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The time we got mugged at gunpoint in Rio

“I have six bullets so I can kill six of you!” he had yelled.


Truth is, I didn’t know we were being mugged until after it happened.

The entire trip across Brasil can fill a small book, so rather than shrink the entire voyage into a post, I want to zoom in on the night. The night that I casually mention to impress new friends, or round out a dating profile.

The night we got mugged at gunpoint in Rio.

It’s a true story and I’m recording it as accurately as my memory can afford.

Joel, my American friend, and Lucas, our Brasilian friend had trekked from São Paulo to Rio over the course of a week or two. It was fascinating examining the motives for the three of us. Lucas had a girl he had met at camp waiting for him in Rio de Janeiro, I was desperately trying to get further north to Salvador in order to see the girl I had met at camp, Giovanna, and Joel was just along to enjoy the ride.

Nevertheless, we had made our way to the legendary city after weeks of picturing what it would be like. We hopped local busses, ferries, and hitch hiked in order to arrive, and when we did it felt like Zion. There has been no other time in my life I have had such a distinct destination on the horizon toward which I slowly worked, day by day, waiting for life on the other side of arrival. And arriving paid off in droves, as the city was everything I imagined and more.

Joel, me, Lucas

We met up with some of our friends from camp, and sat on the beach. We swam in the ocean and paced the Copacabana over a string of relaxing days. There were about 3 girls, the three of us and maybe one or two other guys. Lucas was happily reunited with his woman, and the rest of us were having fun, even if half of us couldn’t communicate.

On July 24, 2011, we were celebrating Lucas’ birthday. I gathered up the nerve to get a tattoo on the inside of my lip (“SANTO,” which is Portuguese for “HOLY”), and afterward we got beers and snacks. We took our goods to a big rock on the northern side of Copacabana, away from the city lights, to watch the ocean and relax.

We went up and over one side of the rock and sat, facing nothing but the waves and the distant lights on the horizon where the shore curved back around. I sat by Joel and we were having some deep conversation when a skinny man staggered up to Lucas, behind us, and started talking.

The actual location. Probably minutes before the man came.

I glanced backward at him and assumed he was just another homeless vagrant asking for money. He and Lucas spoke Portuguese, so Joel and I dismissed the conversation and continued chatting while watching the waves.

The man, however, did not leave.

He continued talking with Lucas and after some time their tones fluctuated. What started off as a pathetic, soft beg for money seemed to escalate into anger. Joel and I continued watching the ocean. I mention something to Joel about how frustrating this is; why can’t we just enjoy our night in peace?

At least ten minutes later, the man was still talking to Lucas behind us and his tone dropped from angry to sad. He was nearly choked up.

It was at least half an hour before the man said goodbye to Lucas and walked to the next group of tourists on the rock, at least 50 yards away from us.

Joel and I stood up to ask Lucas what they were talking about, and as we did the girls with us burst into tears. Lucas told us what had been happening: The man came and demanded all of our wallets, phones and cameras. In his level-headed way, Lucas had told him that we were missionaries and were going around trying to do God’s work in Brasil. He also told the man it was his birthday.

Apparently, the man got defensive and was especially agitated that Joel and I were disrespecting him by keeping our backs to him. Lucas explained that we were Americans and didn’t even speak Portuguese, so we didn’t know what was going on. That’s when he got angry and lifted up his shirt to reveal a pistol tucked into his shorts.

“I have six bullets so I can kill six of you!” he had yelled.

I don’t know exactly what Lucas said to that — he would attribute it solely to the Holy Spirit and the protection of God — but eventually he ended up asking the man what his story was. The man’s voice became sad as he explained that he can’t get a job because he was incarcerated twice and he just wants to provide for his two boys. He ended up telling Lucas that he couldn’t steal from people doing God’s work, and especially not on his birthday.

The man departed with a haunting phrase, “Pray for me.”

Then he walked to the next tourists and we watched as they handed him their valuables.

An hour or two later when we started walking back to the hostel, we passed the man with his head hunched forward as we passed by. He was a small Brasilian with an oversized t-shirt and oversized gym shorts hanging halfway down his shins. I finally looked him in the face and saw the bags sinking below his eyes, heavy with sorrow. All 7 of us passed by him, giving him a sympathetic nod as he repeated his phrase to each one of us:

“Pray for me.”


2 comments on “The time we got mugged at gunpoint in Rio

  1. Alan Leonard

    Good story and glad no one got hurt, including the guy with the gun who asked for prayer, who actually seems like he has a good heart. There’s a story from the 90s of a NY Knicks forward who was mugged outside the Garden. After he overpowered the mugger, sitting on him till cops came, he tried to tell him the that God loves him and when the guy wouldn’t stop swearing, he smacked him & he went unconscious. Hope the guy’s sons are ok and he found work.

    Gotta ask, did the tattoo hurt? Inside of the lip seems like all nerve endings. And if it helps to keep what you say holy, you may start a trend.

    And did you ever make it to Salvador and Giovanna? I haven’t kept up with your blog.

    God bless you, what a journey

    • Hey Alan, thanks for reading! Nope, never saw Giovanna again, and no the tattoo didn’t hurt much at all! It was weird.

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