RIO DE JANEIRO (BP) — Locals know it as "Crack-land," a run-down, crime-ridden neighborhood in the heart of Rio where addicts come to get their fix. Many never leave. Crack cocaine is the star attraction, and its victims line Crack-land's streets. They've lost everything to the drug — jobs, homes, families, hope.
But on the outskirts of Crack-land sits a lone refuge inside an unassuming storefront that bears the name Cristolandia — "Christ-land" in Portuguese. It's a ministry created by Brazilian Baptists to offer Crack-land's residents one of the few things they can't buy on the streets: freedom.
Cristolandia provides free meals, clothes, showers and clean beds to addicts, prostitutes and the homeless. If they're ready, it also supplies them the practical help they need to escape their situation and start over. That transformation begins, said Cristolandia coordinator Exequias Cerqueira, with Jesus Christ. Every person who comes through Cristolandia's doors hears the gospel. More than 500 have left the streets during the ministry's three-year existence. Even more have put their faith in Christ.
On this day, Cristlolandia's small staff — many of them former addicts — is getting some extra help. A team of 11 Southern Baptist college students and two student ministry leaders has come to Rio to share the gospel during the FIFA World Cup June 12-July 13. On days between games when Rio's Maracaná soccer stadium is empty, the students turn their evangelistic energies to local churches and ministries like Cristolandia.
IMB Photo by Wilson Hunter
From right: Brazilian Baptist pastor Carlos Eduardo Mendes Alviso, translator Renata Nascimento Da Costa, Auburn University at Montgomery (Ala.) campus minister Lee Dymond and IMB missionary Eric Reese (background) pray over an HIV-positive couple living in Rio de Janeiro's infamous "Crack-land" neighborhood.
Breakfast is first on the agenda. The students serve a meal of ham and cheese sandwiches to the more than 75 men and women who've filled Cristolandia's second-floor cafeteria. Lee Dymond, who leads the student team and serves as campus minister at Auburn University at Montgomery (Ala.), presents the gospel as they eat.
Afterward, the students split into teams of two to three and prepare to search Crack-land's streets for others who need Cristolandia's help. Each team is paired with a Brazilian Baptist partner who serves as their guide, translator and coworker. Before the teams depart, IMB missionary Eric Reese briefs them on what to expect. With active drug deals and prostitution going on around them, there's real danger involved.
But those risks don't seem to faze students like Nick Smirniotopoulos and Alison Myers. Smirniotopoulos, 21, graduated from Virginia Tech University in May. Myers, 22, is a senior at UAB in Birmingham, Ala.
After a few minutes' walk, the pair approaches a young woman with huge scabs covering her shoulders and pink scars on her face. It's obvious she's been in some of kind of accident, or possibly is the victim of violence. Smirniotopoulos doesn't know if she's on drugs, but she looks thin and sick. He motions to his Brazilian Baptist partner, Joπo Maciez, and they begin to share their faith.
"Jesus tells you that if you hear His voice and open the door, He will come in and dine with you," Smirniotopoulos explains.
She listens for a few minutes, then turns suddenly and walks off. Not interested.
Next, the team approaches an older woman sitting on a metal vent less than 100 yards away. She is homeless: Her cardboard "mattress" sits at her feet; her toilet is a concrete wall adjacent to the vent. But as the team tells her about Cristolandia, she begins to yell. They patiently listen to her rant for more than 10 minutes, but it's soon obvious she won't listen to them. Smirniotopoulos is discouraged, but the team moves on.
Meanwhile, on another street in Crack-land, Dymond is experiencing what he calls the most difficult, most "emotionally draining" day of ministry in his life. Dymond and his Brazilian Baptist partners, pastor Carlos Alviso and translator Renata Da Costa, are sharing the gospel with a prostitute standing in the doorway of a brothel. Dymond suspects she is selling herself for drug money, food or both. The brokenness is overwhelming. When she refuses an invitation to accept Christ, Dymond instead asks if he can pray for her.
"No, no, no!" she answers. "I'm not worth praying for."
But the worst was yet to come.
Farther down the street Dymond's team stops to speak with a drug addict lying in the middle of the sidewalk. He is unconscious, and surgical pins jut from his leg. The skin around the pins is black with infection. Tears fill Dymond's eyes.
"This man was laying there like a discarded piece of trash," he said, struggling to control the emotion in his voice. "I just got on my knees and started praying."
Dymond added that this kind of depravity isn't unique to Crack-land.
"One of the things God keeps reminding me of is that this same brokenness is also back home in the U.S. We just know how to hide it better," he said. "But we all have the same problem. We're born with a wicked heart and sinful nature. Only Jesus can change that."
Several blocks away, things are looking brighter for Myers and Smirniotopoulos. They're sharing the gospel with a young man named Gabriel who they found sleeping at a bus station. As Smirniotopoulos explains Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, Myers prays silently.
"It was really eye-opening to see his hopelessness and how little he had," she said. "I was just praying that the Lord would soften his heart and that we would be bold in our witness."
When Smirniotopoulos finishes presenting the gospel, it's clear God has answered Myers' prayer. Before the team can even ask, Gabriel tells them he wants Jesus in his life. Smirniotopoulos leads him through the sinner's prayer, then offers to take him to Cristolandia. But Gabriel refuses, telling the team he isn't ready to leave the streets.
Still, Smirniotopoulos feels hopeful.
"As Gabriel accepted Christ, the Holy Spirit came in him," Smirniotopoulos said. "He looked changed. He had tears in his eyes. I got to tell him, 'You are a different person; 2 Corinthians 5:17 says the old has passed away and the new has come. … You're my brother in Christ now.'"
After several hours on Crack-land's streets, the student teams return to Cristolandia. They're tired, but with the help of their Brazilian partners, they've shared the gospel dozens of times and brought several addicts to the center for help.
"Some of these situations have been way out of my comfort zone, but it's what I prayed for before coming here," Myers said. "It's definitely been rewarding, and most people have been more receptive to the gospel than I ever thought that they would."
The next day, the team will be at it again — this time sharing Christ with World Cup soccer fans at Rio's Maracaná Stadium.
To learn about global missions opportunities for students through IMB, go to imbstudents.org. View videos on Southern Baptist student volunteers Alison Myers and Nick Smirniotopoulos, mentioned in the above story about Cristolandia.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Don Graham is an IMB senior writer.)