Rio school shootings spark Baptists' prayer & outreach
RIO DE JANEIRO (BP)--A pair of pink and purple heart-shaped balloons, bouquets of fresh flowers and hand-written notes lined the sidewalk outside Tasso da Silveira primary school in Rio de Janeiro. A poster with 12 names on it -- surrounded by photos, artwork, letters and signs -- decorated the concrete wall above the walkway.
They were the names of 12 Brazilian children killed by a disturbed gunman inside the school April 7.
Standing at the scene, International Mission Board missionary Eric Reese held a dozen pieces of white paper, preparing to make his own contribution to the homemade memorial outside this public school in Realengo, a lower-middle-class neighborhood of western Rio.
Reese, a missionary in Rio, and Samuel Rozolem, a Brazilian Southern Baptist pastor in Maryland, posted the papers on the wall.
Each page noted the name of one of the slain students. Under each name, this message appeared:
"Southern Baptists in the United States are praying for the family."
Then, there were these words of hope:
"God himself will be with them. 'He will wipe every tear from their eyes'" (Revelation 21:3-4, paraphrased).
Many tears have been shed in Realengo in the weeks since Wellington Menezes de Oliveira, 23, shot dead 12 students, then killed himself after being shot by police. The victims included 10 girls and two boys, ages 10 to 13. One, a 13-year-old girl, was an evangelical Christian who attended a church near the school.
Oliveira, posing as a visiting speaker, entered a classroom with two handguns and lined up students before shooting them execution-style in the head, news reports said. The shootings were motivated by bullying Oliveira suffered while attending the school years earlier, according to messages police found in the gunman's home.
An additional 12 students were injured in the school massacre, the first of its kind in Brazil. Several students remain in the hospital, two of them in critical condition. The school reopened April 18, but some students are too traumatized to go back, Reese said.
"Pray for healing, not only physical healing but spiritual healing, for this community," said Reese, who serves as a megacity strategist in Rio. "Pray for Christians to come alongside these families. This is such a great opportunity to bring the Gospel and to be there to say, 'Where there is no hope, there is hope because in Christ is the hope of glory. And to say, 'You know it's a dark day, but the Bible says, 'weeping endures for a night, but joy comes in the morning.'"
Reese has been sharing the hope of Christ since the shooting occurred, visiting families, teachers and some of the injured students. Brazilian Baptist Leila Ferreira Andrade, a teacher at another public school in the area, has coordinated the visits and accompanied Reese on some of them. She is a member of Realengo's First Baptist Church.
Southern Baptist pastor Samuel Rozolem, a native of Rio and a friend of Reese, got involved for a day while he was on vacation with his family in Brazil. Besides visiting the makeshift memorial at the school, Rozolem went along to minister to an injured student and his family and a teacher who saw eight of her students shot.
"It was an honor to be there and minister to these families," said Rozolem, pastor of Nations United Baptist Church, a Brazilian congregation in Silver Spring, Md.
"The families are in much need of our continued support. The [media] spotlights soon will be gone.... We should not let this pass without making a difference in their lives. The name of Jesus must be lifted up in such a time as this."
IMB missionaries in Rio asked Southern Baptists to pray not only for students, families, teachers and school administrators directly affected by the shootings but also for the entire nation of Brazil.
"The tragedy has put the whole country in shock," missionary Elena Key said. "It's kind of like when Columbine [Colorado school shootings in 1999] happened in the States.
"Rio is a city with a lot of violence. People here live with the idea that they could be the next victim," Key said. "But children are sort of a 'no man's zone'" as targets of violent crime. "Brazilians are very family-oriented, and children are looked at as very, very special. … So for someone to go in and kill innocent children like this, it's been a big shock to the nation.
"Pray for comfort for the parents and the families and that somehow -- from a tragedy such as this -- that people's hearts will be turned toward God," Key added.
Echoing that same prayer request, Reese asked Southern Baptists to pray for him and his Brazilian team members as they counsel with Realengo residents directly affected by the massacre. "Pray for wisdom. Pray for rest. Pray that God will continue to send people who will work alongside us in this ministry," he said.
In fact, prayer is what has opened doors to begin sharing the Gospel with families of victims, students and teachers, Reese said. When news broke about the tragedy, he went to the scene and began praying for wisdom about how Baptists might be able to minister. Reese has seen plenty of death in his ministry among drug dealers in the gang-controlled slums of Rio. But this situation was different.
As news media, families and friends swarmed the school, Reese stood on the sidewalk, simply watching and praying. "I began to weep," said Reese, the father of two girls ages 13 and 9. "I was so moved by the number of kids who were killed."
"Our hearts have been grieving for the parents of the 12 children who died," Key said. "As a parent of a teenager, I can't imagine the pain these parents are going through."
In counseling with some of the parents, Reese has shared his own story of grief -- when his wife Ramona lost an unborn baby boy seven-and-a-half months into her pregnancy.
"I've been saying to people, 'We weep. We cry. We go through tough times. But because we have Jesus, joy comes in the morning,'" Reese said.
Maria Elena Baseler is an International Mission Board writer/editor living in the Americas.