RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Dressed immaculately, the evangelical preachers head out to work when night falls. They journey through the gloom into the “cracklands” where addicts consume crack cocaine in open-air dens, areas well hidden from the eyes of tourists heading to Rio de Janeiro for the World Cup.
After midnight, hundreds of grime-covered addicts lie on the sidewalks of the Jacarezinho slum. They focus on little more than the next fix, on finding a lighter to put flame to pipe.
Rifle-toting police observe from a corner as the preachers calmly mingle amid the chaotic scene of users seeking a fix.
Some of the preachers know the horror scene well. Not long ago, many were crack addicts themselves.
Now they’re here to preach the Gospel, not pull toxic smoke from a pipe. They talk of God to those who will listen, hoping to find converts, to rescue souls from the crack epidemic that’s swept Brazil in recent years.
Pastor Celio Ricardo, who leads the team of street preachers, has had hit-and-miss success in persuading users to at least try quitting.
He offers them a roof in a makeshift shelter in a nearby neighborhood, a simple structure next to his humble Love of God evangelical church. He relies on donations and handouts from local supermarkets to feed those he is trying to heal.
There, young men sleep side-by-side on plain, raw-wood beds. Clean shirts hang from roof beams, meager belongings gathered tidily on battered dressers.
On a recent day, 25 young men gathered in a circle outside the shelter, lifting their hands to the sky and shouting: “Glory to God! Glory to God!”
Ricardo says the first challenge is taking to care of the physical needs of addicts — only then can they go on to tackle spiritual issues.
“At first they need to rest because this drug leaves them hallucinated,” he says. “They lose hunger, they lose the will to live. They want to drug themselves to death, and here we try to reverse that situation.”
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