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Meet the church firefighting force saving lives in Brazil

When disaster strikes in Recife, Brazil, the local church swings into action – thanks to its team of firefighters.

Written by Rachael Adams | 20 Jan 2023

A man sitting on a chair looking at the camera

David, who works for Tearfund’s local partner, Instituto Solidare, and his local church. David answered the call to become a firefighter in his church and is now protecting his community from disasters | Image credit: Mocah Films/Tearfund

Many of us will be familiar with the call to volunteer at church. Joining the welcome team. Helping with the tea and coffee. Singing in the worship group. But for one church in Recife, Brazil, a very different call came: they needed firefighters.

Born out of a need

The floods come every year in Recife, a city in north-east Brazil. Rainfall floods the streets and the main river regularly bursts its banks – leaving the local community defenceless as their homes fill up with dirty water. Meet the local church that now has a team of firefighters trained to save lives as soon as disaster strikes.

‘The group of firefighters comprises of about 15 to 20 people… it was born out of a need that we had,’ shares David Marcelino, who splits his time working for Tearfund’s local partner, Instituto Solidare, and his local church.

‘[Before] when we had the floods, we entered the community without any preparation… We didn't know what we could hold, what we couldn't, how we were going to get someone out of the house.

‘We carried the children on our shoulders because that's what we had.

‘The floods are recurrent, almost every year. Sometimes twice a year. So, the church and Instituto Solidare realised that it is necessary to have a team… A team prepared for this.’

Birds-eye view of buildings

Part of Recife, Brazil. The city is prone to flooding and disasters but the people who live here cannot afford to move elsewhere – even when it’s their safety on the line | Image credit: Mocah Films/Tearfund

Stepping up

Instituto Solidare carried out four weeks of training with the group. This included introducing the team to new resources that would make them more efficient, as well as safety protocols.

‘All equipment, all material was funded by Tearfund,’ explains David. ‘So, from the training to the hook that serves to tie the rope, tying people to the boat, Tearfund financed it. So, we have the boat, we have the board, we have the vests, the helmets which is the equipment that help us to be safe in this difficult environment.

‘And all the equipment we have, we learned to use. For example, we cannot enter the water without a helmet. We cannot enter the water without boots. When we are going to use the boat it is because we already understand that the water is above the waist. We cannot carry the person in our arms because this brings risk to the person and brings risk to us as well.’

The team then created a WhatsApp group in which they are able to communicate with each other and be prepared for when the floods come again.

‘At times we were afraid of losing people from our team as well because the water was very strong.’
David, Brazil

Disaster strikes

In May 2022, deadly floods and landslides hit Recife and 128 people lost their lives. The situation was tragic – but it could have been much worse. For this time, the church’s firefighting squad were able to quickly mobilise and get to work protecting people.

‘Already at dawn we were aware that we would have to go to the community,’ shares David. ‘So when it was five o'clock in the morning, we were already here.’

The flooding was worse than anticipated – Recife was underwater and even the church had flooded. But despite the challenges, thanks to the training, the firefighters knew how to overcome this and help.

‘At times we were afraid of losing people from our team as well because the water was very strong,’ explains David.

‘The current was moving the cars… It was really hard. Then a house collapsed nearby.

‘So we went to the water, but we didn't know how we were going to get back.’

View out of a window overlooking a flooded street

The floods in May 2022 devastated Recife, Brazil. The dirty waters flooded homes and businesses in the area | Image credit: Instituto Solidare

Saving lives

‘We passed a house where there were two ladies on a table… and the water was rising,’ says David.

‘So I went in with the water on top of my belly, but when I left her house [the water] was already up to my neck.’

They rescued the women using their boat and some rope and got them to safety. The team also were able to reach many vulnerable people, including those who had mobility problems – helping to ensure that people weren’t left behind in the rescue.

‘What really struck me was that in these difficult times the community tries to help itself,’ shares David. ‘Whoever has a first floor free puts the people on top. So, it struck me because in a difficult moment that we were going through, people helped each other.

‘It was a difficult time, but thank God everything worked out.’

Four people preparing food in a kitchen with hair nets on

The entire church sprung into action when the floods hit. As David shares, ‘Even in a difficult moment that we were going through, people helped each other.’ From hot meals, to shelter to bedding, everyone was taken care of | Image credit: Instituto Solidare

Questioning the injustice

When disasters like these happen, it is always people who have the least who suffer the most. People living in poverty cannot afford to move elsewhere – even when it’s their safety on the line.

‘I was very angry because it's not fair for you to see your community under water. It's not fair to see the population that has so little, suddenly have nothing left – just the walls of the house because the furniture was lost, the food was lost, the clothes were lost, their documentation.’

‘My relationship with God – I questioned myself a lot. We already have so little and we lose so much.

‘My faith was strengthened, but strengthened by not standing still. To be a true agent of transformation, as it should be.’
David, Brazil

A rallying call

Through his questioning and after witnessing the courage and compassion of those around him, David shares how his faith was strengthened – as was his desire to continue to stand up for his community.

‘It gave a boost, but also a boost of not staying only in prayer, but in action,’ says David.

‘I know he [God] counts on me, on the church, on partners so that we can change this situation. [We need to] warn government officials that we need to wake up to this – it is not fair for it to happen every year.

‘My faith was strengthened, but strengthened by not standing still. To be a true agent of transformation, as it should be.

‘We are stewards of what God has placed in our hands. And [my faith] has awakened, awakened to this situation that was a little lost. I know that with the strength of the church, the community and partners, we will be able to change.’

Pray with us

    • Thank God for David and this group of firefighters who continue to make a difference in Recife. Praise God for the funding that enabled their training and resources and pray for their safety as they continue to serve their community.
    • Pray that the church in Brazil will be united in Jesus’ calling to care for the poor, and that churches will be an active presence in their communities.
    • Cry out with us to God over the injustice faced by people living in poverty who are hit the hardest by disasters like these. Ask God to protect and comfort them. Pray that politicians – in Brazil and around the world – will put vulnerable people at the heart of their decision-making. Pray that this will lead to long-term solutions that will make communities safe from disasters and that will free people from poverty.

Written by

Written by  Rachael Adams

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