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Interview: Cally Magalhaes, prison drama therapist

16 August 2013

'In my first week, there were nine people murdered'

I work in São Paulo, Brazil, with youth offenders who have been convicted of serious and extremely serious crime. My husband and I are co-ordinators of the Eagle Project, and we work in the youth prisons doing psycho-drama workshops, individual counselling, and family visits.

I run workshops with three other psycho-drama therapists. At the moment, we work in one unit with groups of eight boys for 12 sessions at a time. We're hopefully going to start working in a girls' unit this month. I'm also doing a postgrad course two nights a week in psycho-drama therapy in São Paulo, which ends in December.

My typical day starts with getting my sons, Ben, 12, and Joseph, ten, ready for school. Then I catch up with admin, do essays for my course - and I am also writing my dissertation in Portuguese.

Sometimes, I go out to visit the families of the boys we work with, or go to the rehab centre, where we place boys who have nowhere to go when they are released and need help to come off drugs. We also have one girl who is in the women's rehab centre, and I visit her, too.

We try really hard to have Saturdays as a day set apart for our family, and on Sundays we go to church in the morning: a big Baptist church with about 3000 members . . . and watch the football in the afternoon.

I was born in Harpenden. When I was 15, I left home to train to be a professional dancer, but after serious problems with my spine, I was advised not to dance professionally. So I went to university, and did an honours degree in performing arts, with the aim of being an actress.

I worked as a professional actress for three years. I met a young man, and we lived together for four years. Four months after we married, I discovered that he was in a relationship with another man, and had been for the past five years.

My life fell apart. We separated and I began to drink and smoke and take anti-depressants. I had been going along to the Anglican church with my husband, but didn't feel I could go along any more, because he was still going there.

Everywhere I went, I kept meeting people who went to a church called New Life, which met in a school hall. And so, one Sunday, I went along.

A very nice man welcomed me at the door, and then the worship began - guitars, drums, keyboard, etc., and people singing with their eyes closed, arms lifted high. I wondered what these people had that I didn't.

About a month later, I gave my life to Jesus, and stopped smoking the same night. I took the packet of cigarettes out of my pocket, and said to my friend: "I don't need these any more. I have Jesus inside me."

About a month after that, I was baptised in the sea, and that day I said to God, "You can have my life. I don't want to live any more; but if you have a plan for my life, then please use me in whatever way you want."

I left that town, and moved to a new city to make a fresh start. I started teaching at the biggest comprehensive school in the country - a place where they invited anyone in to speak to the kids, except Christians. I began to pray and fast for the school, the staff, and the students, and started a Christian Union. Students and staff began to get saved, and the school now teaches Religious Education, receives Bibles from the Gideons, and I've had the pleasure of returning twice to speak to the Year 11s about our ministry.

While teaching there, I felt a real need to study the Bible, and prepare for whatever God wanted me to do, so I went to Bible college in Scotland for a year. I did Youth With a Mission (YWAM) in Estonia, and went to India three times, and Bosnia. I knew my life would be dedicated to mission: I just didn't know where.

In 1994, I read a magazine article about street-kids in São Paulo, and was really moved by their situation. The article spoke of how they were sleeping under the streets to flee from the police and paedophiles, but that, during the flood season, they were dying, as the rain filled up the sewers as they slept. I also read of how corrupt the police were, murdering street-kids to get rid of the "problem". I began to weep and weep, and for weeks afterwards felt God was calling me to Brazil.

When I read the article, I was really willing to go to Brazil, even though I knew nothing about the country. The first time I went to India, I was really impacted by the poverty, and it was then that I really felt God calling me to full-time mission.

In 1998, I went to São Paulo and spent a month working in a favela. On the last day, I met George, who didn't speak English, and I didn't speak Portuguese. He'd gone to the favela to do some filming for the pastor who was leading the work there.

I did a TESOL course [Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages]. I returned to Brazil in January 1999. People asked me if I was going for one, or maybe two years, and I replied: "No, I am going for ever."

In my first week, there were nine people murdered - but I loved being there. I had no idea if I was visiting the main drug-trafficker, bandido, or whoever. I just tried to show God's love to everyone there.

George and I met again, and four months later we were married After that, we began working on the streets with the street-kids, and adults in the favelas, with their families, and occasionally visiting the prisons. We saw God do many miracles, and saw many people saved and healed.

In 2004, one of our street-boys was arrested and put in the youth prison. That was the beginning of our youth prison ministry. Each week, we were asked to visit more and more boys. For six years, we worked in various units, visiting the boys, working with their families, and taking them to rehab centre, where they began a new life without drugs or returning to crime.

Sometimes, a rehab centre wasn't the right place for a boy straight after youth prison. They want their freedom. So, two years ago, we felt God was leading us to start a new programme called "Breaking the Chains", doing psycho-drama workshops, based on restorative justice, with small groups of boys in the youth prison to prepare them for their release. At the same time, they receive individual counselling from our team. We visit their family for up to two years after their release.

We have been accepted as partners by the government, who run the youth prisons. Just recently, the project has been made part of the youth prison's strategic planning. Last year, the British consul-general and his wife came to the youth prison with us to see the project. We are very blessed with their help and encouragement.

It took me about a year to become fluent in Portuguese, but my aim was to preach in Portuguese after seven months - which I did. I was completely immersed in Portuguese because I was working in the favela, living with a Brazilian missionary who didn't speak English, and going out with George, who also didn't speak English.

I'd like to change two things in Brazil: the traffic, and corruption.

I don't have regrets. I think that everything that has happened in my life has brought me to where I am today; so I thank God for that.However, there are a few things I would like to have studied: the saxophone, psychology, and linguistics.

I'd like to be remembered for showing God's unconditional love to people, and making a difference in their lives, and being a good wife, mother, and friend.

Connie Taylor was a YWAM missionary who discipled me while I was in Estonia. She inspired me in so many ways, and I had the privilege of seeing her work as an evangelist, as well as being a wife and mum, which was invaluable for me.

My favourite place is the youth prison.

My favourite parts of the Bible are Psalms 121, 139, and 116. My least-liked part is Leviticus.

I love the song "I can only imagine" by Mercy Me.

I can't remember the last time I was really angry, but the thing I usually get most angry about is when my Brazilian husband drives too fast in São Paulo.

I'm happiest when I pray with someone to accept Christ.

I have a deep desire for a closer relationship with God; so I'm always talking to him about that; and also for my husband, sons, and wider family, for those with whom we work, and for the project to grow so we can reach more people.

I'd choose to be locked in a church with Jesus. It would be awesome.

Cally Magalhaes was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

www.inspiredindividuals.org  www.theeagleproject.org www.associacaoaguia.org.br

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