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Brazil’s Women of Virtue

Reporting from inside Brazil's evangelical churches


This is the fourth in a series of articles written and published in Portuguese by Agência Pública, São Paulo, translated and published in English by LAB.

Translated by Tom Gatehouse. You can read the original, published in May 2019, here.

In Damares Alves, Minister for Women, Family and Human Rights, Brazil’s evangelical churches have a representative at the very heart of government. To understand what these churches expect of their female worshippers, three Agência Pública reporters attended services and events during 2019.

After a long wait in just one of many queues formed entirely by women, I open my bag, to be searched carefully by a girl with a smile on her face and a torch in her hand. “Sorry love, you can’t bring mobile phones inside. You can put it in our cloakroom downstairs”, she says, indicating the stairs with her torch.

Two more queues and another hour later – we also have to go through a metal detector – I enter the immense Templo de Salomão, global headquarters of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, located in São Paulo. I’m here for what’s known as the “Self-help meeting”, a quarterly event exclusively for women.

Templo de Salomão. Image: Demetrio Koch

As soon as one of the tunic-clad employees opens the doors, I see the altar in the distance. It has a golden arch with giant angels and four big screens – two of which are cinema-sized – showing a video of bishop Edir Macedo praying ardently on his knees. Macedo founded the church and still leads it today.

The temple is dim; the only light comes from 12 replica menorahs attached to the walls, each of them five metres high and weighing 300 kilos. Once the women have settled, the video is switched off, 10,000 LED lights in the ceiling of the main nave come on, and none other than Edir Macedo himself appears to take charge of proceedings.

In the Universal Church, only men can be pastors and bishops. Even so, the night I was there, the 10,000 seats in the Templo de Salamão were all occupied by women and many others were standing.

According to the 2010 census, women make up most of Brazil’s evangelical population: 55.57% of 42.3 million people. And with a congregation 59% female, the Universal Church – one of Brazil’s biggest religious organisations – has the highest proportion of women amongst the various evangelical denominations.

It is also a key supporter of Jair Bolsonaro. Not only did the church throw its weight behind him during the presidential election campaign of 2018, the Brazilian Republican Party (PRB), one of the parties supporting Bolsonaro in Congress, is led by a Universal bishop.

Following his election, Bolsonaro appointed the evangelical pastor Damares Alves to head the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights. This January, she announced her intention to implement abstinence-based sex education in a bid to bring down Brazil’s high rates of teenage pregnancy.

To try and understand how much Alves’ religious beliefs are shaping policy, a team of Pública reporters attended conferences and lectures aimed at evangelical women throughout 2019. We listened to testimony from regular and former churchgoers, as well as female pastors from a wide range of denominations.

“False values of Hollywood”

Bishop Macedo begins the event by showing a photo of a couple taken from Facebook on one of the big screens.

“Look how happy they are. Look at how he’s showing her off, how proud he is”, he says. Then a video filmed on a mobile phone plays, showing a man entering a car, which is in flames, and quickly burning to death. “That man, who went into that burning car, is the man from the photo. He caught his wife with another man. He lost the will to live. So my question to you is, what about his soul?”

The sermon continues, with Macedo telling the women that a single word is enough to destroy a marriage; that they shouldn’t be anxious (“anxiety is the spirit of the Devil”); and, that if we want to find a Prince Charming, we’ll have to ask the King [Jesus Christ], because if we’re anxious, the Devil will send his own prince and we’ll end up getting a beating every day.

Macedo also says that women should marry men who are their cultural and financial superiors, because it’s the man who must be the breadwinner.

“If you’re the provider, your marriage is doomed to failure,” he says. The man must be the head of the union, the woman, the body. “My wife replaced my mother; she looks after me and I give her the best of everything. In marriage, the man is Jesus and the woman is the Church.”

There are a few appeals for tithes and offerings, with some pointed reminders of the luxury of our surroundings: “Are you comfortable? Well this place has costs of more than R$5 million [£873,000] a month.” Annotated bibles and other accessories are sold.

