RIO DE JANEIRO (BP) -- Viviane Avelina Bezerra's face does not match her story. The shy 25-year-old Brazilian with big brown eyes and a gentle smile carries herself with such humility and kindness that no one would guess that only a year ago, Viviane was selling her body just to get by.
But that was before she met Jesus.
"When I look in the mirror today, I feel victorious," Viviane says. "I survived because of God in my life."
Viviane's childhood was cut short when her mother, a single parent, died suddenly, leaving her alone with her 5-year-old sister. Viviane was only 15.
"It was a shock. In the moment my mom died, I thought God wasn't real," Viviane says, "because how could He take my mom away and leave two kids alone?"
At about the same time, Viviane became a single mother herself, adding to her distress. Suddenly, she was responsible for raising both her sister and her daughter. With no one to help her, she did her best to make a living by doing manicures and selling vegetables on the street.
"It was very hard," Viviane says. "I don't even like to remember it, because I'll cry."
Viviane struggled with much more that making ends meet. Desperate for emotional and spiritual support, she began serving in a Candomblé temple. Candomblé is an Afro-spiritist religion popular in Brazil; Viviane's mother had been deeply involved in it at the time of her death.
"I thought it would fill the emptiness in my life," Viviane remembers. "I didn't accept Christian people talking to me" trying to share the Gospel.
But Viviane's situation only got worse. She lost her job, then her house. Viviane was quickly becoming desperate for a way to feed to her daughter and sister.
That's when she saw a want ad in the newspaper. Prostitution is legal in Brazil, and people solicit sex workers even in the classifieds.
Viviane felt she had no other choice but "to be a prostitute to feed the people at home."
Viviane doesn't like to say much about the eight months she worked in the sex trade. But those closest to her know some of what she has been through.
She has shared her story with Eric and Ramona Reese, International Mission Board missionaries in Rio de Janeiro who have counseled and discipled Viviane.
"She was forced into doing things that nobody should have to do," Eric says. "Some of the scars and the marks that she went through, no one should have to go through that."
But God hadn't forgotten Viviane, and in her darkest moments, He let a light shine. Viviane's aunt finally found her and helped her. A Christian herself, the aunt shared the Gospel.
"Before Christ, I didn't have life," Viviane says. "And then I met Jesus. Today, I understand the difference it makes that God never abandoned me."
Viviane turned her back on Candomblé, left prostitution and gave her life to God. But turning her life around was a slow process.
"When you stop being a prostitute, it's hard to find a job," Viviane explains. "There is a lot of prejudice."
Again, she searched the newspaper for work. This time, God led her to a very different kind of job: The Reeses were looking for a household helper.
It wasn't until she had been working for them for several months that Viviane opened up about her past.
"When she told me what she had been through, I cried," Ramona Reese says. "We were standing in my kitchen, and I said, 'I am so honored.' Because we have mission work among prostitutes, and we're always trying to figure out, 'How can we help somebody?' Turns out, we were helping her on the latter end."
Today, Viviane is living in a safe apartment near the Reeses. Her daughter and sister live with her aunt now, but she still gets to see them. And Viviane is letting her light shine however she can.
"She feels so honored just to be a child of God," Ramona says. "She so much wants to serve God. She wants to learn as much as she can, and she wants to share what she learns."
Viviane shares her testimony with those who will listen, does daily devotionals with Ramona and even hosts Bible studies in her new home.
Her home, she says, is "not my house. This is God's house."
"She's a person who's not going to bellyache about her past," Eric adds. "She's just looking at the future now, and it's brighter and better with Jesus."
Viviane asks for prayer that she can stay solidly in the presence of God, because, she says, it is important to have the prayer support of others for your financial, spiritual and emotional life.
"I am free," Viviane says. "My dignity -- God gave it to me again. The love of God means everything."
Tristan Taylor served as an IMB writer in the Americas.
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