It was fall in Brazil, and rain drizzled under a gray moon. The faithful were beginning to arrive at the International Mission of Miracles, a Pentecostal church in the poor and working-class city of São Gonçalo, 10 miles from Rio de Janeiro. In front of the church, which was located between a supermarket and an abandoned lot, a banner staked in the muddy ground advertised a young girl named Alani Santos, whose touch could heal.
Inside the boxy, bright room, a boy played gospel songs on a turntable while the opening preachers gave sermons. Two home-goods-store employees — still wearing their aprons and name tags — took their usual seats. A man in a soccer jersey rocked a crying toddler in a plastic chair. In the back, Levan Lomsadze, a 24-year-old from the Republic of Georgia, paced nervously; he had flown from the Caucasus to Brazil in the hope that Alani could cure his severe speech impediment. Sergio Teixeira, 33, rushed in late; lean and tall, with imitation Nikes on his feet and a muay Thai tattoo on his arm, Teixeira had taken the day off from a temp job painting gates to travel to the church by bus from his home on the outskirts of Rio. Though it was only 20 miles away, the trip through jammed traffic on shoulderless roads had taken nearly five hours.
After the room filled with about 60 people, Pastor Adauto Santos, Alani’s father, took the stage. Heavyset and slow-moving, he was dressed in a navy blue three-piece suit. Adauto built the Mission of Miracles himself, partly using materials he repurposed from odd jobs. It was modest — uncovered fluorescent bulbs glared over the white tile floor — but had a few regal touches, like sliding Plexiglas doors, a large multicolored banner showing Jesus rising above a saturated blue sky and, in the shed that served as the church office, a chair decorated to look like a throne, with hand-stapled leather and gold paint.