Brazil: Rapid urbanisation poses pastoral challenges in the Amazon

Aid to the Church in Need is helping the local Church serve new and growing communities of people who are moving from rural to urban areas, often in poor conditions.

Millions of people continue to flock from rural areas in the remote Amazon region of Brazil to larger cities, hoping to find a better life.

Houses on the River Side of the lake of Tefe.
Houses on the River Side of the lake of Tefe.

According to figures from a recent study by MapBiomas Brasil, a network of NGOs and startups that provides data on land use in the country, six of the 20 cities which have registered highest growth in favelas (shanty towns) over the past 38 years, are in the Amazon region.

Those who leave their ancestral lands hope for success and better economic conditions in the big cities, but these dreams often give way to a life of poverty in rundown shacks with little or no health conditions, built in high-risk areas. The move away from tightknit communities to the relative anonymity of massive shanty towns can also sever ties to local customs and traditions, including faith life.

International Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is helping the local dioceses to keep the faith alive through a series of projects, providing financial aid to missionary groups that work in big cities and in their peripheries. The pontifical foundation also provides financial aid for the formation of 66 seminarians, who represent the future of the Church in the region.

A lose-lose situation

Many families living in these impoverished regions of Brazil are left with little or no choice but to move to the big cities. Jenisângela Rosa, from Shalom, one of the missionary movements that ACN helps, tells the charity about one particularly difficult case they had to deal with recently.

“We worked with a family, a couple with five children, expecting their sixth, who worked on a ranch over two hours from the nearest maternity, and with no transport system and no schools. Before she was able to get to the city for her appointment at the maternity, the mother went into labour. She and the baby almost died. After this terrible experience they decided to move back to the city. We helped them, and found the husband a job, and a safe place to live, but it is not big enough for the family, so we are trying to do more”, she explains.

Formation of catechists in Belém do Pará.
Formation of catechists in Belém do Pará.

“Church organisations and the authorities need to search for ways to provide families with access to basic services in their homelands, because often it is situations like these that force them to emigrate to the cities, as they have to choose between access to education, health and food, and remaining connected to their traditions and way of life. Either way, they are deprived of their fundamental rights”, says the Shalom missionary.

Seeds that bear fruit

Manaus, the capital of the Amazon region, has a population of two million. Sister Myriam, who heads another missionary group supported by ACN, Comunidade Sementes do Verbo (Seeds of the Word Community), explains that their work in Manaus involves “cooperating with the local Church through support and training, increasing the number of pastoral agents for evangelisation. This allows the Church to provide a more efficient response among the urban population, which is often lacking in moral and spiritual values”.

Adults who move to the big cities have to work long hours to make a living, and not much time is left to care for children, who can fall prey to the common traps of drug use, sexual promiscuity and criminality. “We have missionary teams that carry out social and evangelisation work with children, adolescents, youth, adults and families, and this has contributed to their human and spiritual formation, as well as promoting integration and values. Our mission is to give them formation regarding drug use, or to help them overcome addiction. Our missionaries spread the faith, but also work on forming a Christian outlook that helps them to mature and deal with personal trauma, and to begin again through a personal experience with God, with themselves and with the Church”.

However, their work also takes place downstream, literally, working with approximately 35,000 riverside rural communities that live in the interior of the Amazon jungle “to reduce the migratory exodus which leads so many to leave their homelands. Of these people, around one million have no-one close to them who could introduce them to the Gospel – for us this is an important challenge to respond to”, she says.

Seminarians of Dom Vicente Zico with Bishop Carlos Verzeletti.
Seminarians of Dom Vicente Zico with Bishop Carlos Verzeletti.

Sister Myriam explains that 20 young men are currently training to be priests in the Dom Vicente Zico Seminary – of the Archdiocese of Belém do Pará, supported by international charity ACN, to place themselves at the service of the Church and the local community to which they are sent, to work with those who need it most, giving them access to the Word of God. “We had one ordination in 2023, and in 2024, by the grace of God, we will have five more”.

Executive president of ACN, Regina Lynch confirms the importance of ACN help to the pastoral attention in areas of urban growth and poverty in Brazil: “I visited some very poor areas, which even the police don’t dare enter, and I was so impressed by the new ecclesial movements, including consecrated laity and priests who live in these slums with the people, doing work of evangelisation, including with schools, and who are widely respected by the population.”

 

By Filipe d’Avillez.

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