A Brazilian pastor's double COVID life

by Michael DANTAS, with Valeria PACHECO in Brasilia
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Brazilian evangelical pastor Izaias Nascimento (R), 49, carries a coffin during a funeral at the Sao Francisco cemetery in Manaus, the biggest city in the Brazilian Amazon, and one of those hit hardest by the new coronavirus

Izaias Nascimento leads a double life.

By day, he dons his protective suit to help poor families bury loved ones lost to COVID-19.

By night, he is an evangelical pastor, holding services in the homes of the faithful to try to help them get through the pandemic.

Nascimento, 49, lives and preaches in Manaus, the biggest city in the Brazilian Amazon, and one of those hit hardest by the new coronavirus.

In his day job, he works for a municipal program called SOS Funeral. Created to help families living in poverty hold funerals for their relatives, it is also helping hospitals and cemeteries handle the surge in deaths caused by COVID-19.

Nascimento's job includes going to hospitals or homes where victims have died, bringing their remains to the public cemetery and helping lower their coffins into the mass graves the authorities are using to cope with the outbreak.

It is hard work in a pandemic.

He typically starts his 12-hour work day at 7:00 am.

At the height of the outbreak in Manaus, "we never rested," says Nascimento, a solidly built man with brown skin and an easy smile.

The city's health system was on the brink of collapse in May, when the number of daily deaths jumped by 200 percent.

Nascimento's team, one of eight operated by SOS Funeral, was performing up to 10 burials a day, he says.

In recent days, the pace has slowed to about three a day.

Still, with nearly 70,000 infections and 3,000 deaths, Manaus is one of the cities suffering most from COVID-19 in Brazil, the country with the second-highest number of cases and deaths in the world, after the United States.

- 'Calling from God' -

By night, Nascimento has a different calling -- though lately, it overlaps with his day job in many ways.

At 7:00 pm, he heads home, disinfects himself and has dinner with his family.

Then he goes back out to hold services a pastor for Reaching Lives Pentecostal Church, one of many evangelical churches that have taken hold in traditionally Catholic Brazil in recent years.

Four years ago, he says, he got a message from God.

"'You are going to care for my children when they are in need of a friendly word,'" he says he heard in his prayers.

The authorities have banned church services as part of their measures to contain the virus, but the faithful have been gathering at private residences.

Nascimento's voice boomed through the kitchen of the "sister" who hosted prayers one recent night in her small brick house.

Wearing face masks, he and his flock lifted their arms to the sky and gave thanks to God, the pastor's words resonating through the night.

It is a vocation that has helped him reach out to families hurting from the abrupt loss of loved ones to COVID-19, he says.

- Loss and solace -

That is something important in his work at SOS Funeral, too.

"I feel my neighbor's pain. That's why this job is the thing I love most in the world. God put me here to do this," he says.

Some mourners are left in anger by their loss, and part of Nascimento's job is to deal with that.

"Sometimes when we arrive, people scream. 'Don't take my mom, don't take my dad.' We have to handle it. Sometimes they attack us," he says.

"I know it hurts."

At one recent funeral, Nascimento consoled a young man who had just buried his father. Because of municipal rules on funerals for coronavirus victims, he was the only mourner present.

Nascimento gave him words of comfort.

"God gave me a gift for words. I use it with love and dedication. I don't care if this is a high-risk job," he says.

Brazilian evangelical pastor Izaias Nascimento (R), 49, carries a coffin during a funeral at the Sao Francisco cemetery in Manaus, the biggest city in the Brazilian Amazon, and one of those hit hardest by the new coronavirus

Izaias Nascimento (2-R) works by day to help families in Manaus bury their loved ones, and by night as an evangelical pastor

After working for 12 hours on funerals, Izaias Nascimento (R) -- seen here loading the coffin for a COVID-19 victim into a van -- has dinner with his family and then holds evening church services

Brazilian evangelical pastor Izaias Nascimento (C), leads a religious service at a private residence in Manaus -- proper services at church are suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic

Izaias Nascimento (C) says he got a message from God four years ago, leading him to become a pastor