RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (BP)--A nearby explosion sent missionaries ducking for cover at a Thanksgiving celebration in Rio de Janeiro on Nov. 25.
Unharmed, the International Mission Board families watched as a dark plume of smoke rose 50 feet into the air from a bus burning on the next street. A young man had thrown a homemade explosive device onto the bus before speeding away on a motorcycle.
Ironically, the explosion interrupted IMB missionary Eric Reese as he was urging fellow missionaries to take added safety precautions amid escalating violence in the city.
"It was an intense moment," said Reese, a Georgia native. "Not just for me and my family but for all the missionaries that were there. It was pretty crazy."
Because Rio de Janeiro is hosting some of soccer's World Cup games in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, city officials are under pressure to create a more secure environment for international visitors. Toward that end, Brazilian police recently invaded 13 gang-controlled favelas (slums).
Gangs of drug dealers fought back, though, firing on police and burning cars and buses in the streets. Reese has heard reports that gang leaders are even trying to involve slum residents in the violence by offering 200 Brazilian reals ($116) to people who blow up cars and 500 reals ($290) to people who blow up buses.
"The city was in terror," Reese said. "Everybody felt like they didn't know where they could travel.... So there is a call to prayer in the city to pray that innocent people would not be shot by stray bullets and lose their lives."
Reese has heard the violence already has claimed innocent lives, and he reported that the death toll since the conflict began was up to 49. Still, he sees this as an opportunity to spread the Gospel.
Complexo do Alemão, the second-largest favela in Rio, has been controlled by more than 500 machine gun-carrying drug dealers for the past 30 years. But on Nov. 28, military forces joined the police to reclaim that community.
"It was a major operation invading the second-largest favela," Reese said. "The police were happy when they didn't have much resistance from the drug dealers."
As gangs move out of Complexo do Alemão, Reese wants to move in with the Gospel. Home to thousands of people, Complexo do Alemão has only one Baptist mission congregation.
But the removal of the gangs from Complexo do Alemão has given Christian evangelists more freedom to move through the neighborhood than they have had in three decades.
"We need to get the Gospel in that place," Reese said.
Reese shared three specific requests for prayer as IMB missionaries continue to minister in Rio de Janeiro despite the danger.
First, pray for God to calm the people in the city. Second, ask God to grant clarity of mind for missionaries as they decide how to proceed. And third, pray for the love of Jesus Christ to be shown to the favela residents.
"It's like Jesus said, 'I will make you fishermen of men.' We need to be fishermen of souls," Reese said. "Because if we don't, what will happen? Other drug dealers will come in. We need to take advantage and try to show people they can enjoy the peace of God and peace of mind."
For Reese's work in the slums, Rio awarded him the 2008 Pedro Ernesto Medal of Merit, the highest honor conferred by the city to its citizens and foreigners who have rendered meritorious service. He and his wife Ramona have served with the IMB in South America for 11 years.
Tristan Taylor writes for the International Mission Board.
Copyright (c) 2010 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net