The New Yorker, June 7, 2021
Flordelis became famous as a gospel singer, a pastor, and a politician. Then her husband was killed.
Late on the evening of June 15, 2019, Flordelis dos Santos de Souza and her husband, Anderson do Carmo, left for a night out in Rio de Janeiro. They had been looking forward to a break, after an exhausting few months. Flordelis was a celebrity in Brazil: a gospel singer and the pastor of her own Pentecostal ministry, the Ministerio Flordelis, with six churches and thousands of followers. Born in the favelas, she had become famous for adopting troubled kids left behind by the drug wars, and her life story, an archetypal Brazilian redemption tale, had been made into a movie starring some of the country’s best-known actors. That February, she had taken office as a new member of the National Congress. Anderson was busy, too. He managed the ministry’s affairs and Flordelis’s political career, and also oversaw their home: a compound with four separate structures, to accommodate their family. The couple had fifty-five children, mostly adopted; twenty-two of them, ranging in age from three to forty, still lived at home. Flordelis was fifty-eight, Anderson forty-two. They had been together for twenty-six years, an inspiration to their followers.
From their house in Niterói, a sprawling port city across Guanabara Bay from Rio, they headed for the beach at Copacabana, an hour’s drive away. At the beachfront promenade, they strolled through the late-evening crowds, stopping at a sidewalk café for a snack of fried fish. Later, in a burst of romantic feeling, Anderson climbed on a chair and called out, “Te amo! Te amo! ”
Around two o’clock in the morning, they realized that church services would begin in just a few hours, and they headed home, with Anderson driving and Flordelis playing Pet Rescue on her phone. The streets were deserted as they came off the expressway. To her alarm, Flordelis recalled later, two people on a motorcycle drew alongside them, and then appeared again a few blocks farther on. Niterói had become more dangerous in recent years, after a drug-trafficking gang known as Red Command moved in from Rio. The neighborhood where Flordelis and Anderson lived was middle class, but much of the surrounding area was run-down, and a rough favela covered a nearby hillside.
When the couple pulled up to their house, at the dead end of the street, no one was around. Inside a set of wooden gates at the driveway entrance, Flordelis slipped off her heels to climb the stairs, while Anderson stayed in the car, e-mailing last-minute instructions to employees for the day ahead. From the stairs, Flordelis called out to remind him to close the gates behind him.
Before bed, Flordelis habitually checked on all the kids. As she made her rounds, she saw light under the door of a son’s room and went in to talk with him. Not long afterward, she was startled by what sounded like gunshots, followed by screams. She recognized the voice of a daughter calling out, “Meu pai, meu pai! ”—“My father, my father! ” Outside, a couple of her sons placed Anderson’s bloodied body in the car and rushed him to a hospital. Flordelis followed, but by the time she arrived Anderson was dead. In the autopsy, coroners found thirty bullet holes in his body, with many concentrated around his groin.
The tragedy was major news in Brazil: a celebrity’s husband had been brutally killed. Amid an outpouring of sympathy, Flordelis and her family held an overnight vigil in the largest of her churches, where Anderson’s body was displayed in an open casket, according to local custom. Flordelis appeared overwhelmed with grief, nearly fainting alongside the bier. The next morning, at a cemetery on the outskirts of Niterói, Flordelis and several of her daughters clutched one another at graveside, singing together as his coffin was lowered into the ground.
But the public’s concern for Flordelis was quickly overtaken by suspicion. By the time the funeral was over, police had arrested two of her sons. Within twenty-four hours, one of them confessed to buying the murder weapon, while the other admitted shooting Anderson. In the next few days, six more siblings were arrested.
That August, the police issued an indictment against Flordelis, charging her with involvement in the killing. There was an immediate uproar. Her political party suspended her. Actors who had appeared in the film about her life expressed regret for promoting her story. Five of her six churches closed; parishioners had already stripped her name from the last one, calling it the City of Fire Ministry. Throughout, Flordelis insisted that she was innocent, the victim of a conspiracy among “powerful interests.” She was fitted with an electronic anklet that tracked her movements, but when I arrived in Brazil, last December, she was still free, and determined to clear her name.
As Flordelis came to prominence, evangelical Christianity was booming in Brazil. In a country riven by poverty, corruption, and violent crime, evangelicalism holds a potent appeal: people with difficult lives can come to church and, with a few words, be converted and redeemed. A third of Brazil’s citizens have embraced Pentecostalism in recent decades; the number of evangelical parliamentarians has doubled. Evangelicals have been a major pillar of support for President Jair Bolsonaro. A former Army captain with severe right-wing views, Bolsonaro won office, in 2018, with an anticorruption agenda and a promise to fight “gender ideology,” a capacious term that includes same-sex marriage and other progressive causes. Though raised as a Catholic, he travelled to Israel in 2016 to be baptized in the Jordan River… [+]