Israel in Brazil 2023 – Shining Light in the Favelas
By Raphael Almeida
This summer, my family along with discipleship students and members from our community embarked on an extraordinary adventure to serve in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Our mission was to spend ten days serving in the favelas of Rio. We were generously hosted by friends working in these areas, which allowed us to gain a deep insight into the lives of the people living there.
Before we share about our experiences, I would like to share more with you what is a favela. In Brazil, a favela is the term used to describe a slum. These living spaces often spring up as a result of illegal construction in or around major cities. Favelas are stark reminders of the extreme poverty that exists in Brazil. Sometimes, they are just a stone’s throw away from the luxurious homes in the heart of the city. The word “favela” itself is derived from a thorny plant variety, and it was given this name by soldiers who likened their barracks to these thorny plants.
Sadly, alongside poverty, there are high levels of crime and drug-related issues. Many residents find themselves trapped, unable to pursue higher education due to a lack of resources or societal status. This leaves them with two stark choices: to work tirelessly just to survive and provide for their families, or to turn to a life of crime as a means of advancement. This grim reality was our home for ten days, and it left a profound impact on us.
I must mention that this experience was particularly powerful for us because, four years ago, my wife and I had traveled to Brazil alone, serving in the favelas. However, at that time, we were hosted by friends in a prestigious area and returned each day to a comfortable home. While this was enjoyable, it didn’t immerse us in the lives of those living in the favelas as this trip did.
As is customary in Brazilian homes, we were warmly welcomed with large amounts of food and love. Despite our best efforts to serve them, they, in turn, served us generously. From the very first moment in the favela, we developed a deep affection for the children living there. Our activities, in collaboration with local ministries, were centered around sharing the hope found in Jesus.
In our initial meetings, some of our discipleship students were moved to tears witnessing the sheer joy of these children when they welcomed outsiders like us was a stark reminder that we could offer them hope.
We continued our daily interactions with various residents, engaging in different activities to support their needs. One striking aspect was encountering young mothers, some as young as 12-15 years old, who lacked the knowledge and resources to care for their children. The same ministries we worked with provided these women with education, employment opportunities, and spiritual support. It was truly life-changing, and we witnessed God’s work in a remarkable way. the Israeli disciples together with community members became vessels of change, not because of who they were, but because of the light of Jesus they brought to these dark places.
Lastly, in the final favela we visited, where we stayed for 10 days, we experienced a significant moment. We ventured up a hill to a water tower riddled with bullet holes, a testament to the frequent violence in the area. Nearby was a place known as “the microwave,” where criminals would horrifically burn individuals alive for betrayal or gang-related reasons. My children played happily with a butterfly while we prayed. At that moment, the sun started to shine and illuminated the area. This was a prophetic sign for us. It symbolized that even in the darkest corners, the light of Jesus can shine through these little kids that we visited. And, especially when Jews, Arabs, and Brazilians, come together without titles or flags to serve and pray as one united body.
When we arrived in Brazil, we had no idea how profoundly God would touch our hearts. We embarked on this journey with a simple desire to serve and gain a unique experience. However, God worked within us and even touched the hearts of my two and three-year-old children in ways that defy explanation. What we learned in Brazil, we seek to apply here in Israel – a love ready to sacrifice everything, even our comfort and lives, and shine the light of Jesus brightly in our own communities.