Urban Amazon

Business and belief come together in teeming São Paulo, Brazil.

Chris Lawrence

The sight is overwhelming.

Layer upon layer of buildings and skyscrapers dot the distance, extending for miles from Jonas and Geni Sousas' seventh-floor apartment. This concrete jungle is an Amazon of progress and urbanization known as São Paulo, Brazil.

With more than 17 million people, São Paulo is the largest city in South America, and the fourth most populated in the world.

On a Wednesday morning, Jonas and Geni leave their apartment to face this city: The steady din of activity builds as daylight increases. They dodge past people of varying ethnicities—from Italian to Korean.

São Paulo is a melting pot of nations.

Native Brazilians, Jonas and Geni are staff members with Priority Associates, the business and professional ministry of Cru.

While Cru has 135 staff members in Brazil, Jonas and Geni are the only representatives for Priority Associates. They face a daunting task.

São Paulo has more than 3 million business professionals and covers roughly 600 square miles—two times the area of New York City. In the midst of this seismic city, Jonas and Geni develop relationships with Brazilian professionals. Their goal is to help them integrate their faith in Jesus into their work and life.

Priority Associates has a presence in 15 cities in the United States, expanding to São Paulo 10 years ago.

Before joining Priority Associates, Geni, 36, spent six years working in public relations and freelance graphic design. With a confident gaze and stylish wardrobe, Geni looks like an achieving career woman.

Jonas, 29, spent several years traveling around Brazil showing the JESUS film, an evangelistic movie based on the Gospel of Luke. He began working with Priority Associates after marrying Geni two years ago.

Small in stature with an athletic frame, Jonas is an avid runner and trains with a group of 15 other professionals every Saturday—a key networking opportunity.

By 7:30 a.m., Jonas and Geni arrive at the Cru office for a prayer meeting, intended to ask for God's assistance to reach São Paulo's professionals. This is a crucial part of their week.

"If only I had realized the difference prayer makes much earlier," says Geni, "I would pray more and spend less energy."

Besides prayer and some evangelistic events, Jonas and Geni's work with Priority Associates mainly involves small-group or one-to-one meetings. Sometimes Jonas and Geni go on appointments together, other times they split up.

Traversing the congested city takes patience and planning. Many wealthy executives commute via helicopter (São Paulo has more than 100 helicopter pads); but like most people, Jonas and Geni brave the ground transportation.

Shortly after 11 a.m., Jonas sits in a subway train en route to a noon appointment. Geni has an appointment elsewhere in the city. He browses through an article in a Brazilian business magazine about spirituality in the workplace. The content does not surprise him, since Brazil is a very religious country.

Not only is it the world's largest Catholic country, but Brazil is also the largest spiritist nation, according to Operation World, an international mission almanac. Spiritism is the belief that the dead survive as spirits that can communicate with the living.

More than 7 million Brazilians practice several different kinds of spiritism, including some forms with African roots.

Despite such trends, many Brazilians—especially professionals—are open to Christianity.

Recently, Geni met Heloiza Valcazara, a 57-year-old executive who has been unemployed for several months. Work was her life, and that life crumbled. Geni explained to Heloiza four principles from A Guide to Your Most Important Investment, a Priority Associates booklet that explains how to begin a relationship with God. That day Heloiza made a decision to follow Christ.

"I am beginning to seek the faith that has been hidden from me for many years," she says.

But such decisions can take a long time. For several months, Jonas had been meeting with Reinaldo Antonacio, a successful lawyer.

Reinaldo often joked about spiritual things when his wife brought up the topic. Jonas met with him to go through Discovery, a Bible-study series investigating the person of Jesus. Like a good lawyer, Reinaldo had tough questions, but eventually he committed his life to following God.

Such changed lives happen, but when compared with how many professionals inhabit São Paulo, it can seem miniscule—a small vine in a jungle.

