Mônica Francisco and Mãe Seci Caxi do not see eye to eye about God.
Ms. Francisco, a Rio de Janeiro state congresswoman, practiced Catholicism until she joined an evangelical church at 18. She is among the 65 million Brazilians – approximately one-third of the population – who consider themselves evangelicals.
Ms. Caxi was born into a family of Candomblé – a minority Brazilian religion of African origin that has historically been discriminated against, including by evangelicals.
But when Ms. Caxi needed help in saving a space sacred to the adherents of Candomblé, she turned to the evangelical politician, who is also a pastor. United by their African heritage, the two have become unlikely allies against deep-seated religious intolerance in Brazil and for recognition of their shared culture.
“We must fight religious intolerance so that we can preserve our ancestry. We must preserve our oral traditions and African mythology as a religious practice because this reaffirms our Afro-Brazilian identity and its roots,” Ms. Francisco says.
“Our past includes an enslaved family, who probably worshipped African gods, who had to use syncretism,” she adds. “Although I am a Christian, a pastor, and have embraced the evangelical faith, it is impossible not to recognize this presence in our ancestors.”
Message of justice
An abandoned structure outside Rio de Janeiro that a local mayor wanted to raze brought Ms. Francisco and Ms. Caxi together. Called the Terreiro da Goméia, it’s sacred land in Afro-Brazilian worship and a national symbol of Afro-Brazilian culture. It was established by the late Joãozinho da Goméia, a pai-de-santo, or high priest, who was also known as the King of Candomblé because he brought the religion out of obscurity. Gay and mixed race, he was often harassed and once imprisoned, as he fought against entrenched attitudes and prejudices.
Before his death 50 years ago, the site attracted journalists, artists, and high-ranking politicians who sat high in balconies to watch its elaborate festivals and ceremonies.
“He welcomed nonbelievers just as much as he welcomed believers,” says Ms. Caxi, who was chosen to be a Candomblé priest when she was a baby. She established the Goméia Commission in 2003 to preserve the memory of Mr. Goméia and calls his lifework “a true social project.”
His message of justice resonated with Ms. Francisco too. She grew up in Rio de Janeiro’s Borel favela, a majority-Black hill settlement where most residents live in precarious housing and have limited access to public services. When a massive landslide in Rio killed dozens in her community in 1988 when she was a teen, she spent sleepless days and nights helping families. She calls this moment the birth of her activism. From then on, she fought for housing rights in favelas.
When Ms. Francisco converted and began serving in various roles in the evangelical church, her activism expanded: fighting against police violence against poor Black men and for economic and political rights for women. Eventually she started her own church in Borel. When her friend Marielle Franco, an activist and politician, was assassinated in 2018, Ms. Francisco ran for political office, easily winning a seat for the left-wing Socialism and Liberty party.
When asked how her faith and desire for justice interconnect today, Ms. Francisco points to Matthew 5:6 in the Bible: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”
Religion under attack
Candomblé is considered one of the strongest vestiges of African heritage in a country where 50% of its 212 million people are Afro-descendants. It’s estimated that only 1.5% of all Brazilians practice Candomblé, but the religion’s symbolism and imagery can be found in festivals, holidays, and carnivals.
Still, society has not always been open to Candomblé – and at times downright hostile. In recent years Candomblé practitioners have come under increasing attacks from adherents of evangelical Christianity, who helped lift right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro to office. In 2019, local media tallied 201 Candomblé religious facilities destroyed or ransacked nationwide, the majority in Rio de Janeiro. The Terreiro da Goméia in the town of Duque de Caxias came under threat by Mayor Washington Reis, who announced he wanted to build a day care on the sacred site. He called such temples “corners of witchcraft” just this year.
But attitudes are shifting. “African spirituality has always been satanized by Christian movements,” says Lêmba Dyala, coordinator of the Goméia Commission and also a high priest. “But today we can report [abuses], move freely, and fight without being criminalized.”
In fact, the Goméia Commission fought for the temple’s remains by pushing to have the site turned into a historic landmark. In 2019, its members initiated a heritage process through Rio de Janeiro’s State Institute of Cultural Heritage (INEPAC). In the middle of the pandemic, with the INEPAC process delayed, Mayor Reis reiterated the city’s plans to turn the site into a nursery. So on July 21, 2020, Ms. Francisco and two other state congresspeople proposed a bill that would make the land where Mr. Goméia’s Candomblé terreiro once stood a state heritage site.
It noted the site is not just fundamental to the religious practices of Candomblé, but to “the struggle and resistance of the black population and for the dissemination of African and Afro-Brazilian culture in the country, ensuring the right to identity and memory,” it reads.
Amid this bill and mounting media attention and demonstrations, Mayor Reis backed down a week later. But Ms. Francisco didn’t stop there. She also proposed another bill to make March 27, Mr. Goméia’s birthday, the State Day of Awareness Against Religious Racism and Joãozinho da Goméia Day. (Evangelical politicians attempted unsuccessfully to amend the bill with a proposal to remove Mr. Goméia’s name.)
“Putting his name on the day not only represents the fight against religious racism, but also against racism, against homophobia, against prejudice,” says Ms. Francisco. “It’s defending territories that are occupied and built by Black people.”
In April of this year, both bills were passed, paving the way for the complete landmark status of the terreiro in September by INEPAC. It is only the second Candomblé site to receive such status in Rio de Janeiro.
“I believe that Terreiro da Goméia has a cultural and symbolic relevance on a national level,” says Leon Araújo, director of the Department of Intangible Heritage at INEPAC.
While the Goméia Commission plans how to use the landmarked site to properly pay homage to Mr. Goméia, Ms. Francisco continues her political work against religious racism through a state committee investigating all religious intolerance.
“This was an episode; tomorrow comes another and we will fight it again,” Ms. Francisco says. “With my militancy, I couldn’t be far from this fight. I would be there whether or not I was a politician. Coming from where I come from and with my journey, I have a responsibility to do everything I can.”
Kiratiana Freelon is a journalist fellow with the Spiritual Exemplars Project.