Pentecostal prayer gangs: New film documents religion in a Brazilian prison

Andrew Johnson is not a filmmaker, he insists: he conceived the documentary, “If I Give My Soul,” while was doing research for his sociology dissertation at the University of Minnesota on religion in prisons.

The film (co-directed and co-written with Ryan Patch) shows how faith brings dignity to men living on the farthest margins of their society—and it shines a light on some of the facets of Pentecostalism that have helped to make it the fastest growing religious movement in the world.

I spoke to Andrew this week, on the eve of the film’s Los Angeles premiere, about what it was like to spend time behind bars and how he became part of the lives of the men whose stories he tells in his film.

How did you end up spending two weeks in a Brazilian prison?

I was conducting research for my dissertation; honestly, I had no plans to do a film. The backstory is that I was interested in religion in prison in general. I visited Angola Prison in Louisiana and got a tour of the prison. New Orleans Baptist Seminary runs a theology program in the prison—they offer classes and train missionaries that are then sent to other prisons in the state.

I asked to speak to one of the seminary members, and the guard introduced me to an inmate named Charlie. Our conversation happened as the guard was looking on, and I realized at that moment, that this is not the way to get the story, under the eyes of the guard. So I started to think how I could get a more insider perspective, what prison would look like without that filter.

The answer was obvious: I would need to spend some time in whatever prison I was studying, eating the same food as the inmates, sleeping in the same cells. It was also a way to earn the trust of the people who I would be studying.

What attracted you to Brazil as the location for your research?

I heard about an experimental prison system based in Minas Gerais, a state next to Rio de Janeiro. In about 30 prisons they don’t have any guards. The premise is that the guard-inmate relationship is always violent, so there’s a code of conduct that is enforced by the inmates themselves. They’re hoping to export this model to Africa and other countries in South America, so they were eager to be able to say that an American sociologist had survived two weeks in one of their prisons as a way of proving that their experimental model works!

What was it like?

There were three other inmates in my cell, including a guy from Paraguay who snored louder than anyone I’ve ever heard. Two of the guys were in because of drug and assault convictions. The third guy, who was maybe 70 years old, had some sort of sexual conviction he never talked about. He just stayed in his bed and chain-smoked.

Three or four days in, I was lying awake in the middle of the night, listening to the Paraguayan guy snoring, and thought, what if I had to do ten years in prison in this bed, in this cell, behind these bars? It really hit me at that moment, some of the emotional weight of being in prison.

How did the element of Pentecostalism come into play?

The prison was in a primarily Catholic area, but the inmates were mainly Pentecostals. One reason for this was that Pentecostal volunteers—who would come in to teach job skills and do Bible study—outnumbered Catholic volunteers by about 15 to 1.

Also in the city I was in the vast majority of inmates were from the poorer parts, where there are more Pentecostals. But the main reason for the dominance of Pentecostalism was because they believe in the potential for God to radically change a person’s life. The once-I-was-lost-but-now-I’m-found narrative in Pentecostalism really resonates with inmates. That’s when I decided to focus my research on Pentecostalism, not just religion inside prison.

Once you had that preparation under your belt, how did you come to choose the prison in Rio de Janeiro for your work?

I found the prison through Rio de Paz, a human right group led by a local pastor. By that time I knew something about prison culture, and I also knew there would likely be a prison church leader.

What was the culture of the prison?

At night, there was one guard for 800 prisoners. In the Rio prison system there’s no real government presence; state control in the prisons is just a façade. The prison gangs are the most powerful presence, but the church exerts a strong influence too. There were about 400 inmates in the gang camp inside the prison, and 40 to 50 in the church camp. The rest were neutral people who kept to themselves in their own cells.

The gang leader told me, “People outside think we’re animals in here raping each other, but there’s order in here, and you’re welcome here.” Implying that I shouldn’t be scared.

You weren’t staying in this prison like you did in Minas Gerais. How did you establish enough trust to persuade inmates to participate in interviews?

