'I've Been There'
How a one-time teen rebel served in Awana to reach Brazilian youth struggling with the same hardships

With his off-road racing motorcycle, black leather jacket and tattoos, Paulo Rocha didn’t fit the mold of the typical Awana leader. It's this street-wise image that helped draw crowds of teenagers each week to the Awana meetings he led at Igreja Batista El Shaddai Church in Campinas, a suburb of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Paulo Rocha

But the reason Paulo connected so easily with urban teens extended beyond his tough-guy veneer. Simply put, he has walked in their shoes.

From religion to relationship
As a child, Paulo attended a church that preached Christianity as a strict religion of rules to follow and communicated an image of God as a harsh judge to fear. When he began refusing to go, his parents responded with spankings and other forms of punishment. Finally, at age 10, he broke his parents' will and stopped visiting church altogether.

As a teen, Paulo joined a motorcycle gang and altogether rejected church. But the luster of his rugged new lifestyle wore off when 18 of his 20 motorcycle friends died from fights, drugs or alcohol.

Paulo soon made new friends from school who exuded joy and accepted him as he was, in part because many came from a similar background. They invited him to a weekend retreat, where he heard about a God who loved him unconditionally. His new friends' winsomeness, combined with the truth of the gospel, led him to trust Christ as his Savior in 1990.

"That's why I am so concerned about teens," he said. "When I see teens that are confused or lack direction or don't know what it means to know Christ personally, I can identify with them because I've been there."

Finding his mission
As Paulo matured spiritually over the next 10 years, he developed a heart for teens growing up in the kind of rough-and-tumble circumstances he once faced.

"He started seeing kids going through what he went through and decided he needed to be a difference in their lives," said Dan Swedberg, Awana Brazil national director.

Paulo's pastor introduced him to Awana missionary Juca Cerpe, who convinced him that Jr. Varsity (JV), the Awana middle-school program, could reach those types of kids in his neighborhood.

In 2000, Paulo helped his church establish an Awana club that met at a nearby public school. The club attracted hundreds of youth in its first year, convincing Paulo to persuade three other churches in the town of Campinas to begin Awana.

"There's a big drug problem in the neighborhood. Other kids' parents are divorced, they're poor, they need discipline, they're non-churched … they are needy kids," Paulo said. "When they come here, they see how well they are treated and want to come back. And our church has people that used to be drug dealers and had other problems who can be role models for them. I've seen many kids accept Christ as Savior."

Paulo didn’t wait for the teens to come to JV. He regularly visited families in the neighborhood and invited their kids to club. Once they began attending, he built relationships with them, earning their trust and the right to share the truth of Christ with them.

The mentoring touch
One boy who responded to Paulo's mentoring is Chiago. Once a drug addict, he was befriended by Paulo and agreed to check out JV. He accepted Christ as his Savior and later became an Awana leader. Today he is married and leads the church's youth group.

"We had things in common, like motorcycling," Paulo said. "I got him to come to church and encouraged him to become an Awana leader. He is doing great."

Like Chiago, Bruno was a confused teen lost in drug abuse when he met Paulo. At Paulo's suggestion, he attended a church retreat, started going to JV and placed his faith in Christ. Now he brings his sister to youth group with him.

Paulo met Steven, a teenager from a non-churched family, when he was looking for someone to help paint a mural in the church. Steven was recommended, and in the process of completing the project Paulo convinced him to volunteer as an Awana leader. Steven is now one of the club's game leaders.

"The teens were more like my friends," Paulo said. "You have to establish a close, personal relationship with them. You have to slowly get to know them. They need love. They need to be able to go to get help from the church leadership."

Taking Awana everywhere
Paulo's vision for Awana soon stretched well beyond Campinas. Paulo served as a board member for the Awana Brazil national ministry. He helped train leaders of new Awana clubs and used his business and marketing acumen to develop a plan to make Awana self-sustaining financially in Brazil and throughout Latin America.

"Sixty million kids live in Brazil between ages 4 and 18,” said Paulo, who now works with Global Media Fellowship. “About 12,000 kids in Brazil attend Awana right now. Other mission agencies want to partner with us to spread Awana around Brazil and the world."

The obstacles in Brazil are significant; six missionaries currently serve Awana in a nation of 176 million people. But Paulo is undeterred. If God could transform a hardened young man in a motorcycle gang 20 years ago, He can do anything.

"Christ didn't have many people on His team, but in three years He organized enough people to reach the world," Paulo said. "Through Awana, we can reach everybody in the world, too."

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