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Brazilian evangelical Christians disrupt pre-Lenten partying with ‘Gospel Carnival’

by California Digital News

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A dancer from the Tom Maior samba school performs during a Carnival parade in Sao Paulo, Brazil, early Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

A dancer from the Tom Maior samba school performs during a Carnival parade in São Paulo, Brazil, early Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

SÃO PAULO (RNS) — The massive Saturnalia of the Brazilian Carnival, the five days of festivities, parades and public debauchery leading up to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, has not historically been a scene for the country’s evangelical Christians. While Brazilians around the country dress in costumes and dance to Afro-Brazilian beats, especially samba, traditional church faiths organize spiritual retreats, hoping to lure churchgoers away from the lustful partying.

But in the past few years, evangelicals, who make up about 30% of Brazil’s population, have taken a new tack, working to short-circuit the festival with displays of Christian faith.

That strategy was behind a major incident at this year’s Carnival, which ended Wednesday (Feb. 14), in the coastal city of Salvador when Ivete Sangalo, a star of axé, a music genre that combines reggae and samba, among other rhythms, saluted Baby do Brasil, a rock legend from the 1970s who converted to Evangelicalism in the 1990s. Interrupting the concert in full swing on her “trio elétrico” — a parade float with a powerful sound system that draws hundreds of partygoers, Sangalo turned the mic over to Baby, who unexpectedly called on the audience to repent.

“Everyone must pay attention because we are getting closer to the apocalypse,” she said, to Sangalo’s apparent surprise. “The rapture has everything to happen between five and 10 years. Seek the Lord while you can.”



When Sangalo replied, quoting her hit “Banging,” that her fans would “bang” the apocalypse, a double-entendre in Brazilian Portuguese as in English, a video of the brief exchange went viral, with some Brazilians criticizing Baby’s speech as inappropriate for Carnival, and others, including many Evangelicals, calling Sangalo disrespectful of Christians.

The next day, an accident involving Sangalo’s float injured two people, which some evangelicals deemed an act of divine justice.

A woman holds up her son, dressed as Simba from the Lion King, during the "Ceu na Terra" or Heaven on Earth pre-Carnival street party, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Bruna Prado)

A woman holds up her son, dressed as Simba from “The Lion King,” during the “Ceu na Terra,” or Heaven on Earth pre-Carnival street party, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Bruna Prado)

Political scientist Joscimar Silva, a professor at the University of Brasilia who studies evangelicals’ rise in Brazilian politics, said Baby’s intervention echoes evangelicals’ past attempts to organize Gospel Carnival parades in Rio de Janeiro and other cities. “Evangelical groups developed strategies like this three or four decades ago,” but, Silva said, the current dispute represents a wider campaign evangelicals are waging in Brazil’s culture war.

“They believe there are social segments that are very hard to reach, so a spiritual war is necessary. Their logic is to occupy spaces with their own Gospel culture, including schools and universities, the music industry and popular festivities,” he said. The strategy aims to convert and enlist music stars, actors and celebrities such as Baby do Brasil.

Silva traces the strategy to Brazilian evangelicals’ contacts with the late Pentecostal pastor Morris Cerullo, who bought Jim Bakker’s televangelism network, PTL, in 1990 and renamed it The Inspiration Network. Before his death in 2020, Cerullo traveled extensively in Latin America and Asia. Cerullo’s ideas, the professor said, convinced Brazilian evangelicals to expand their presence in politics, and with their backing, Jair Bolsonaro was elected president in 2018. 

Bolsonaro, in turn, favored evangelical causes, including such cultural events as Carnival. “The Carnival in Campina Grande, a city in Paraíba, an eastern Brazilian state, became mostly a religious event,” Silva said.

One of the most active groups during Carnival has been Jovens com uma Missão, known as JOCUM, the Brazilian branch of the U.S. organization Youth With A Mission.

A photo from a Jovens com uma Missão Instagram account showing participants in a 2024 Carnival parade in Ouro Preto, Brazil. (Screen grab)

A photo from a Jovens com uma Missão Instagram account showing participants in a 2024 Carnival parade in Ouro Preto, Brazil. (Screen grab)

According to Thiago Oliveira Carvalho, a missionary who has been working with the group for 25 years, JOCUM has been taking part in Carnival celebrations for 40 years and sees popular events, such as Carnival, as “a great opportunity to announce the Gospel to people who need a genuine encounter with Jesus.”

“People go to those parties looking for happiness. But all the Carnival offers is a temporary joy. We understand that sick people are the ones who need a doctor. That’s why we decided to be present there,” he told Religion News Service.

In cities like Ouro Preto (in Minas Gerais state), JOCUM organizes a “bloco,” a bloc of festivalgoers who sing and play typical Carnival instruments but represent the church. “People don’t expect that somebody will talk about Jesus amid that party. But that’s what Jesus used to do,” Carvalho said.

Bola de Neve Church, or Snowball Church, is another group that has been present at Carnival festivities. Its bloco in Rio de Janeiro made the news this year for its large phalanx of drummers. While most blocos feature marchers wearing sexy outfits and drinking alcohol, everybody in Bola de Neve’s bloco wore T-shirts and showed no sign of inebriation.

These “Gospel Carnival” activities are regarded with concern by leaders of African Brazilian religions such as Candomblé and Umbanda. Carnival parades are deeply rooted in these faiths, which mix African spirituality with European Christianity. Samba, the music at the heart of Carnival, originated in Candomblé communities, while axé is a Yoruba word for “life force,” a significant concept in Candomblé.

Ivanir dos Santos, a Candomblé leader and scholar in Rio de Janeiro, calls the Gospel Carnival movement “cultural expropriation.” 

“They want to make the Gospel culture a central element in Brazil, so they take African Brazilian manifestations and drain them out of their original meaning in order to fill them with Gospel contents,” he said. 

Dos Santos said the dynamic can be seen in the changes axé singer Claudia Leitte, an evangelical convert, made to the lyrics of her popular song celebrating Iemanjá, a Condomblé deity, replacing “Iemanjá” with “Yeshua.”



Márcio de Jagun, a writer and Candomblé leader who teaches Yoruba at Fluminense University in Rio de Janeiro, said the resistance to the Gospel movement is growing in the samba schools and other popular groups that sponsor the Carnival parades.

“The samba schools have been more and more prone to work in their African roots in parades. Themes connected to Black empowerment and African Brazilian religions have been dominating the Carnival in Rio over the past few years,” he told RNS.

De Jagun emphasized that this year’s champion in Rio’s Carnival, the samba school Unidos do Viradouro, organized a whole parade about voduns, the deities of Jeje, a major Condomblé tradition. “That response has been fruitful and is generating remarkable parades,” he said.

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