This year's Week of Prayer for International Missions, November 30 through December 7, focuses on missionaries who serve in South America as well as churches partnering with them, exemplifying the global outreach supported by Southern Baptists' gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. This year's theme is "GO TELL the story of Jesus," and the national offering goal is $170 million.
International Mission Board missionary Eric Reese taps on the interior ceiling light, illuminating the cab of his Chevy pickup. He doesn't need to see inside his vehicle. But after six years of working with the urban poor in the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he knows those outside the cab need to see in.
Eric slows the truck to a stop. A man steps toward the open, driver-side window and cocks an AK-47.
"Calma, calma," Eric says. "We just finished an evangelistic presentation. We're just leaving."
When the traficante (drug dealer) steps away from the window and waves him on, Eric, 42, puts the truck in gear and moves.
It's 9:20 p.m. With his truck windows open, Eric can't mistake the sound of gunshots echoing through the favela as he heads home to his wife, Ramona, and their two children.
With frequent shootouts, prostitution, and drug trafficking in the streets, the slums are no place for children. But Eric came this evening with the sole purpose of sharing the Gospel with the kids there.
"If you can reach those kids," he says, "you can change that neighborhood."
It won't be until 1 a.m. that Eric receives a phone call, identifying the shots he heard as those of a drug dealer protecting his turf. Sitting at his computer in the wee hours, Eric will read the latest headlines about a shootout that began in the "City of God" with the distant shots he heard earlier.
"I believe that God honored our presence here," says Eric, who is from Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia. "If God can open the water of the Red Sea and say, 'My people pass through,' God can say, 'Y'all will not fight now.' I think the grace of God said 'Calma.' I believe that."
Eric's work for the day is done, but his work in the slum communities of Rio de Janeiro is far from finished.
"In these communities, it's an ugly evil you've got to deal with," he says, "but you've just got to deal with it. We can't stand here and just let these people shoot and kill each other without the Gospel being preached."
Seeing past the violence and corruption of life in the favelas is an ongoing challenge. But the same self-destruction that hinders some from coming to Christ is precisely what compels the Reeses to share in earnest.
"Communicating the Gospel with these folks cannot wait until tomorrow," Eric says. "You've got to share it with them today because you don't know what their tomorrow holds."
Pastor Javier Ysuiza of Central Baptist Church in Rio de Janeiro understands this sense of urgency. He is working to plant another Baptist church in the heart of the favela.
"Even though this particular location is the most dangerous in the area, this is the exact reason why I need to be here," Javier says.
Believers step past a drug dealer with a gun slung over his shoulder outside Missão Batista Reviver. They gather to pray inside this Baptist church — the third to open its doors in the City of God. Javier prays alongside fellow believers for the new church. He wants to see Christ transform lives here. For him, in spite of the violence outside these walls, the church cannot be confined to them. It is what believers do with the Gospel once they leave the security of the church that matters most.
When twenty-six-year-old Ciro Montes asked Eric for help in 2003 to establish a club for young Christian singles, he immediately agreed. After many of the young people there began to be receptive to the Gospel, Eric challenged Ciro to take the Gospel to the streets.
When Ciro then asked to borrow blood pressure cuffs, haircutting scissors, and sound equipment, Eric was curious.
It wasn't until he went into the favela to help unload the equipment that Eric understood what the young people were doing. By offering free haircuts, blood pressure readings, and other social services, the young people offered residents an evangelistic presentation.
"I was just about knocked off my feet," Eric says. "That's what the life of a missionary is all about: influencing the national to do what he has the God-given ability to do."
To learn how you can be involved in reaching South America for Christ, go to samregion.org. Visit going.imb.org for other volunteer opportunities.
Kristen Hiller is a member of Missio Church in Syracuse, New York, and is a writer for the SBC International Mission Board.