RIO DE JANEIRO (BP) -- After seven years on the streets, Marcelo Gomes* had seen enough. He'd witnessed too many fellow crack addicts brutally murdered at the hands of the drug lords who ruled Rio's favelas (slums). If he didn't do something soon, he might be next.
Stealing was an automatic death sentence -- especially from a dealer. More often, executions were ordered when addicts, desperate for crack, robbed each other. Rather than attract unwanted attention by allowing favela residents to report these crimes to the police, drug lords provided deterrence with their own brand of justice.
Shootings were unusual, Gomes said. Hits usually involved something more primitive, like a hammer. They weren't quick deaths either. Known for torture, drug lords would often order henchmen to break a thief's arm and toss him into the river. If the thief didn't drown, favela residents stoned him.
Gomes was terrified.
"I saw mothers who would come looking for their sons ... They would show me a photo, and I had seen their son being killed by the drug lords," he said. "I was taking the same drugs they were. I didn't want that happening to me."
He had thought about escaping, but it seemed impossible.
Influenced by his older brothers, Gomes began using drugs at age 11. He started with marijuana but quickly graduated to crack cocaine. Within a year he was living on the street, routing through garbage to scrounge up enough money to bankroll his next high. It didn't take much.
"Crack is really the poor man's drug," Gomes said. "You can buy it for less than a dollar. ... Ninety percent of street dwellers here use it."
U.S. government statistics back Gomes' claim. According to the Central Intelligence Agency, Brazil is the world's second largest consumer of cocaine.
Ironically, during the seven years he spent on Rio's streets, Gomes turned down multiple opportunities for help from a ministry called Cristolandia -- "Christ-land" in Portuguese. Created as an outreach of Brazilian Baptist churches, Cristolandia provides food, clothes and lodging to addicts, prostitutes and the homeless. More important is the center's offer of freedom: the means to end addiction and escape the streets.
"People who do drugs feel there's no hope. They think they can't get out of it," Gomes said. "There were people that would point to me and say, 'That guy, there's nothing that can be done for him. He's going to die smoking crack.'"
But on April 21, 2012, Gomes proved them wrong. Driven by his fear of Rio's drug lords, he told Cristolandia volunteers he was ready to make a change.
They cleaned him up, got him off crack and introduced him to Christ. It wasn't easy. Five others left the streets the same day as Gomes. Of the five, he's the only one who made it.
Now, two years after Cristolandia changed his life, Gomes is helping the ministry do the same for others. Serving at Cristolandia as a short-term missionary with the National Mission Board of the Brazilian Baptist Convention, he helps rescue and care for other addicts who want a fresh start.
"We go out there and tell them, 'Yes, there is hope. It happened to me and it can happen to you,'" Gomes said. "And they say, 'That guy's for real. It's true what he's saying because I saw him suffering out here with us.'"
Gomes said the first step of Cristolandia's recovery strategy is to meet people's physical needs. Step two is focused on internal transformation -- specifically, the need for a relationship with Jesus Christ. Everyone who comes through the center hears the Gospel, and though acceptance isn't a condition of entering Cristolandia's rehabilitation program, Gomes admits his own success wouldn't have been possible without it.
"I tried to leave drugs in the past, and I never was able to," he said. "Jesus tells us in John 15:5 that without Me, you can do nothing. And that's true ... with Him, I was able to quit."
Today, Gomes is looking toward the future. Now 22, he still lives at Cristolandia but knows he can't stay forever. He says God has blessed him with a job cleaning tour buses and the chance to go back to school. His dream is to save enough money to buy a place of his own, get married and start a family. But Gomes says his new life won't keep him too far from Cristolandia.
"Showing my gratitude to the Lord is serving these people," Gomes said. "What moves my life now is Jesus, because He brought about this transformation. I never had anything in my life before ... and now I have a life."
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*Name changed. Don Graham is an IMB senior writer. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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