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Demons on Broadway

Miracles. Exorcism. Catholic-bashing. Going for broke in the Universal Church.

LA Weekly, June 29-July 5, 2001
http://www.laweekly.com/ink/01/32/cover-trevino.shtml Off-site Link

universal church of the kingdom of god, stop suffering, stop met lijden, religion news report provides news of interest to those who work in Christian apologetics and countercult ministriesn.  It includes information about religious cults, sects, new religious movements, and related issues, such as religious freedom, religious tolerance, and cult crimes.

The demons just won't let go. Dozens of people, tormented by the forces of evil, fill the aisles. Church officials clutch the hair of the possessed, their shoulders, their flailing arms, doing whatever it takes to break the spell. Some of the faithful crouch on the floor, coughing up bile on newspapers. The cavernous "temple" -- an architectural gem along downtown L.A.'s historic theater row -- fills with the roar and chanting of 3,000 men and women, as Bishop José Luiz bellows at the altar, directing the mass exorcisms.

This is the Friday-night service of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, one of the best shows in town, where the bishop and his band of pastors battle the dark spirits that dare to mess with humanity.

What is going on here in the old State Theater on Broadway is no ordinary service. It's a raw blend of Christianity and witchcraft, and the top-selling spiritual hope for hundreds of thousands of Latino immigrants in the United States. In fact, the church's popularity is pumped up by the downright frightening nature of this spectacle, and by its firebrand allusions to the horror cinema so common in Mexico. The captivating combination of theology and culture threatens the staid Catholic Church both here and in Brazil. It is the work of a Rio de Janeiro lottery bureaucrat and former street preacher named Edir Macedo, who started the Pentecostal-style religion in 1977.

Twenty-four years later, the church claims to have 6 million mostly working-class members in 85 countries. They stuff the red collection bags with at least $1 billion per year in return for the spiritual care provided at storefront temples and converted movie houses. In Brazil, the church's influence extends beyond spiritual matters, into ownership of Brazil's Rede Record, the country's second-largest television network, and hundreds of radio stations, various newspapers, a bank and a credit company.

Along the way, Macedo has become a multimillionaire who draws criticism like the devout attract demons. A few years after he held his first service, in a tiny mortuary in Rio, unsubstantiated rumors began circulating about his multimillion-dollar international empire being little more than a giant money-laundering operation for the Colombian drug cartel. In 1996, the Brazilian press quoted Interpol official Romeu Tuma as saying that the U.S. Department of Justice had been asked to investigate the allegations; now, five years later, neither Interpol nor the U.S. Attorney's Office will comment on the matter. The unproven accusations of seedy drug connections have followed the church to Europe, where a 1997 report by the Belgian parliament claimed the church is out to defraud believers: "This is an authentic crime organization whose only goal is to enrich itself. This is an extreme form of religious merchandizing."

Macedo has been relatively untouched by it all. In 1992, two years after the $45-million acquisition of the Rede Record, he was arrested on suspicion of fraud and quackery, and spent 11 days in jail, according to a Brazilian newpaper. The charges were later dropped. In an interview with Brazilian media, Macedo denied any wrongdoing: "If we were thieves, we would not have bought a TV station, radio stations, nothing. We would have pocketed the cash and traveled around the world."

The Universal Church is well-known for its relentless fund-raising tactics. Rick Ross, an international cult expert, says Universal is the greediest religious group he has encountered. "It is the most aggressive collection of money I had ever seen in a church service, and I've been attending church services and observing groups for about 20 years," says Ross, who testified on behalf of an elderly Salvadoran woman who sued the church after falling and breaking her arm while in line for holy oil after an L.A. service.

Members face not one or two offerings every service, but as many as three or more, with pastors exhorting them to donate as much as $1,000. The church's lore is littered with tales of former members brought to financial doom by excessive giving. In an early training film, the fiery and dynamic Macedo is shown slamming down a Bible as he counted piles of money, and telling pastors, "If they don't pay, they can get out." Macedo says he has matured since then.

On this Friday night, halfway into the service, the congregation is focused on the wide stage, where Bishop José Luiz is interviewing a weeping, middle-aged woman and her two daughters near the altar. They have been selected, in a process that is not entirely clear, to lead the group catharsis. The question-and-answer session grows in intensity as the bishop hones in on the demons within. The screaming dialogue sets the pace for the simultaneous exorcisms of several dozen other "possessed" members and visitors whose bodies wrench back and forth, and who are attended to in the aisles or at their seats by church officials, called obreros.

