Before coming to Brazil, I did enough research to find that the country is predominantly Roman Catholic, a legacy of Portuguese colonization centuries ago. Growing up in a Chinese Buddhist family, I prepared myself to be immersed in a faith I had little exposure to. In the months that I’ve spent in Bahia, however, I’ve come across a wealth of different faiths. From the Baha’i faith to the evangelical movement and from the West African-influenced candomblé to even Nichiren Buddhism, I’ve encountered an unexpected rich religious diversity. Below are some snapshots of my experiences with a few of the many religious practices found in Brazil.
The Baha’i Faith
The first time I heard of the Baha’i faith was through Seattle hip-hop group Blue Scholars, which has a song called “Baha’i Healing Prayer.” But it wasn’t until I arrived in Brazil that I actually learned more about the faith. In between my home stay transitions, I had the fortune of living with an American family that is a part of the Baha’i faith. By living in their day-to-day lives, I had a glimpse of the Baha’i values of equality, cross-cultural interaction, the unity of humanity, and the oneness of God. On a few occasions, I had the opportunity to go to the local Baha’i community center and participate in a children’s festival, a meeting in which the men of the community discussed ways to bring about greater gender equality, and even Naw-Ruz, the Baha’i new year celebration that signals the beginning of spring. Through each of these events, I sensed how the values of virtue, equality, and unity permeated the ways in which everyone sought to live their lives. These aspects translated into the immense hospitality, warmth, and sense of community that I will remain a part of me wherever I go.
My first encounter with candomblé came admittedly late. I knew little about the religion besides its history in Brazil as a home-based faith brought over by West African slaves. In fact, the majority of what I heard about the faith was about its macomba, or malevolent “voodoo” – a prejudice about the religion that makes it subject to persecution. It wasn’t until visiting a terreiro, which is where the candomblé community gathers for worship, that I began doing my own research. From there, I came to understand that candomblé is more about the recognition of ancestors than “voodoo” and exhibits a syncreticism with the Roman Catholic faith, which is a legacy of a time when practitioners kept their religious practice a secret. Candomblé’s influence in Salvador is evident in the annual Yemanja festival, capoeira, and on Fridays when practitioners dress in white in reverence to Oxalá, one of the main figures in the faith. Though there is still much to understand about candomblé’, I’m glad to at least have had the exposure to this often misunderstood religion.
In the context of Brazil, the evangelical movement comes in all shapes and sizes. From my family’s large, wealthy Baptist church to the garage congregations where I teach English, evangelism has a strong foothold in Brazil. With a unifying belief in the omnipotence of the Christian God, evangelicals in Brazil may call themselves Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists, or Pentecostal. In order to eradicate what they consider some of the social problems in their communities, many evangelicals abstain from drugs and alcohol and engage in community service. This service, as I’ve seen, comes in the form of giving prayers to the homeless, giving out bread and soup to community members, and rehabilitating abusers of drugs and alcohol. In the eyes of evangelicals, the Word of God has the power to uplift people, change lives, and put people on the path to Paradise. The influence of the churches I’ve seen in some of the underserved communities here in Salvador are as powerful as the voices of the singers who bring hope to many of their fellow evangelicals. Often misunderstood in the United States, this exposure to the evangelical movement in Bahia has given me a new lense with which to see social movements driven by a faith-based mission.
These are just three of the encounters I’ve had with faith during my time in Brazil, and I know that I only scratched the surface. Each religion that I’ve encountered has taught me much about how people attune being part of something greater than the self, and how each faith has intrinsic cultural and spiritual value. Though this part of my bridge year in Salvador is drawing to a close, I’m bringing back home with me an intrigue and interest in exploring a similar wealth of religious communities found in my hometown. I never realized how asking questions and keeping an open mind can reveal so much about a place I thought I knew.