Whatever doctrine might be preached, when there is Christian worship within the walls of prisons—among the world’s damned—an ancient theology of hell is being recovered, incarnated on earth. It is Christ’s descent to the dead, his triumphant ekklesia conquering the gates of Hades.
We don’t recognize our lived theologies that quickly, though, because we don’t use those words—the damned, the dead—when talking about the human beings we lock away in prisons or dispose of through legal violence. We say “criminals,” “offenders,” “convicts,” “felons.”
But up-and-coming religious studies scholar Andrew Johnson, in his dynamic first book, If I Give My Soul: Faith Behind Bars in Rio de Janeiro, discovers in the poorest Brazilian favelas, or hillside shantytowns, a fresh and direct term for the souls a society deems worthy of torment: the “killable people.”
To kick off his more general investigation of religion in Brazil’s prisons, Johnson spent two weeks living inside two different lockdown facilities. He slept in crowded cells with the inmates. He ate, played soccer, and conducted interviews, while observing and attending religious activities. And he quickly narrowed his study to the primary faith expression that was pouring into the grim prisons from the outside community: Pentecostalism. It is flourishing within the hardest gang-populated units.
For the next several years, Johnson tracked the shape, history, and power of Pentecostalism as “the faith of the killable people.” In Rio, these are the urban poor, those with black and brown skin, those living in the swelling, improvised slum mazes known as favelas, where the narco-gangs have been an ongoing counter-state presence among a people long excluded from the benefits of official society.
The Pentecostal Difference
If I Give My Soul rises above its academic niche not just because Johnson has spent years inside the prisons with scores of religious volunteers, in and out of the favelas, speaking the language, and building trusting relationships with Pentecostal pastors, narco-gang leaders, crowds of prisoners, and even guards. And it’s not just because his writing is crisp and quick, capable of dramatizing an afternoon of dialogue and conflict in an open-air drug market or a blaring worship service inside concrete walls.
What really sets this book apart is Johnson’s quiet mastery of several areas of study necessary to make this subject academically three-dimensional. He integrates the sociology of prisons, the history of Brazil, of Rio and its favelas, the cultural and economic inner-workings of narco-gangs, and the practices and history of Pentecostal Christianity from before Azusa Street clear through to its presence in global slums today. All this while developing a compelling thesis and wrapping up in less than 200 pages.
Johnson makes clear early on that his study is sociological. That is, he investigates not doctrine but observable religious practices. But before covering here these practices—which are different than what readers may assume when thinking about Pentecostals—we need to appreciate the history of Pentecostal Christianity, as well as the horizon of global Pentecostal growth, topics Johnson handles in compelling fashion.
While Pentecostalism finds biblical grounding in the early church’s experience of the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, its recent historical beginnings are recognized in the revival meetings on Azusa Street, in an abandoned warehouse on the edge of downtown Los Angeles, in 1906. Johnson takes time here. These meetings were sparked by the faith and preaching of William Seymour, an African American man. Seymour had been forced to sit and listen from the hallway at Houston Bible School years earlier, as the seminary professor was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
“From William Seymour forward,” Johnson claims, “Pentecostalism has been the strongest among the poor, ethnic minorities, immigrants, urban migrants, and others living on the margins of their societies.” And “[j]ust like in twenty-first century Rio de Janeiro, there were ‘killable people’ in the United States in the early 1900s, and Seymour was one of them.”
The Azusa Street meetings had a unique mix of “African Americans, whites, Hispanics and Asians worshipping together under the same roof.” William Durham, a white pastor who would later become a Pentecostal leader, was initially skeptical of the wild noise and emotion-driven worshipers until he attended a gathering and wrote this: “The first thing that impressed me was the love and unity that prevailed in the meeting, and the heavenly sweetness that filled the very air that I breathed.”
Johnson notes the irony that it was Durham who later took many of the white congregants with him to start new Pentecostal gatherings, “which provided a space for white Pentecostals to speak in tongues in an all-white setting.”
While such break-off movements still exist among the privileged, where specific acts of ecstatic experience become the focus, Johnson cites historians to appreciate a larger power: “Pentecostalism has had more crossing of ethnic boundaries than any movement in the world in Christianity.”
This is a necessary reevaluation of even Pentecostals’ self-understanding of their tradition, theology, and historical strength. That is, even if speaking in tongues includes ecstatic glossolalia as a mystically energizing experience, the miracle recorded in Acts 2 describes its result: an array of ethnicities and languages gathered in Jerusalem’s urban center, all hearing a startling message of God’s incarnation, execution, and resurrection for everyone—in their own languages. And the early church then exploded out of its Hebrew cultural definitions, casting Jewish disciples out among peoples they had once considered killable themselves.