Standing behind the mother is her youngest daughter, a beautiful 9-year-old girl with gleaming fair skin and dark hair. Her face contorted, the daughter again and again snaps at the bishop with a "Callate!" ("Shut up!"). Grasping the mother's head, the bishop commands the dark spirit inside her to reveal itself.

As the bishop and his pastors wrestle the mother and her daughters to the ground, the thousands in the seats shout their canticle: "¡Quema! ¡Quema! ¡QUEMA!" ("Burn! Burn! BURN!") Chaos reigns. The whole ordeal lasts 20 minutes. Finally, as if by magic, all of those who were possessed -- including the mother and her children -- are silent and calm, their demons vanquished. Smiling, the mother assures the crowd she is better. Before, she confesses, she would abuse her children, but now they hug each other. The crowd applauds, and the young family disappears off the stage into the boisterous crowd.

For the past six months, the Weekly has examined the Universal Church and its rapid growth in Southern California. This story is based on interviews with members, former members, and experts who have studied and written about the church, some of them reporters for the Brazilian media. It proved difficult to get the church's side of the story; Universal Church officials and ministers rarely grant interviews. At church headquarters in New York City, treasurer Regina Cerveira, speaking through her secretary, said no interviews would be granted to the Weekly. Much about the church remains secret, even for the faithful. Off-limit topics include finances of the church, its hierarchical structure, and even most of the surnames of many of the pastors and bishops.

In the United States, the church's attention is focused on the thriving Latino communities. From the large Puerto Rican enclaves in New York City to the mostly Mexican and Central American immigrants in Southern California, the church feverishly pursues working-class converts. The church has at least 20 temples in Southern California, with a new one opening every six months. Most are in heavily Latino areas, though temples have also opened in Azusa and on Hollywood Boulevard.

R. Andrew Chesnut, a Latin American studies assistant professor at the University of Houston, has studied the church in Brazil and the U.S., and traces the roots of its theology to Los Angeles. "Los Angeles is the birthplace of Pentecostalism," said Chesnut, who is the author of Born Again in BrazilOff-site Link. " From Los Angeles it was exported to Latin America and the rest of the world, in a decade. And now, in the beginning of the 21st century, it's coming back via Latin American missionaries."

Day after day, dozens of people claim to have been healed at church services and during Pare de Sufrir (Stop Suffering), a daily religious television program and a radio show broadcast that originate in Los Angeles.

During his youth, Macedo tried indigenous Brazilian religions, such as Umbanda, which uses trancelike states called "sessions" to chase out Indian spirits. In 1969, at age 24, he "accepted Jesus" at Igreja Nova Vida (Church of the New Life), one of the many Pentecostal churches on the rise in Brazil. Knowing Jesus, Macedo told Veja, was "such an intense pleasure that it cannot be described. Much more pleasurable than a man has coming with a woman." Macedo's conversion to Pentecostalism marked the beginning of his life, he says. It also ignited a hatred of Catholicism.

Macedo's Jesus was not the footsore rabbi preached about in the Catholic churches of Brazil. While the Catholic Church promised a better life in the world to come, Macedo assured Brazilians of a more prosperous life on Earth, one without pain.
"Jesus was never poor," Macedo said to Veja. "He [Jesus] said, 'I am the Lord of Lords and King of Kings.' A king is never poor." Mário Justino, a former pastor who worked for the church from 1980 till 1991, believes that preaching materialism instead of salvation for the soul is the reason for the success of Macedo's message. The church sells empowerment to those who feel left out of the mainstream.

Another factor in the overwhelming success of the church is the way it blends most of Brazil's religions into one, says Kenneth Serbin, a professor at the University of San Diego who has studied the Universal Church in Brazil and in the U.S. Macedo, he says, borrowed elements of Pentecostalism, Catholicism, French Spiritism and Umbanda. "In effect, he has created a mirror image of Brazilian religion and reformulated that image into a new religion," Serbin says. "And he's exporting it!"

Many of the Brazilian converts are drawn from the ranks of the Afro-Brazilian religions, Chesnut says. The church has followed the same successful formula all over Latin America and the United States, where it preaches against indigenous Caribbean and Mexican practices, such as the ritual cleansing of Santería and faith-healing curanderismo. The Universal's practice of exorcisms goes beyond that of most Pentecostal churches. "They actually invoke the demons," Chesnut says.

The church's logo, "Pare de Sufrir" ("Stop Suffering"), was embraced by many Brazilians suffering from physical, spiritual or mental maladies. The message contrasted sharply with classical Latin American Catholic stoicism, which preached the endurance of pain as a way to purge sins.

Macedo knows the power of the media. Taking his cue from American televangelists, he acquired radio stations and bought television time all over Brazil to spread the word.

