Eric Reese, an IMB missionary to Brazil, overlooks Rio das Pedras, one of the gang-controlled favelas (slums) in Rio de Janeiro where he ministers. Eric’s reputation as someone who has done good for the people in the favelas gives him access to share the gospel in communities that would be hard to reach otherwise.
Four years ago, a drug lord called “The Godfather” wanted Eric Reese dead.
Reese, an IMB missionary in Brazil, works in the gang-controlled favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro. His ministry puts him in contact with prostitutes, drug dealers and gang leaders. Frequently, he finds himself in dangerous situations on streets where violence often rules. But Reese takes every step with faith, following God’s call to go wherever people need Jesus.
God has used Reese to do so much good in the favelas that Reese has earned a reputation for being a man everyone can trust. And during the past year, The Godfather has had a change of heart, inviting Reese to come share God’s Word with him on a monthly basis.
As my colleagues and I planned our media coverage to tell how God is using Reese and his wife, Ramona, in Rio, Reese asked if we would be willing to interview The Godfather.
Cautiously, we agreed and began the process of gaining access to him.
Weeks before arriving, we were asked to send in photos of ourselves, so The Godfather’s guards could recognize us. Then we had to submit our interview questions for approval ahead of time.
Finally, we traveled to Brazil, and on our second night in Rio, we piled into a car and headed out. The mood was tense as I sat with Reese, our photographer and two videographers. Reese, who is usually joking and talkative, was silent during the eerie drive into The Godfather’s favela.
Halfway there, Reese broke the silence and explained that part of the arrangement with The Godfather was that we wouldn’t know where the meeting was taking place. So Reese told us to close our eyes. We did so. And as we felt the car pull into the meeting place and stop, we heard Reese murmur, “My God!”
We wouldn’t learn why until later.
When Reese finally told us to open our eyes, a man with a ski mask covering his face stood by Reese’s window, shuffling through the pictures we had sent months earlier. In strained voices, Reese and the man talked back and forth about Brad, one of our videographers, who sat in the front passenger seat next to Reese. Finally, we were told to get out of the car.
We found ourselves in a shadowy, walled-in courtyard with a gate locked behind us. Men in ski masks surrounded us. They made us put our hands against the car so they could pat us down. Reese warned us that all around, just beyond the light, were men with AK-47s pointed at us. We quickly set up our equipment.
We had been told The Godfather would stand behind a table 15 yards away, and we would have to ask our questions from that distance. Just as we had expected, a man took his place at a distant table. We got our lights and cameras focused on him and I stood next to Reese, who was going to translate for us.
I spoke loudly to project my first question toward the man standing before us. But the answer came from right next to my ear.
As it turned out, the man behind the table was a decoy, and The Godfather had come up behind us. Our cameramen shuffled to adjust to the new situation as I continued the interview. We had been given only 10 minutes.
I asked The Godfather to describe what it is like to be a powerful man in his community.
“It’s really complicated,” he answered. “For you to be the boss in charge of a community, you need to respect to be respected. … You need to respect the older people and the children. Because it is not the fault of old people and the children that someone has to be in charge. It’s for their own welfare.”
Then I asked him to tell us about some of the hardships he has overcome in his life.
“I don’t know if I ever had a hard time in my life,” The Godfather said. “Because if you believe in God, you can achieve that which you need to do and more. I speak for myself, and I answer for myself. Why do I believe in God? Because I am a child of God.
“Those people who want to do the bad things — to me — they are like trees that don’t give good fruit, like in the Bible,” he continued. “When you cut down this tree, you stop it from making the other trees bad. This is what I believe about how God works.”
Lastly, I asked him why he allows Reese to share the gospel with him.
“Eric is a person that came and helped the community,” The Godfather said. “He didn’t come to help with the financial needs, but to bring the peace that many need. … And when someone comes with the Word of God, we have to support them because they are good people.”
Reese became emotional and choked up as he translated. The Godfather was expressing appreciation for him and the work he does. And in that moment, God showed Reese the reason for all the risks he had taken in his ministry. The man who once wanted him dead now was talking about seeing God work through him.
“Get your stuff,” Reese urged us. “The interview’s over. Let’s go.”
We had to close our eyes again for the drive back. Once we were out of the favela, Reese told us why he had murmured, “My God!” when we arrived.
As our driver, Reese was the only one with his eyes open when we pulled up to the meeting place. So he was the only one who saw, just inches outside the front passenger window, the barrel of an AK-47 being pointed directly at Brad’s head.
If any of us had broken the agreed-upon rules and had opened our eyes, we would have seen the gun. But because none of us reacted, The Godfather’s men knew we were obeying and could be trusted.
Our interview with The Godfather showed that he still has much to learn about how God works. But clearly his heart has been softened toward Reese and toward the gospel. Few people are given access to this man, but God has given Reese the unique opportunity to share Jesus with him regularly.
“When I look around Rio — and I see the violence and I see murders and I see rapes — I see a city that’s saying, ‘Can someone help me? Is there a better way?’” Reese says. “I see what this city needs most is people to show the love of God and to share the gospel. That’s the thing I see most.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tristan Taylor is an IMB writer in the Americas. This fall, Eric Reese shared that the Godfather had become a follower of Jesus Christ. Shortly afterward, the Godfather was assassinated by a rival gang.) Related story Missionary couple perseveres through challenges in Rio de Janeiro