Then comes the phrase that would mark the evening. Calling to the front anyone who wants to receive a blessing, the bishop says, “You who suffered abuse as a child, Jesus forgives you.”

This self-help meeting forms part of a Universal programme aimed at women entitled “Godllywood”, which was created in 2010 by Cristiane Cardoso, Edir Macedo’s daughter.

Cardoso has also written books dealing with the theme of the virtuous woman, while alongside her husband, the bishop Renato Cardoso, she presents TV programmes with English-language titles which provide relationship advice to heterosexual couples.

According to the official website, “Godllywood was born out of a revolt against the false values our society has acquired from Hollywood. Our work, our main objective, is to help young women become exemplary, free from the influence and impositions of Hollywood, developing family links which have been lost in recent years.”

In practice, it’s a kind of sorority with a competitive element to it, in which women and girls, divided by age, have to carry out daily, weekly, and monthly tasks. These range from avoiding carbohydrates and doing their hair and nails to looking after the home and cooking dinner for their husbands. Those who break the rules are expelled from the group.

There are also more specific courses, for instance, for women suffering from domestic violence.

The brides of Christ

Mother, in blood or in spirit; honoured wife, whether by consecrated union or by destiny; eternal bride of Lord Jesus Christ. These are the main criteria on what constitutes being a woman, according to the three evangelical churches which I attended last May – including the Igreja Batista da Lagoinha, where Damares Alves still preaches.

“No-one here thinks that men have to wash their own clothes, right?” asks the teacher Fernanda Lellis, provoking a flutter of condescending laughter amongst nearly 60 women gathered on the top floor of the Templo de Salomão. “A woman’s duty is to care, to make food, to keep things tidy. First, she has to live up to her role, make the man happy; that way, he’ll treat her well. Unfortunately that’s just how it is; we’re more resilient.”

Lellis, who teaches the Project Raabe Self-Knowledge Course, created to help women who have suffered from problems such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, or mental illness, quotes from Ephesians 5:22-24: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.”

Raabe Self-Knowledge Course diagram.

“Be better! Change what it means to be a woman!” she concludes.

Lellis describes the mentors on Project Raabe as “beautiful women”, but says that when they arrived in the church, they were depressive, had been victims of violence, or were even traumatised by memories of rapes suffered as children. “Today they’re all workers, church singers or wives of pastors,” she says.

Though I was received by one of these friendly mentors at the Templo de Salomão, it became quickly clear that Lellis was just a mediator. The true teacher appears only via video link.

From her office, Cristiane Cardoso spends ten minutes explaining how “self-knowledge” had been key to saving her marriage.

“I didn’t know about my flaws, my insecurities. I thought the only way to solve my problems was if other people changed. We think that others are to blame, never ourselves.” She goes on to describe the attacks of jealousy she felt, comparing her experience to that of women who had suffered from domestic violence.

“Wise women build their house, and in doing this course you are being wise,” she says in her third video workshop, going on to stress that women were created to help in the correct way and with the correct characteristics. This entails, for example, taking care of their appearance, as well as not staking any claim to their independence.

“Over the years, women have been losing these characteristics, developing various defects. If you don’t understand the correct role of women, you will suffer,” she states, firmly.

This argument is quickly taken up by Lellis, who says that the first lie that the world tells women is that they are equal to men. “Today women are ‘empowered’, and that’s why so many of us are depressed, suffering, killing ourselves.”

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The discourse was similar during the three-hour service for women that I attended at Igreja Renascer. Between singing hymns and a raffle for cosmetics, nearly 30 women present listen to a testimony from a woman who had quit her job to set up a successful business selling accessories.

When she says that today she is financially speaking “the man of the house”, the pastor Edilene Gimenez speaks up.

“I had always earnt more than my husband. When I converted, I prayed for God to help him professionally, and I promised that when that happened, I would dedicate my life to the church.” So as soon her husband – a bishop at Renascer – set up a business that looked like it might prosper, Edilene quit her job, heeding her husband’s advice that she didn’t need to work anymore.

