Brazil Pentecostal church welcomes gays spurned elsewhere

Rio de Janeiro — With his booming voice and high-voltage charisma capable of working crowds of hundreds into a lather, Marcos Gladstone has all the trappings of a successful preacher. But Gladstone has something that most other Pentecostal leaders don't — a husband.

He and spouse Fabio Inacio are co-founders of the Contemporary Christian Church, one of a handful of Pentecostal denominations in Brazil that welcome gays and lesbians with open arms and was born out of Gladstone's dream to preach "a gospel of love and acceptance for all people."

Barely a presence until a few decades ago, Pentecostals now make up one-fifth of the population in Brazil, which is home to more Roman Catholics than any other nation. They're generally more socially conservative than their Catholic brethren: fiercely opposed to abortion, which is banned except in limited circumstances, and to gay marriage; in recent years, same-sex civil unions were allowed to be converted into full marriages. Some Brazilian Pentecostal churches even offer programs that claim to be capable of "curing" gay people.

Not so at Contemporary Christian, which this week celebrated its ninth anniversary and the opening of its ninth branch with a raucous, theatrical service at a converted movie theater in a gritty Rio neighborhood.

"They welcome you, they accept you, because God loves us the way we are," said Katia Simene, a 48-year-old lesbian who joined about three years ago.

Born a Catholic, Gladstone was 14 when his family converted to one of the Pentecostal churches that have proliferated mostly in poor neighborhoods. He was booted out after breaking off a four-year engagement and coming out as gay in his early 20s.

"It was a huge scandal within the church," he said, shouting to be heard over blasting live music and the din of hundreds of worshippers streaming into the new church. "My would-be mother-in-law told everyone — even the parrots, the dogs and the parakeets."

After that Gladstone felt he didn't fit in at any church, so he founded Contemporary Christian in a third-floor walkup in Rio's bohemian Lapa neighborhood. The first services attracted about a dozen parishioners.

Among the early converts was Inacio, who had also called off an engagement to a woman and broken with a Pentecostal denomination. He and Gladstone have since married and adopted two children, now ages 11 and 12.

Together they have spearheaded the church's expansion to over 3,000 members in three cities, with another three branches expected by the end of the year.

At this week's service — a boisterous, nearly three-hour spectacle with choreographed dance routines and a spirited medley of devotional songs — several attendees joined the church by symbolically slipping on T-shirts that said "Smile, Jesus accepts you." Some worshippers collapsed shaking to the floor, overcome by spiritual fervor and, perhaps, the tropical heat.

While most of the congregation is gay, it includes some heterosexuals — most of whom have a loved one who's gay.

"We have parents of gays who are tired of homophobic speeches, tired of churches that use the sacred pulpit to preach about politics instead of God's word," Gladstone said.

Lilian Sales, a 28-year-old saleswoman, said the church filled a spiritual void after she was drummed out of her traditional Pentecostal community.

"At the other church, they think you're gay because you've been possessed by the devil," she said, flanked by her partner and their child. "Here everyone understands that Jesus made us this way, and it's beautiful."