"It's easy to be overwhelmed by the size of the task," says Alan Schutz, who works with Priority Associates in the U.S., but moved his family to São Paulo for three months to help.

It wasn't long before Jonas and Geni realized their limitations. Once, Geni and staff member Maureen Hornstein held an event for a group of lawyers in Taboão da Serra, the west part of São Paulo, a one-hour commute from where Jonas and Geni live. At least 30 professionals attended, but when they tried to hold an evangelistic outreach with the same group, no one showed up.

The complexity of gathering a crowd from different areas of the city proved too difficult.

Soon it became clear that Jonas and Geni needed to focus on developing leaders. A core of committed Christian professionals could tell others about Christ and even do their own discipleship—thus multiplying Jonas and Geni's efforts.

The day before, Jonas had walked into a high-rise building and ascended in an elevator to the 16th floor. He entered Abrades, a social and economic development company, and greeted several well-dressed executives in a room filled with mahogany and leather.

The office overlooks Avenida Paulista, the commercial district that many refer to as the "Wall Street of São Paulo."

After sipping small cups of cafezinho, Brazilian espresso, they began an informal meeting.

Outside the window, cars began to stack up behind each other on Paulista, the sea of red brake lights swarming the 8-lane road like a school of piranhas.

"Our mission is to present Christ and engage with the professionals," says Jonas.

A few months ago, a friend introduced Jonas to these executives. When Jonas explained the vision of Priority Associates to them, they were eager to be involved.

"We have many networks of business people we can offer," an executive named Cesar Inacio told Jonas.

Jonas and the three men planned some upcoming evangelistic events for business professionals. This past year, 27 men and women prayed and received Christ because of an event or specific meeting with Jonas, Geni, or one of their disciples.

Though many are willing to surrender their lives to Christ, others have obstacles.

"I want to be able to make my own decisions," says Giovana Cruz, a 34-year-old executive who works with a large collections company. She has confidently succeeded in her career, but spirituality remains on the periphery of her life.

Geni has met with Giovana several times, but the executive says she is not ready to make a decision.

"I just don't feel it in my heart," she says.

For many São Paulo professionals, the idea of submitting their daily decisions to God is not easy. The motto of São Paulo is Non ducor, duco, which translates as "I am not led, I lead."

But later that week, Geni sits at a table with two professional women at a Brazilian buffet where a winding line of people peruse fresh fruit and steaks from the churrascaria (steakhouse).

Geni meets with these women, who are both Christians, every Thursday for Bible study and, once in a while, lunch. This week she gave them homework: The women were supposed to communicate their faith with at least one other person.

Debora Galhardo, who works at a company called Corporis, tells a story about conversing with a co-worker named Beth Melo about her faith. Beth had been resistant to talking about spiritual things, but recently became disturbed by the health struggles of one of their friends.

"She told me she realized that we are all like birds," says Debora. "Very fragile."

Debora told Beth about her own hope in a loving and compassionate God who watches over us and cares about us. Beth invited her to come to her house after work for more discussion.

Outgoing and winsome, Deborah has many friends and contacts in more than 180 companies. She leads two Bible studies, and, through her influence, at least three professionals have made decisions to follow Christ.

Her enthusiasm for her faith is contagious and her influence continues to spread. Geni encourages her as they meet for lunch.

Jonas also has been able to find a few professional men with a passion to influence business people in the marketplace for Christ, including Eduardo Filho, who works at a technology company.

Late Wednesday evening, Jonas and Geni return to the shelter of their apartment for some much needed rest and relaxation—away from the city's chaos.

The next day they will do it all over again.

Yet the looming city doesn't intimidate Jonas and Geni like it used to. Through their influence, pockets of committed Christian professionals are appearing across São Paulo.

Thus far they have at least 50 volunteers with Priority Associates and 10 of them are leaders—with many guiding other Brazilian professionals in their faith, too.

The massive city of São Paulo is beginning to seem smaller.

Used with permission from Worldwide Challenge

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