Thousands of Child Preachers In Brazil Minister to People Through Healing, Prayer

Alani Santos, 11, praying at the Mount of Olives in São Gonçalo, Brazil. (Sebastián Liste/Noor Images, for The New York Times)
Alani Santos, 11, praying at the Mount of Olives in São Gonçalo, Brazil. (Sebastián Liste/Noor Images, for The New York Times)

The youngest evangelists in the country’s Pentecostal churches try to balance the demands of their youth with those of their faith.

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.”

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Samantha M. Shapiro

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