Editor’s note: During Black History Month, the IMB celebrates the contributions of African American missionaries in building the kingdom. Eric and Ramona Reese have served in Brazil for 22 years, often in very dangerous circumstances. Below is an excerpt from Eric’s book “Willing to Risk it All for His Name’s Sake.”
The pastor of a congregation in the slum of Santa Lucas invited me to preach during a special event for his church. Several murders had recently occurred in the community, and the pastor wanted me to encourage his people to not be fearful. He told me the theme of the event: “Men of God who are not fearful.”
Based on the title, I wasn’t sure I was the best choice to speak, but I accepted his invitation anyway.
A young seminary student named John accompanied me. His job while I preached was to pray, because I knew we were going into a dangerous community.
I preached on a familiar story—David and Goliath. I had three main points I wanted to make.
The first was that men of God who stand for God are not afraid to fight for God. I explained the point. “If someone came to me to say that Jesus is not Lord, I would stand my ground and be willing to say that He is Lord. I would be willing to fight for what is true.”
As soon as I said that, gunshots erupted from out in the community.
The only person who hit the deck was the guest-speaking American missionary invited to tell the locals that men of God are men of courage. John laughed out loud. I looked out from my prone position to see smiles across the congregation. I stood up, apologized, and resumed preaching.
My second point was that David carried with him memories of being willing to fight for the right.
King Saul told David he was too young to fight Goliath, yet David told Saul how when he was a young shepherd, he killed a lion and a bear that threatened his sheep.
As if on cue, shots rang out again. This time, though, they came from a machine gun. And this time, the bullets hit the church building. One bullet went through the top of a wall and hit a ceiling fan in the sanctuary. Again, I hit the deck. This time, I wasn’t alone. The entire congregation dived onto the floor to avoid potential crossfire coming through the windows.
The front doors to the church also served as the front doors to the sanctuary. With no foyer or lobby, only the doors separated the sanctuary from outside. I looked toward the two doors right as a man’s hand reached through one. Then the hand fell hard to the floor.
A member of the congregation crawled to the doorway and saw that the man was dead from a gunshot to the head.
I had heard gunshots many times while preaching or sitting in a church, but I had never witnessed anyone die at the church door. The fear I felt in that sanctuary was as pure as any fear I had ever felt. But as had happened many times when I experienced fear, God’s peace overcame me in a way stronger than the fear.
With one man having died at the door, I figured the event faced a premature ending. As I wondered when it would be safe for John and me to return to my truck and head home, the pastor got up at the front of the church and announced, “Pastor Eric now will finish his message.”
Pastor Eric will now do what? Pastor Eric is ready to go home!
Quietly I said to the pastor, “I don’t know. Do you think this is—“
“Come on and finish the message, Pastor!” he interrupted. “God is using you!”
With much hesitation—and with fear mixed in, too—I returned to the pulpit and picked up with point three: the battle was not David’s, it was the Lord’s.
“I can present myself in front of a giant,” I said to the congregation, “but if I’m going to win, I am going to need God’s help.”
You might have a difficult time believing this, but I’ll call God as my witness that at the end of my third point, gunfire broke out yet again. Everyone scrambled to the floor, and we stayed there as the gunfire continued for at least five minutes. Between shots, I heard a body drop just outside the doorway. A man in the church crawled over to peek out.
Another man had been killed, within arm’s length of the young man whose body still lay at the church doors. It struck me that when both dead members of the drug gang had been shot, they were trying to get into the church for refuge. Tears started flowing from my eyes at the thought of two men killed so close to a place that could have saved them in more ways than one.
The pastor came over and told me that he had shared the gospel with the first young man a week earlier, but that the man not been interested.
“I wish I had done more,” the pastor said several times.
All I could do was encourage the pastor by telling him to remember that he had done his best and that God’s Word never returns void. The pastor broke down crying.
A woman behind us cried out, “Does God love us?”
By 2:30 in the morning, morgue representatives had removed the bodies and the police had wrapped up their interviews.
The congregation, stunned by the events, began singing “Amazing Grace.” There wasn’t one dry eye in the place. I took my place at the front of the church again and recited Psalm 30:5, reminding the people that “… weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”
I turned to 1 Corinthians 13 to answer the question the woman had cried out earlier: “Does God love us?” The answer, I told the people, was in the cross. That was where we saw the love of God. Even while we were God’s enemies, He loved us by sending Christ to die for us.
I concluded with a question for the congregation: “Who here tonight will share with those outside that God loves them?”
Everyone in the sanctuary stood and moved to the front of the church. Many were crying as they came forward.
After a time of prayer at the front, I walked to the church doors and looked outside. It was 4:30 in the morning. After a night of high emotions inside, a few policemen had been posted in the area, and everything finally appeared calm outside. The pastor came over to me, and I asked if he thought we could prayer-walk around the known drug-selling points.
We asked who in the congregation would join us, and almost everyone still there committed to going. We left the building praying and singing. At one of our stops, the pastor prayed loudly and with authority that God would close down the selling points.
Two weeks after the event, the pastor called me. His church’s congregation had doubled in size, he said, and he asked if I would come back to train his people in evangelism. I asked why more people were coming to the church, and he explained that when residents in the neighborhood had seen us praying and singing in the streets, they thought we were brave.
“They thought it was bravery that allowed us to prayer-walk through the community,” he told me. “But it wasn’t bravery—it was our faith in God.”
When I returned for the training, the inside of the church was standing room only.
Six months later, the paramilitary stormed into Santa Lucas and removed or killed the drug dealers. The community became drug-free, and the church had so many people in attendance that it required two services to hold them all.