Southern Officers Face Violence, Extreme Poverty While Ministering in Brazil
By: Laura Poff
At 3 a.m., on the third floor of an eight-story building situated a few blocks from a favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Majors Dan and Alba Ford woke to the sound of machine gun fire and an explosion going off in the street below.
“When one cartel is trying to take territory from another, you see huge fights that take over the street, with big heavy machine guns just outside your doors,” Major Alba said. “Gunfire can break out at anytime, anywhere. I don’t know what’s scarier: that this is happening or that everyone thinks it is normal. It sounds like what you hear from Syria out there.”
Favelas, slums that scatter the mountainside outside of Rio and are in the city as well, are largely controlled by drug cartels and avoided by police.
“There isn’t enough money to keep police around,” Major Alba said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
Majors Ford were sent to the Rio de Janeiro Minas Gerais and Distrito Federal Division from Texas when they were appointed to serve as divisional commanders in 2014. At the time, they were seeking a changed perspective for themselves and their children and an opportunity for Major Alba, who had previously served as an officer in Mexico and her native Costa Rica, to spend time in a culture closer to home. Neither spoke Portuguese, but Major Alba was able to get by with her native Spanish. They enrolled in weekly classes and their 14-year-old son, who made the move with them, learned from friends and class at an international, English-language school.
As newcomers, they were in awe of the beaches, mountains and resorts that were only a bus ride away from their new home in the city, but the violent crime and extreme poverty overwhelmed them too. While enjoying the beach in Copacabana, a tourist area in south Rio, they saw a boy their son’s age holding the hand of a suspected trafficker, who carted him off before they could intervene.
“If you pay attention, you will see it happening right before your eyes,” Major Alba said.
More than 21 percent of Brazilians live below the poverty level with 4 percent living on just over one dollar per day.
Salvation Army officers are impacted by that as well, with many forgoing paychecks and struggling to meet their basic needs in corps that are wholly supported by tithes from impoverished members. Officership is low and the division can’t afford to pay staff members. The Fords aren’t just the divisional commanders; they are the entire headquarters team for a division roughly three times the size of Texas.
“We don’t even have a secretary,” Major Dan said.
Despite violence and a lack of resources, the Fords have asked to extend their service in Brazil for three more years so that their son can graduate and they can see their work through.
“We still feel that God has a lot for us to do here,” Major Dan said. “We are a part of a team that is trying to move a territory forward with few resources and we just can’t say ‘it’s too hard,’ and go home.”
“If anything, we can say we are happy,” Major Alba said. “We don’t have much. It would be great if we could have more, but the Lord will provide.”