And this brings us to the future: Johnson reminds us that “surveys consistently show that Pentecostal Christianity is the future of global Christianity. The faith has thrived among the urban poor.” And prisons, he argues, both in Rio and most cities and nations, “are cultural extensions” of the urban poor, often of darker skin. In other words, the killable people.
Practices of Presence
So—what are the Pentecostal practices that have such power in these avoided places, with the oft-disposable people?
Through Johnson’s years of tireless city bus travel to attend worship gatherings with volunteers inside the several prisons in Rio, through his meetings with pastors and gang leaders inside the favelas, he observed several reoccurring sets of practices. All of which I would describe as practices of presence and full embodiment. Of incarnation.
Primarily, the Pentecostal churches in Rio (overwhelmingly more than other religious groups) visit prisoners. They show up. They descend to the realm of the damned, waiting in long lines manned by corrupt and abusive guards.
Next, they embrace the men as brothers. Physically, with hugs, constant hugs. They bring guitars and sing, loudly, together. There is touch, contact. Jesus—in his countless healings—was also touching the untouchable.
Johnson notes how Pentecostal worship and prayer practices actively welcome tears. Publicly. Loudly. While being embraced, blessed by others. Johnson, along with Robert Brenneman’s study of gang members’ conversion to evangelical faith in Central America, Homies + Hermanos, appreciates the liberating defiance of prison and Latin American machismo. There is emotional healing from trauma, alienation, and ultimately shame. This is a humanizing and transforming culture.
And Pentecostals take on the music, the beat, the sounds, and vernacular of the people. No European organs or seminary-polished homilies. As Johnson says, “Pentecostal preachers tend to sound”—and look—“like their congregations.” In this way, Rio Pentecostalism’s voice, and leadership, “has become indigenous.” It has taken on local form. Most churches Johnson visits not only have former gang members in their membership, but many are the pastors.
Faith healings, the physical kind, were also a common occurrence for prisoners who left the gangs and joined the church’s faith (as well as for families in the favelas). The faith enters their felt needs, their bodies. Yet this fruit of miraculous healing is only part of the larger healing going on.
Johnson, from the first chapter, observes how Pentecostal churches don’t just visit prisoners with religious services. They stay in touch and actively welcome released prisoners, former gang members, into their churches. One of the first men Johnson interviews was a lifelong gang member who wanted to escape gang life; when he was released, he lived inside the local favela church that had visited his prison. He was given not just shelter, but a noble role within the congregation. He was wanted, he belonged. He was given a new identity in the community. Once a killable person, he now had value. He had dignity.
No Longer Killable
This is the heart of Johnson’s thesis, and the power of what he coins “prison Pentecostalism” and the “politics of presence”: that these sets of embodied, embracing practices dignify the killable people, until they are no longer killable—in society’s eyes, in their own eyes. Because in God’s eyes, they never were.
Johnson watches from inches away as a pastor on a visit to the favelas speaks firmly with a group of narco-gang members and then prays with them as well. As he describes it, “The pastor prayed as if the gang members’ lives had value.”
This is far more profound, sociologically, than it may initially sound in Christian parlance. In the United States, there is a protest movement highlighting how citizens of darker skin seem to be more killable by armed law enforcement. The name of the movement has a simple claim: that these lives matter. That black lives have value.
Johnson makes a more subtle—yet key—observation of Rio Pentecostals’ religious practice: They are not aligned with the police, who are experienced by the urban poor as hostile and often corrupt. If they are the “killable people,” then law enforcement is often doing the killing. The pastors are meek, avoiding direct conflict with police. But more broadly, “[t]he social and class differences that exist between gang members and other institutions—the government, politics, universities, middle-class employment, for example—do not exist between the gangs and the Pentecostals in poor neighborhoods.”
Are there killable people in our own nation? And if so, what are we doing to reach across social boundaries and help restore their dignity? If I Give My Soul is a must-read for pastors, chaplains, and others involved in prison ministries here at home. Their task is nothing less than this: to reclaim the greater witness and power of the gospel through incarnating God’s presence inside society’s hellish places of punishment, by letting that felt presence defy emotional, racial, and political divisions within and between us; by embracing prisoners upon their re-entry, welcoming them into our churches, homes, and neighborhoods; and—ultimately—by aligning themselves against the forces that see them as killable.
Maybe this is good news to the poor, and possibly at the very heart of revival. Maybe this is why such churches are growing like wildfire through the underground and edges of societies around the world.
Chris Hoke is co-executive director of Underground Ministries, which works with Mexican gang members, prisoners, and churches in Washington State. He is the author of Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders (HarperOne).