“Our first duty is to look after our family. You might not be a mother who has brought forth children, but you bring forth spiritual fruit. You are all spiritual mothers,” says the pastor.

The evangelical churches reserve the role of “brides of Jesus” for single women, explain the pastors at the Igreja Batista de Lagoinha – colleagues of Damares Alves.

“The Lord sees the church as his bride and he sees us as brides of Jesus”, says the pastor Vanessa Santos, as she asks the nearly 40 women present – most of them young – to hold hands and repeat aloud: “Woman, you’re not alone, you’re a bride!”

Vanessa Batista, another pastor invited to speak at the event, focuses on female etiquette. “It’s very important that we look cheerful and take care of our physique”, she recommends. “A cheerful woman changes the atmosphere of the home. So does a grumpy one.”

Procession of ‘brides of Christ’ at Lagoinha Baptist Church. Image: Julia Dolce/Agência Pública

After the service at the church in central São Paulo, there is a surprise bridal parade. An aisle illuminated by neon lights and marked out by large bouquets of white roses is the scene for the brides’ marriage to Christ. The women parade to the sound of international hymns, while the audience enthusiastically applaud each new bride, dressed in white.

It was mission accomplished: the young women and girls present were dazzled by the sparkle of a marriage blessed by God.

A language of control

Jacqueline Moraes Teixeira, an anthropologist, a professor at the Universidade de São Paulo (USP) and a researcher at the Brazilian Centre of Analysis and Planning (Cebrap), has been studying gender issues in evangelical churches since 2010.

For her, beyond the clearly demarcated gender roles – the authoritative man and the submissive woman – the rules imposed by programmes like Godllywood (which are reproduced in different ways in other denominations) aim to administer all areas of women’s lives – not just the spiritual. Control – self-control in various ways – is how this works in practice.

“This language of control doesn’t only exist in the churches; it’s present in the way we think about today’s world. Perhaps the difference is that in Brazil, the churches take responsibility for this management, they help people to develop the habit of self-control. People begin to set themselves challenges – and it’s not about spending x hours praying or memorizing verses from the Bible. The challenge is to lose weight, monitor the time you spend on social networks and domestic chores, control your expenses. In other words, it’s the whole moralisation of daily life”, she explains.

This life administration features in testimonies of success, which are important tools for the evangelical churches. “You spend the whole time following these rules. So when people talk about it, they’re going to say how much weight they’ve lost, or how they managed to open a business, or that they’ve started a relationship. So conversion is the recovery of civil life – not religious life.”

This “testimony”, which we listened to at the services and workshops we attended over the course of these months, is also a strong feature of speeches by Damares Alves, as Jacqueline recognises.

“She has admitted that she suffered sexual abuse as a child. On these courses and programmes, it’s very common for women to admit that they were abused in childhood. They say that they only managed to regain stability upon conversion. Likewise, Damares says that her conversion was what allowed her to take control of her life. And that’s always the point of these testimonies.

Hers is a discourse of victory. After her conversion she went into politics, becoming a parliamentary assistant and eventually a minister. This is a wonderful testimony; according to this logic, it’s the story of a life that came good.

People say lots of things about her. Personally, I’m very uncomfortable with what she says. It’s tough seeing someone who takes the positions she does in a public role of such importance. But for thousands of women, she represents a story of overcoming.”

An afternoon with Pastor Damares’ disciple

Doutora Damares, we’re with you! For life, for childhood and for the family. Together, we’re stronger”, shouted a choir formed mainly by teachers, at the Assembleia de Deus church in Contagem, in the Belo Horizonte metropolitan region.

Tia Jô and Damares Alves. Image: from Facebook

It was a Sunday afternoon. The church was packed; hundreds of women had turned up for a conference entitled “Connect and Shepherd Kids – Defenders of a Generation in Danger!” Damares Alves was due to speak, alongside the missionary Joani Bentes, better known as “Tia Jô” [“Aunt Jô”].

