After the landslides in Brazil, grief and faith among the ruins

PETROPOLIS, Brazil — Every day, Alex Sandro Condé leaves the shelter he’s been staying in since deadly landslides devastated his impoverished mountainside neighborhood and searches for others who have suffered losses. He doesn’t have to search hard.

Condé can’t even walk a block without stopping to put his hand on someone’s shoulder and offer a hug, a kind word, some spiritual advice. This is how great the grief is in Alto da Serra – Sierra Heights in English – which he had called home for all his 42 years and considered “the best place on Earth”.

A devout evangelical Christian, Condé sees his divine mission as being strong in the aftermath of disaster so that others can lean on him. He says God has commissioned him to offer comfort, compassion and help to others and, using his faith and scripture, to help heal the affected community.

“’Whoever you see needs help, you will help them. I keep you on your feet, ”said Condé, who told him that the Lord had told him. “God gives me the right words to bring encouragement to anyone who needs it.”

One day, about a week after the landslide, he was walking through the streets when he came across a shirtless man he knew. They had lost a mutual friend, and Condé threw his arms around him. For a moment, they rested their heads on each other’s shoulders.

Across the street, Condé spotted another man, Adalto da Silva. On the day of the slide, da Silva was with his 21-year-old son when the mud caught them; the son was taken away. On the descent, da Silva’s wife had tried to keep their 6-year-old daughter safe between her legs, he said; their bodies were found in the mud, still in this embrace.

Condé sat da Silva in a chair, then knelt in front of him and held his shoulders. They talked for a long time, looking into each other’s eyes, and Condé told her that he felt her pain. Da Silva cried.

There’s always someone else who needs comfort: Landslides on February 15 destroyed dozens of homes in Sierra Heights and killed more than 200 people across the city.

Condé is a tireless man, always on the move. Keeping busy keeps him from being idle, which would be like dwelling on his own grief.

Before the disaster, he worked in a screen printing workshop with his childhood friend Thiago das Graças, whom he considered closer than a brother. There was also his current brother, Ivan, and Condé’s eldest son, Kaíque, 18, who was working for his first job and happily saving for a car.

They were all together at the store the day 10 inches of rain poured over Petropolis in just three hours, the heaviest downpour in 90 years of record keeping. When the rain calmed down a bit, Condé rushed home. Kaíque stayed behind, watching football on his phone with his uncle.

At home, Condé heard a rumble like thunder and then a roar, louder and closer. The metal roof started to rattle and he rushed outside. A wall of dirt was heading towards him, carrying tree trunks, rocks, roofing and rebar. Condé crouched down and prepared, thinking, “I’m going to die buried.”

But the torrent passed a few steps from the house. What had only moments before been a dense group of multi-storey houses was now a large muddy gash strewn with wreckage. Condé ran to the workshop and discovered that he had also been swallowed.

Researchers pulled Kaíque’s body from the mud two days later, and Condé threw himself into the service of others.

This included daily visits to another shelter where a friend who was severely injured by the slip was staying.

Recently, sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall, the friend could barely move his legs. Blood rubbed off a bandage on his head. Condé helped him into a wheelchair so he could be taken to the bathroom.

“Every day I come here to help,” Condé said. “I cannot stay at the shelter (where his family is). There I will begin to remember my son.

It was only when he came home at night, walking alone, that he allowed himself access to the pain, and he remembered that three passers-by had once seen him cry. Approaching the shelter, he took deep breaths to steady himself, then stepped inside to be with his family.

When the morgue called to say that Kaíque’s body had been cleared for release, Condé went there to meet his wife, Gabriela. Friends expressed their condolences as the car drove past heavy machinery still digging into areas buried by the landslide.

He scrolled through his phone with photos of Sierra Heights residents who were lost: Mrs. Selma who had practically raised neighborhood boys of her generation. Solange and Eli, who hosted barbecues. His brother, his best friend.

Arriving at the morgue, Condé reassured his destitute sister-in-law that Kaíque had obeyed the commandments of the Lord and thus obtained salvation. He shared the same thoughts with the funeral service representative during the preparations for the burial.

“I believe his faith, his prayers and his willingness to help his helpless fellow man like him kept him strong,” Rep. Elisangela Gomes later said. “There was no one more trusting in God than Mr. Alex.”

At the cemetery, Condé remained collected as he carried the coffin up a steep hill of sparse grass and fresh graves. Lowering Kaíque into the ground, he turned away and closed his eyes. He put his arm around his wife’s shoulder, and they stood in reverence for a few minutes. He thanked Kaíque for the time they had spent together.

The following night, at a friend’s house, Condé felt God’s presence and wept shamelessly – “to wash the soul”, he said.

Condé brought his youngest son, 14-year-old Piter, back to Sierra Heights one last time. He wanted the boy to see the aftermath of the landslide and where Kaíque had died.

They passed a woman dragging a mattress, and Condé put a hand on her arm. Those who are baptized will be saved, he told the woman, and urged her to turn to God for strength.

“My God keep me on my feet. He… is very strong,” Condé told him. “And who am I to question the sovereignty of God? Me, a mere mortal, that He put here, and I’m going to complain or wonder what He did? What the believer needs is certainty of salvation.

Then Condé shouldered the woman’s mattress and carried her burden down the hill.

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Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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