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July 27, 2013

Pope's slum visit: Impressive but little impact



"I knew that there was no chance that my house would be the one the pope would visit, but I wanted it to be neat and clean as a sign of respect for him," Marques said, adding that she'd watched the pope's visit from her church's rooftop. "It was marvelous to have him here, a sheer joy for all of us residents, whatever our faith."

But asked whether seeing the pope in the flesh might nudge her back into the Catholic fold, she was categorical.

"No way. A true Christian would never do that," said Marques, a striking black woman with bone-white hair pulled back into a bun. "The pope struck me as a good man, a humble man, but that's no reason for me to abandon the church I've pledged my life to."

Anriete Matos, a 37-year-old manicurist who converted to an evangelical church about 20 years ago, said she thought the most lasting legacy of the visit would be more material than spiritual, referring to the handful of minor infrastructure projects local officials rushed to finish ahead of the pope's arrival.

"This community has been completely abandoned by City Hall for a very long time," said Matos, as she sat atop a 2-foot-high slab of concrete in front of her door that helps keep water out of her house during frequent floods. "So it was great that they did a few things, like patching up most of the holes in the asphalt, putting in a bit of sidewalk and trimming the trees for the pope, even if we suspect it was just a one-time thing."

As she spoke, a group of bare-chested, bare-footed boys chased after a lame horse with protruding ribs down the street as motorcycles buzzed by. A stray dog hustled after a rat near a crumbling building that Matos said had once served as a community center before it was abandoned and then occupied by crack addicts. A young man with links to the Red Command drug gang walked up and down the street, eyeing outsiders intensely. The heavily armed Red Command had ruled Varginha for decades and was pushed out in January under the government's slum "pacification" program.

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