The event poster showed what each speaker would discuss. Tia Jô would promote creative teaching methods, therapeutic bible stories, and music education for children, while Alves would talk about the sexualisation of children, mistreatment and abuse, paedophilia, and “gender ideology”.

But on the eve of the conference, those who had registered received a video on WhatsApp informing them that Alves had pulled out.

“We fought for her to be here with us, but the people at the ministry wouldn’t give her permission to travel, preach in the pulpit of a church, face the public, given the number of threats she’s suffered”, says Tia Jô.

It fell to her to pass on the teachings of Alves, whom she calls her “mentor”. Before Alves joined the Bolsonaro administration, the two women travelled Brazil together giving lectures to educators at Assembleia de Deus services. Now 45, Joani Bentes has been a missionary for 27 years.

On her CV, she describes herself as a Christian educator, an international conference speaker, radio and television presenter, a writer (with three books published), and a singer (with five CDs and ten DVDs recorded).

She looks like a kids’ TV presenter. She was wearing a blue circle skirt with white polka dots and a yellow Conectar Kids T-shirt. Her hair was in pigtails, tied with flowers. She gives her presentation almost entirely in baby talk – except when she delivers Alves’ material, after showing a video recorded by Alves in Brasília apologising for her absence.

“These days have been very difficult for me. I accepted the invitation to become a minister thinking particularly about protecting the children and adolescents of this country. I want to bring everything I’ve preached my whole life to this ministry. The challenges I face are many. You have no idea how great these challenges have been, but the attacks have been even greater,” says Alves. “If it depends on me, no child will be abused in Brazil. If it depends on me, no child will be hurt or buried alive, as happens in some villages in Brazil.”

“Ah, Bolsonaro won, he’s in favour of childhood and the family. The war has only just begun, people. Now the war has begun, it’s time to pray more, to work harder”, says Tia Jô at the end of the video.

Poster for the Conectar Kids Project.

In the material given to the participants, Alves identifies “gender ideology” as “one of the most terrible forms of violence against our little ones”. She highlights four topics that “gender ideology” defends which she claims are present in teaching materials and education policy in Brazil today.

These are: deconstruction of the natural family, deconstruction of heteronormativity, the right of the child to sexual pleasure, and identity deconstruction and subversion (confusion regarding biological identity).

In order to combat “gender ideology”, Alves’ instructions to the teachers include asking children to bring their school rucksacks to church, so their books and teaching materials can be analysed; instructing parents to inform schools that they don’t want their children learning about “gender ideology”; holding dolls’ tea parties and princess church services for girls, while encouraging boys to play with toy cars; advising parents on clothing for girls and games and jokes for boys, emphasizing the need to reinforce traditional gender roles; and contextualising the stories and games in church, always taking care to highlight that some toys are for girls, while others are for boys.

Alves claims that faith amongst children and adolescents is under attack at schools. “Note that the law stipulates teaching about indigenous and Afro culture, but unfortunately many teachers are flouting this law by teaching indigenous and Afro religion,” her text says.

After Tia Jô has dealt with all these themes from Alves’ presentation, there’s a break for refreshments. She then returns with her own content, with creative methods to help teachers address religious issues with children.

“I can talk about protection, taking my Adam and Eve dolls and showing how God covered them up, to protect their intimate parts,” she says. “And there are so many other stories that show us the theme of protection within the word of God.” She finishes her presentation by telling some bible stories with recyclable dolls – “inspiration for child educators”.

The event finished punctually at 6pm. From Contagem, Tia Jô immediately departed on missionary work to the sertão – the arid outback of the Brazilian northeast – in the state of Bahia.

Agência Pública

Agencia Pubica Blog Latin America Bureau

Founded in 2011 by women journalists, Agência Pública is the first non-profit agency for investigative journalism in Brazil. Their courageous public-interest reports have been republished by over 900 outlets in the past year, under Creative Commons agreements. You can find English translations of our collaborative picks from Agência Pública’s coverage, below.

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