In 1986, Macedo moved to New York. Traveling back and forth from New York to Rio, the bishop managed a church that had turned into an empire and extended throughout most of South America. By 1995, the church was sending missionaries to established churches in Portugal, the United States and South Africa. That year, Macedo held a rally of 100,000 people in Johannesburg, on the same day that Pope John-Paul II held one the same size.

Since 1986, Macedo has encouraged his disciples to vote for politicians who back the church. Dozens of Brazilian senators and state assemblymen have been elected by Universal Church voters. Among those elected with Universal Church votes have been the bishop's siblings Edna Fernandes and Eraldo Macedo.

Macedo captured the attention of mainstream Brazil with his 1990 purchase of Rede Record. With 64 affiliates, the TV network is the second largest in the country. By then, the church had just over 3 million followers in Brazil alone, with more than 2,000 temples in the country. Macedo was now ready to declare war on two of the most powerful entities in Brazil: the Catholic Church and Latin America's largest media group, Organizaes Globo.

Brazilian magnate Roberto Marinho, the owner of the top-ranked network, saw his audience begin to dwindle. He plotted ways to retaliate. Suddenly, "O Globo" reporters became very interested in Rede Record and the Universal Church. They were to receive some help from an informant, Carlos Magno de Miranda, one of Macedo's top lieutenants.

Miranda joined the Universal Church back in 1977, when Macedo was just another street preacher. By 1990, Miranda had become Macedo's right-hand man, with the number-two position in the church and with insight into its finances. That year, however, Miranda left the church and went to the Brazilian press with lurid stories of alleged money laundering by high-ranking church officials. He told the press that Bishop Macedo had flown him and a group of pastors with their wives in a private jet to Colombia. Once there, he said, Miranda and the pastors had been asked to carry back with them $1 million from a cocaine dealer of the Cali cartel, which had agreed to help the church buy Rede Record. Miranda refused, he said, but the rest of the pastors and their wives hid the money in suitcases and in the underwear they were wearing.

Miranda also alleged that the church had smuggled large amounts of high-tech radio equipment from the United States into Brazil by bribing custom agents. Miranda's allegations prompted investigations by Brazilian authorities, but no evidence to substantiate them was ever found.

Macedo denied all of these charges. The bishop's aides told the Brazilian press that Miranda's accusations against the church were ludicrous. "The accusation is just too ridiculous," said Felisberto Pinto, one of Macedo's lawyers. "If it had been $50 million, it might have been intelligent. But why would he take such a risk for $1 million if he already had $45 million [to buy the network]?"

Renegade bishop Renato Suhett says that he never witnessed anything remotely confirming Miranda's allegations. He believes that the church's alleged drug connection is a myth. "The problem with the Universal Church is her love of money," Suhett says. "[But] the church does not need to get involved in drug-dealing to make money."

The scandal managed to put the Universal Church and Macedo in a permanent spotlight. Many predicted that the church would crumble after Miranda's accusations, but the contrary occurred. "Jesus' message was not accepted at first, and he was persecuted. Now our message is not accepted, because we preach the word of God with great intensity," Universal Church president Odenir Laprovita told the Brazilian press. "You can't judge the work of Jesus by the word of Judas."

Macedo and his pastors dismissed Marinho and O Globo as doing the work of the devil. The faithful were told not to watch the O Globo network, or buy any of its publications. Two years later, in 1992, Macedo was arrested upon his return to Brazil from the United States, for fiscal fraud in his acquisition of Rede Record. Millions of his followers prayed for him.

Observers believe that incidents such as Macedo's arrest have only made his stand seem firmer. In the Veja interview, Macedo admitted that, rather than hindering the church, his arrest had helped it. "The Universal Church does a pretty good job of portraying themselves as victims of religious intolerance," Chesnut says. "They definitely milk that for all it's worth -- particularly when Macedo went to jail. That was probably great for the cause."

Despite the years of turmoil, Macedo's church continued to expand, opening temples in China and Russia. Reflecting on his troubles and triumphs, Macedo said, "We are like an omelet. The more they beat us, the more we grow."Off-site Link

But as the church grew, the war with Marinho and O Globo escalated. In late 1995, O Globo aired Decadencia (Decadence), a 12-part miniseries based on the character Mariel Batista, a Pentecostal preacher who lives a life of luxury by deceiving and blackmailing his followers. Macedo countered by telling his flock to purchase wrist ribbons for $50 in a show of solidarity with their church. He renamed the week of Decadencia's airing "Persecution Week."