I spent as many hours as possible inside the cellblocks. There were Pentecostal volunteers from all over the place; when they would walk in, I would walk in with them. It took weeks and weeks to get to the point where the inmates would talk to me and let me do interviews. There were times when I made phone calls to inmates’ family members to let then know that visiting times had changed, to save them a long trip to the prison. I also visited the families of inmates with pastors and other volunteers to bring food, sometimes a gift a child’s dad had made.

I basically become part of the lives of the people whose lives I wanted to document.

How did a project you undertook for your dissertation evolve into a nonfiction film as well?

I had a small pocket camcorder and took a few shots of worship services. When I was showing them to my dad when I was back in Minnesota for Christmas, he couldn’t believe how awful the conditions in the prison were. The thing that also struck both of us was the urgency and intensity of the worship. Film was able to capture emotion in a different way than I was able to by just writing about it.

I also wanted to counter some of the inherent skepticism of jailhouse religion. People in Rio said, oh they’re just doing that to look good in front of you. A Brazilian professor remarked that she thought the inmates were just being bonzinhos (“goody-goodies”) because I was an American sociologist. But she had never been in prison. People make a lot of assumptions about prisoners’ faith that just aren’t accurate.

What were the key things that the skeptics weren’t getting?

Pentecostalism in Rio’s prisons had a gang flavor to it. Churches in the prisons had a structure similar to gangs. There was a highly visible charismatic leader, and membership in the group offered protection from threats. There was a strong identity associated with both the gangs and the church—everyone knew who was who. Both the gang and the prison church claimed part of the prison as its own.

But most importantly, the relationship between the gang and the church mirrored the relationship between churches and people in favelas. There was mutual respect, which was essential to preserving the peace. Gang members could leave the gang and join the church as long as their participation was deemed genuine. It would be very difficult to fake a conversion in prison because someone’s observing your actions 24 hours a day. For example, if someone converted to Pentecostalism, that means they didn’t use drugs. If they did, there would be serious consequences. They would be kicked out of church, and the gang would respond to the betrayal with violence.

You had no prior experience as a filmmaker. How did the film come together?

A friend of mine from New York who was a freelance photographer was willing to come to Rio, work for well below his usually daily rate and sleep on the floor of my apartment in order to help with the project. At that point I had built trust with the inmates over about seven months, and I knew who I wanted to interview for the film and that they would be willing to speak into a camera if I was involved. So we just started to film the interviews as well as worship services inside the prison.

Then I met Ryan Patch. He was starting a documentary about the preparations for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, but the film was never funded. So when I got back, I contacted him and told him I had a hard drive full of interviews, and things took off from there.

How is the film different from your scholarly project?

The film started out as a visual representation of my dissertation and then turned into its own thing. Stating your academic arguments isn’t going to emotionally engage the viewers. So Ryan and I had to think of different ways of presenting the arguments. While the book is more focused on making arguments, the film is bringing you into people’s lives and showing the difference the faith makes in their lives and their families’ lives.

In the book, the main argument is that Pentecostalism in prison does more than help inmates cope with the pain of imprisonment because it provides inmates who are largely treated as expendable with a way to lead moral and dignified lives. My hope with the film is to help audiences see the human side of the prison population and that these individuals who are marginalized by society are capable of profound faith, which enables them to live dignified, deeply moral lives.

What are your religious commitments? Did working on this pair of projects affect you in terms of your own faith?

I’d describe myself as a practicing Christian. Having a shared faith allowed me to build access and trust with the inmates because we had a shared worldview and identity. On my part, I admired the urgency and intensity with which they held on to Jesus. People who have no other safety net hold onto their faith with an intensity I’ve rarely seen. That taught me the importance of living in community and the importance of single-minded purpose, especially in dire circumstances.

I really saw that Christianity is about more than having a set of abstract theological tenets in your mind. It’s a daily practice as well, and I learned a lot about practicing my own faith from the inmates in this film.