking pious. But Matheus controls his own Instagram and Twitter feeds; there, he identified himself as a “Musician/Singer/Model/TV Presenter/Evangelical Preacher” — though he has since taken the description down — and posts pictures of himself in a tank top and surfing.
I told Matheus he was the first person I met while reporting in Brazil who spoke any English. He smiled proudly, revealing a mouthful of braces and looking just a bit like his younger self. He explained that he had taught himself English through a language program called Wizard. His father piped in that Matheus was studying so that he could better reach the faithful in other countries.
Matheus informed me that AC/DC once played at a festival called Rock in Rio — had I heard of it? Did I like AC/DC? He said that he had wanted to attend that year’s Rock in Rio but was scheduled to preach every night of the event.
He continued steering the conversation. Had I ever been to Times Square? Who were my favorite soccer stars? Would I attend any World Cup games? He had planned to attend one of the games but recently learned he had to preach that night instead.
Matheus told me that in past years he asked his father to slow down his preaching schedule, so that he could attend school more regularly in the hope of one day going to college. He hoped to study law, because, he said, he had so much experience with “elocution and defending a thesis.” But now that he was preaching less and the economy was faltering, his parents had told him they didn’t have the money to send him to private school anymore. Instead, he had been going to the local public school. The public-school system in Brazil is notoriously bad. Matheus said he was struggling to adjust to his new class. “It’s nothing compared to private school I used to attend,” he said, shaking his head ruefully.
Matheus told me his father had rejected his original idea for a college major — psychology — because he thought it would confuse his preaching; in Pentecostalism, mental and emotional problems are caused by the Devil. Matheus said he was attracted to psychology because he had spent most of his life trying to heal emotional and spiritual problems. “Since I was very young, I always liked to take care of people — preaching is a way of doing this,” he said. Matheus told me matter of factly that “the church is like a hospital.” He explained that “people go there sick in a physical way or emotional way and I administer cures or liberations to help them to be free of their problems.”
The next evening, while Matheus was home changing into a pinstripe suit — bought one size too big by a fan in London — I waited in a storefront church where he would preach later that night, in City of God, a favela built around a public-housing project. It was raining, and a sewage river ran through the streets, stinking like rotten meat. Stacked subwoofers blared Brazilian hip-hop. The church was bare except for American and Israeli flags flanking the lectern, but it still felt warm and inviting.
I thought about what Matheus had said, that the church was like a hospital. It was a sentiment I’d heard from other young preachers. In São Paulo, I was introduced to Maria de Graça Silva, a girl healer who goes by the name Gracinha Di Jesus and is two years older than Alani Santos, though not as well known. We met at the studio that produced DVDs of her singing and healing. Maria came with her whole family — her mother, father and a younger brother, Felipe, who confessed to me in a whisper that he, too, was practicing his preaching, although his father informed me with certainty that Felipe was not touched by God. Maria, wearing sneakers with pink shoelaces, slumped a little in her chair, kicking her feet, but when she started talking about the “more than 6,000 souls” she had brought to Jesus, she sat up straight and grew impassioned.
Maria and Alani were similar, both oddly beautiful mixtures of guilelessness and charisma. Like Matheus, they had been confronted with the problems of their poor communities — alcoholism, drug abuse, H.I.V., unemployment — from a very young age, and they were raised to believe that they had special powers to fix them. Maria was eager to rattle off a list of her most amazing miracles. Alani never grew impatient with the line of people who approached her after her three-hour service for still more laying on of hands, more blessings, more attention. She never rolled her eyes; in fact, she sometimes wept quietly at a particularly powerful healing.
But when I asked each girl separately what she wanted to be when she grew up, the answers were identical and seemed to hint at an unspoken doubt that the supernatural was a sufficient remedy for what was being brought before them. Having spent most of her childhood providing a certain kind of cure to sick people, Maria replied with the same certitude as Alani: “I want to be a doctor.”
That night in City of God, families drifted into the church to listen to the opening preachers and chat. A few younger kids slept in a parent’s arms or stretched out across two chairs. When Matheus arrived around 9:30, in his skinny tie and pointy shoes, all weariness drained from the room. He has been delivering 90-minute monologues without notes since he was 6, and his command was evident.
“Take your Bible and please turn to John, Chapter 5,” Matheus called out as he strutted down the aisle, hand in the air.
He was totally at ease, one hand resting on the lectern as he recounted a story in which sick people flocked to Jesus. All the wild physical energy of his early preaching — the hopping around and pitching the Holy Spirit like a baseball — had become sublimated into more economical gestures: studied pauses, well-timed glances. He exuded the impassioned restraint of a trial lawyer in the throes of a closing argument. In the story he recounted, a man who was paralyzed had seen Jesus heal many people, but he had never been healed because he lacked faith. Matheus compared the man to a person who came to church many times but had not yet been cured.
“Sisters and brothers, maybe something is afflicting you,” he called out. “Maybe there is sadness in your soul, but Jesus is here and hears your story. All of you who are tired and oppressed, Jesus wants to hear your story.” Spinning around to address the elders of the church behind him, he exclaimed: “The church is a hospital. It’s a place for sick people.”
Matheus bowed his head and began to speak in tongues — “Alla bash shambala bash lalala” — with total earnestness, as if giving driving instructions to the next town over. He asked the congregation, “Do you want something new today?”
When a woman answered emphatically in the affirmative, Matheus murmured tenderly: “Yes, love, have you been suffering with something?” His body tensed, his voice became more fervent and his speech quickened. “I envision something new inside of you!” he shrieked. “You are not going to go out of here in the same way you entered!”
As the evening crescendoed, the congregants were on their feet, singing along with Matheus and the church musicians. Matheus winced with feeling and turned his mike toward the crowd and let the worshipers, arms raised, sing the chorus back to him. Many were crying; the need in the room was palpable. Matheus’s father sat behind him the whole time, beaming and taking pictures.
Samantha M. Shapiro is a contributing writer for the magazine. She was formerly a staff writer at The Stranger and The Forward.