The year 1995 proved to be the most controversial in the Universal Church's short history. The outrage over Decadence had barely subsided when Sergio Von Helde, the man who was the first bishop of Los Angeles and afterwards the bishop of São Paulo, kicked a statue of Aparecida, Brazil's patron virgin, during a television broadcast, to demonstrate his hatred of the Catholic Church.

The O Globo network made sure that most Brazilians would learn of the virgin-kicking incident by airing it again and again, day after day. What disturbed Catholics even more was the fact that it had happened on October 12, the day of Aparecida's national feast. Catholics in some Brazilian cities rioted and threw stones and eggs at Universal Church temples. Universal members retaliated with street demonstrations, 100,000 strong.

The street riots were barely over when Miranda leaked a stunning video to O Globo in which the bishop instructed pastors on how to milk crowds for money. The video, shot by Miranda, also showed Macedo and some of his bishops frolicking in yachts. Then, Macedo's pastors are overheard talking about taking off their clothes in a Jerusalem hotel lobby during a Holy Land tour. In another part of the video, Macedo can be seen dancing on Rio's Copacabana Beach. Later, the video shows the bishop making lewd faces and sticking his tongue out as he counts donations -- proudly flashing $100 bills -- during an opening night at a temple in New York.
Macedo did not deny that the video was authentic. But he said that he and his pastors had done nothing illegal, and that the footage had been shot during his younger, more immature days.

Stories abound about the contempt in which pastors sometimes hold their free-giving parishioners. Walfre Ramos, a former radio technician for Los Angeles' KWKW 1330 AM La Mexicana, worked for almost a year with Universal Church pastors on the daily radio show Pare de Sufrir. The pastors would congratulate listeners who called in pledges, he says, but off the air they'd poke fun.
"People would call in saying they made $150 a week working backbreaking jobs, and that they were going to donate their entire paychecks," Ramos says. "But when the pastors were off the air, they would laugh at the callers, saying, 'These people are so dumb.'"

The Universal Church has a lofty goal: to own Christianity in Los Angeles' Latino immigrant community. Blocking the way, in Macedo's vision, is only one church -- the Catholic Church. Macedo believes he can steal members away from the tradition-bound giant here, just like he did in Brazil.

Macedo has learned that it doesn't take massive architectural monuments to attract the downtrodden and their money. The Universal Church's network of old theaters may be easy to miss in Los Angeles, but they represent the core of the church's stealth presence here. Tens of thousands of the faithful walk every day into the old movie houses identified only by marquees and posters in the lobbies.

The Universal Church's growth has not been stalled by complaints from its former members. One reason, at least in Los Angeles, may be that the existence of the churches has not been widely known outside church circles. Consider the case of Maria Chavez. A mother of three, Chavez was well-known in Aliso Village, a 685-unit public-housing project in Los Angeles, for making the best homemade pies around. But two years after she joined the Universal Church, Chavez, then 47, suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide by swallowing a bottle of pills. Five years later, she still hallucinates about demons who torment her, and sometimes rambles incoherently about a world dominated by the Universal Church, says her husband, Amado Chavez. He blames the church for his wife's mental breakdown.

For every critic of the church, there appears to be a stadium full of supporters. In April, a rally at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles drew 10,000 people. "La Gran Concentracion de Fe" ("The Great Faith Concentration") was the L.A. church's first grand-scale rally, much like the ones it holds in Brazil and Africa.

In the end, who will win, the church or its critics? Macedo is a true innovator when it comes to marketing his church among the poor and immigrant communities, says professor Kenneth Serbin. "But as the church gains notoriety, it will most likely come under scrutiny of the press and law enforcement," Serbin says. "The question that needs to be asked is 'When people put their money in that little red bag, where is it going?'"

Perhaps the church will get involved in local politics, just like it has in Brazil, in Portugal and in other parts of the world, says former bishop Renato Suhett. It may start out by contributing money to politicians and their campaigns, he says. "It is a strategy for the whole world. They will try to put in [a politician] of their own. They will start in California, with the lowest office, then it will keep on growing."

Macedo is a complicated man. He is not the con artist some of his detractors say he is, believes Eduardo Borges, a Miami-based television producer who worked for him from 1996 to 1998. Borges, who never belonged to the church, helped produce the 20-year anniversary video. He says Macedo is a mild-mannered man of culture whose sole purpose is to bring God to the masses. "Bishop Macedo is a great man. He's like what a truly good president is -- a great leader," says Borges. "I have seen that the church truly has helped people. If you could only see the church in Africa, you would not believe it. And those choruses! They sang like angels!"

The doctrines and practices of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God are outside those of normal, biblical Christianity.

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