“Space for people who are turned away elsewhere”

It's all about God and guitars, salvation and ecstasy: In a Rio slum, an evangelical pastor preaches the gospel with the help of Metallica and Motorhead. In Latin America, the free churches are on the rise – not all of them are as liberal as the Metal Christians.

A brute guitar riff makes the walls tremble. Loud rock music resounds through the room on the second floor of a run-down building in the Mare favela in the poor north of Rio de Janeiro. The notes heavy metal, the lyrics deeply religious. Rogerio Santos pulls out a Bible and begins to pray. While all hell breaks loose musically around him, the cowl-wearer directs his words toward heaven.

House of worship reminiscent of basement club

"There is a great need for spirituality in Mare," the 47-year-old says. In the evangelical church Metanoia (Greek for conversion) he finds the two most important things in his life: "music and religion".

At first glance, the house of worship looks more like a basement club: graffiti and historic record covers by the Ramones, Motorhead and Deep Purple adorn the walls; in one corner are powerful speakers, a drum kit and microphones. But crosses hang from the ceiling. Someone spray-painted "Jesus is Lord of the Underground" in white paint on the wall. "Jesus has won," reads a coffin leaning against the wall.

"God created art and music. The devil creates nothing," says the church's pastor, Enok Galvao de Lima. The fan of Metallica and Rage Against The Machine founded the church almost 30 years ago. "Rock is just a style. You can take hold of this culture."

In Rio, evangelical Christians make up 19 percent

Rio's hard rock church shows the creativity evangelical churches are displaying to attract new followers. "I especially liked the cultural offerings," says teacher Taina Domingues, who has been coming to the services for 13 years. "I feel at home here."

The Catholic Church has recently come under considerable prere in its stronghold of Latin America and is losing more and more followers to the evangelical movements. While 80 percent of Latinos said they liked Rome in 1995, according to Latinobarometro surveys, only 59 percent said so last year. Evangelical Christians already account for 19 percent of the former Catholic bastion.

Abuse scandals like the one in Chile have severely shaken trust in the official church. Moreover, the Catholic Church is perceived by many believers as distant and dogmatic, while the charismatic evangelicals, with their blazing sermons, professional music shows and elaborately choreographed services, offer an emotional religious experience.

Catholic priests are perceived as part of the elite

"The preachers of the Pentecostal churches know how to speak to the faithful, just as people in Latin America speak to each other. And they resemble their congregations. In Guatemala, for example, many preachers are Mayans, in Brazil Afro-Brazilians. By contrast, Catholic Church priests are perceived as part of the elite, says Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The often arch-conservative evangelical churches are also increasingly trying to influence politics. "Their agenda is focused on defending family values. They are against abortion, same-sex marriage, divorce, euthanasia and everything they call gender ideology," says Carlos Malamud of the Spanish research institute Elcano.

Guatemala's President Jimmy Morales is an evangelical Christian, Chile's head of state Sebastian Pinera was elected with the help of influential evangelical churches. Rio de Janeiro's devout mayor Marcelo Crivella was a bishop of a Pentecostal church and attracted attention with disparaging remarks about blacks and homosexuals.

Evangelical votes are hot with politicians

The strong growth in membership of evangelical churches makes them more and more interesting for politicians. "Evangelical votes are highly coveted by all candidates and at least indirectly influence their campaigns," says analyst Malamud.

Not all evangelical movements pursue a conservative agenda. The Rock Church of Rio de Janeiro, for example, sees itself as an advocate for the oppressed and the forgotten. "We're opening a space for people who are turned away elsewhere," says service member Everton Rodrigues. In the streets around the Metanoia alone, there are six other evangelical churches.

For Pastor Enok Galvao de Lima, music is simply a tool for teaching the Gospel and proclaiming the Good News. "I can reach a lot of people with the language of rock," says the devout heavy metalist.

Isaac Risco and Denis Duttmann

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