My Reflections on Rio – "Cidade Maravilhosa" – A Marvelous (But Troubled) City in the International Spotlight

Editorial note: One of the largest Brazilian immigrant populations in the U.S. is concentrated in greater Boston. One of the original CTK congregations that meets in Cambridge is made up of Portuguese-speaking first generation Brazilian immigrants. Many of these folks are established in Boston and have Brazilian-American children and grandchildren. Many different cultural backgrounds, Portuguese accents and customs are represented in this diverse body of believers as it reflects the many regions and cultures of Brazil. The transition from their former life to the U.S. is a daily joy and dynamic characteristic of the CTK Cambridge Portuguese-speaking congregation.

As the opening ceremony unfolded Friday night, the history of Brazil came alive through music, visual performance and dance. All of the elements of a post-colonial nation were well represented; the indigenous past, colonization, the tragedies of the slave trade and the waves of immigrants from three other continents of the world. However, it was Brazil’s contemporary story that took center stage. 

We saw the culture that rose from the favelas - the immense slums that cover the surface of the mountains and slopes surrounding the most prestigious neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro. Favelas are home to almost 1.5 million people, making up 25% of the city’s total population. These gritty urban communities, peppering the glittering skyline like waves of edgy colorful mosaics, reflect the extreme paradoxes and disappointments that confront not only the people of Rio, but the entire territory of Brazil, home to over 200 million. 

From Brazil’s extensive carnival celebrations to television soap operas, eclectic musical rhythms and dramatic comedies, it is certainly apparent in every cultural manifestation, that Brazilians love and excel in putting on a scintillating and dramatic performance. Unfortunately, the dream of putting on the best show Rio could offer the world by hosting the Olympic games, has instead been tainted and marred by frustration and anger. In the midst of the Olympic preparations, Brazil has been dealing with some of it’s worst political scandals and economic woes in recent history.  

It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for the missionaries who first arrived in Brazil in the early 19th century. My great grandfather Howard Lehman, a Pennsylvania native, was one of those evangelists to reach the remote areas of Southeast Brazil in the early 20th century. He and his wife Ada Lehman met at Moody Bible Institute and moved to Brazil under the Methodist Church. Grandpa Howard walked long treacherous roads and swam across rivers to preach the gospel in the remote countryside of Southern Brazil. I can only imagine his joy in witnessing the growth of evangelicalism in Brazil in the last 40 years. Yet, the cry for a redemptive story is as loud and desperate as ever, still echoing from the Maracanã on Friday night as Andrade’s poem rang through the stadium. The desperation for a fully restored world in the midst of humanity’s brokenness is obvious, “It's ugly. But it's a flower. It breached the asphalt”. Brazil is in desperate need of the powerful seed of the gospel.

As we long to experience a full redemption story in our own lives, and observe its impact in the world around us, I’d like to offer a glimpse on the beauty of Brazil by explaining some of the cultural elements present at the opening ceremony. And in the midst of the unmet expectations, exhilaration and thrill of the Olympics, I’d also like to offer ways on how to pray for Rio during the games. 

In the opening ceremony Rio was often referred to as the cidade maravilhosa, literally translated as the “marvelous city”, coined after André Filho’s composition of the musical arrangement “Cidade Maravilhosa” dedicated to the city of Rio for the 1935 carnival. The cariocas are natives of Rio de Janeiro. The city has a distinct culture, and cariocas are often referred to as joyful, creative, fun loving, humorous people who deal bravely with the hardships and tragedy of the cidade maravilhosa. The samba is a musical genre and dance sung with choral verses and a percussion ensemble called the batucada. The capoeira is a martial art expressed through a mix of music, dance and acrobatics brought to Brazil through the West African slave trade; it is believed the slaves used the art form as a way to train and protect themselves from their masters. Saudade is a noun unique to Portuguese with no direct translation in any other language. Saudade expresses a deep feeling of longing and nostalgia for something loved that one no longer experiences. Bossa Nova is the synchronized musical style that combines jazz rhythms with samba to form a melodious, warm, calm and often melancholic sound. For more on the classical bossa nova, and how the nostalgic feelings of saudade have shaped the poetry and musical form, see the carioca composer Vinicius de Moraes

Here are a few ways to pray for Brazil and Rio during the Olympics: 

  • Pray for the plight of the evangelical church in Brazil. Brazil has seen rapidly growing numbers of evangelicals in a predominantly catholic and syncretistic country in the last 40 years, but depth and maturity of doctrine and faithful leadership have continued to assail Brazilian evangelicalism
  • The spread of the gospel; for the efforts of those working towards the advancement of the gospel and that the witness of Christian athletes would be a light to the nations through this global event.
  • The safety and well-being of athletes, professionals, tourists, and locals in Rio during the games. Rio is one of the most violent cities in the world with extremely high crime and murder rates.
  • Pray against the exploitation of women and minors, as human rights violations are predicted to be on an all-time high during the games. A rise in forced labor, sex trafficking and child prostitution is expected.
  • The containment and eradication of Zika and Dengue fever
  • For the people of Brazil who face hopelessness in the midst of political, economic and social turmoil in the ensuing chaos of the political establishment. 
  • For law enforcement and criminal justice in Brazil and the professionals who are aggressively bringing to justice the systematic political corruption that has reached unprecedented levels in the last decade. Judge Sergio Moro is one of these leading figures, prosecuting the corruption scandal dubbed “Operation car-wash” that has indirectly implicated the now impeached president Dilma Rousseff.  
  • The Brazilian immigrant community spread throughout the world. An estimated 1 million Brazilians currently live in the United States, having fled in significant numbers since the 1980’s, a phenomena known as the “Brazilian diaspora”. These immigrants face a myriad of hardships as they seek refuge from the socio-economic crisis that has assailed Brazil for the past 40 years.  

Finally, let us remember to pray for our own stories and those that we share with our most vulnerable neighbors; the immigrants, refugees, the displaced, as well as the sick and downtrodden. As we await our eternal dwelling in this temporary exile, may we find ways to celebrate the gospel story with joy in the midst of these and other untold stories of the Olympic games. As we celebrate and enjoy our favorite sports, may we also be reminded of those who quietly suffer behind the curtains of the Olympic spectacle.

Brenda Souto was born in Brazil, spent her childhood in Portugal, and also lived in Italy and South Florida before moving to Boston in 2013. She has been a member of CTK Cambridge since October 2015 and has recently completed an MBA at Boston College.