Sports–especially playing handball–made Joana D’Arc Meireles happy when she was growing up in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
But otherwise, she was not a happy youth. By age 20, for reasons she still can’t describe, she had become insecure and ashamed. She was never quite satisfied, plus she suffered from frequent headaches. Sports helped her overcome.
Like many people in this soccer-mad country, Joana saw the Maracanã soccer stadium in Rio de Janeiro as the center of the sports universe. It was the largest stadium in the world. All the best players could be seen there.
Joana had never been to the stadium, so when churches in her neighborhood hired buses to take people to Maracanã for the 1974 Billy Graham Crusade, she couldn’t wait to go. She wanted to get familiar with the stadium.
“When I got there, I was fascinated by the size,” she said. “I really don’t recall specifically what was said or what was sung. But I remember there was music, a lot of colors and a lot of people.”
In five days, some 590,000 people flooded the stadium. More than 30,000 responded to Billy Graham’s invitations to receive Christ. Joana remembers one of those invitations.
“When I heard the Word from Billy Graham, the preaching … there was something he said that just pointed me in a different direction in life. I felt it very strongly when he talked about having your sins forgiven.”
Joana accepted the invitation and joined thousands of other people on the field. She prayed with a counselor to ask Jesus Christ to take control of her life.
“I went from sadness and insecurity to happiness and confidence,” she remembers. “The counselor hugged me and stayed with me for a while. She took my name and address, and she talked to me.”
That was the beginning of Joana’s discipleship. During the next two years, the counselor wrote to her every week, sending her Bible studies and encouraging her to be involved in the life of the church.
The counselor’s constant and faithful exhortation, coupled with the influence of a local Methodist church–which had sports programs for young people–gave Joana a strong start in her faith in Christ.
Before long, Joana enrolled in a theological school. When she finished, she became heavily involved in ministering through the church.
“My work has been studying the Bible with people in very needy communities in Rio de Janeiro,” Joana explains. “The highlight for me is seeing people’s lives changed.”
This passion led to her being named Executive Secretary for Life and Mission for the Methodist Church in Brazil. In that capacity, she was asked to head up her denomination’s involvement in BGEA’s My Hope World Evangelism Through Television project in 2008.
“I was able to take part in another Crusade–not in a stadium, but in homes, as people invited loved ones to hear the Gospel preached through the My Hope broadcasts. It was very moving. Thirty-four years had gone by, and I hadn’t heard of Billy Graham in Brazil again. But then I was asked to take part in this project.”
On the Sunday after the My Hope broadcasts, Joana attended church in a small town in Rio de Janeiro state, where she saw people bringing forward envelopes filled with decision cards from those who had accepted Christ. And many new believers had come to the service that day with the friends who had invited them to watch the programs. Just the thought of that scene being repeated thousands of times throughout the nation overwhelmed her.
“Our country is going through a lot of violence and there is no trust in the authorities,” she said, “so the broadcasts about hope came at a very good time. It seems that through My Hope, churches have started to overcome some of the differences among various denominations, she explained.
To date, records show that more than 330,000 people accepted Christ through My Hope Brazil.
“Our challenge is to make sure Christians follow up with those who accepted Christ,” Joana says, adding that much hard work lies ahead of the churches in Brazil. “Many people recommitted themselves to Christ. There likely was no discipleship for them before. Now they’re coming back and we have to help them.”
Looking back at her years of walking with Christ–and now My Hope Brazil–Joana can see that something other than sports brings joy to her life.
“What makes me happy is to look back and see so many people who love studying the Bible–who want to do it!” d: ©2009 BGEA