Ex-Member Bids Farewell To 60G - And Her Faith

New York Post / July 23, 2000
By Laura Italiano and Maria Alvarez

"It's about the money." Texas housewife Victoria Lorenzo has two words of warning for the thousands of New York members of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God: "Wake up!" "People have to wake up to what these people are doing. "New York people, please! I don't want to happen to them what happened to me," she told The Post.

Lorenzo said the church soaked her family for $60,000 in donations in only three years. She has lost nearly everything, she said - her family cleaning business, her home and her car. Her marriage was shattered under the strain. She has also lost her faith.

"I believe in nobody," she said angrily. "He broke my faith," she said of her former pastor. "He broke it very, very badly. "Oh, no, oh no, I cannot forget what the Universal Church did to my life." Lorenzo filed a complaint with the Texas attorney general's office against a Houston branch of the church.

The defectors claimed, among other things, that they were given "sacred oils" in exchange for generous donations. The "sacred oils" turned out to be cheap supermarket olive oil, said Ludy Karr, another former Texas church member.

Church chancellor and spiritual administrator Regina Cerveria said charges against the church are unfounded and unfortunate. She acknowledged that oil imported from Israel is sometimes mixed with regular olive oil. "It would be impossible to bring all that oil here," she said, adding that "The oil doesn't heal - people are healed by faith." She explained that the use of oil follows the Old Testament: "We anoint the sick with oil and they will be healed."

Texas officials say their hands are tied in pressing charges against the church. "There's a problem here, but we cannot legally sue," said Heather Browne, spokeswoman for the Texas state attorney. She said investigators found that church members gave their money voluntarily; no laws were broken. The probe died earlier this year. Here in New York, the state attorney general's office, which has the authority to investigate claims of church fraud, said it has received no complaints against Universal Church. The few local churchgoers who would speak to The Post said they gave their money willingly.

"My family told me not to give all my money," said one Manhattan believer, who asked her name not be used. "But this is the way I profess my faith." Hector Avalos - a former Pentecostal faith healer who has a doctorate in divinity from Harvard University and teaches religion at Iowa State University - said he sees serious "warning signs" in the practices of the Universal Church.

He said worshippers of any faith should be on guard when:

  • Their church uses threats or promises to get donations. Universal Church pastors often tell members that if they don't give money, they will not receive God's blessings.
  • The minister is wealthy. The Universal Church's spiritual leader, Edir Macedo Bezerra, has three BMWs - one in his wife's name - and a Mercedes registered to his name.
  • The church does no charitable work. Universal Church officials say they cannot afford to do any charitable outreach in New York, but hope to in the future.

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