Holy-Roller Church Cashes In On Faithful

New York Post / July 23, 2000
By Maria Alvarez, Laura Italiano and Luiz C. Riberio

Give us your money and we'll free your soul from Satan. That's the marketing pitch of a controversial international Pentecostal church that is spreading like wildfire in New York and across the United States - and making its South American founder a multimillionaire.

Despite repeated and ongoing - but unsuccessful - investigations into alleged quackery and tax evasion in its native Brazil, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God now has an estimated 6 million members worldwide and earns an estimated $1 billion annually from donations to its 2,000 churches in almost 50 countries. The church, which offers members weekly walk-in exorcisms, has moved into nearly 100 converted movie theaters, supermarkets and storefronts in poor neighborhoods from Los Angeles to Long Island.

In New York City, services are held seven days a week, three times a day, at 11 branches or "temples," in The Bronx, Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. There are two more branches on Long Island, another in Portchester, and seven in New Jersey.

Believers are promised healing and riches - for a price. The more one gives, the more miracles one will reap, The Post heard preachers say in church branches in four boroughs.

"Give $500, $100, $50," a Brooklyn bishop pleaded recently in a branch in a converted movie house on Fourth Avenue in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn. "When you give freely, you will prosper."

In Woodside, Queens, a pastor bellows out to his followers: "Unless you give, you cannot be blessed."

Regina Cerveira, the Universal Church's chancellor and spiritual administrator in New York, insists that a higher donation doesn't buy a better blessing. "A person who gives $500 is not going to get more blessings than someone who just gives $100."

But ex-pastor Mario Justino said that during a decade of preaching for the Universal Church in Brazil, Portugal and Brooklyn, his superiors instructed him to "tell the people, 'If you don't give, God does not look at your problems.'"

Justino said he told followers that God was not content with small change. If they want to prosper, they must give until it hurts. "We'd tell them, 'You have to give something that you can't afford, something that you will feel the next day, like the money for the rent, for the groceries, for your children's schools,'" said Justino, author of "Inside the Kingdom," a church exposé published in Brazil. "That's when you put your destiny in God's hands. That's what proves your faith in God," he said.

"It's a spiritual version of Wall Street - give up some of your money in hopes of getting a lot more back," Iowa State University religion professor and former faith healer Hector Avalos said of Pentecostalism, the Christian belief system at the core of the Universal Church.

Adds Justino - who was kicked out of the church when he tested positive for the AIDS virus, "It's not about the Bible. It's about the money." Daily church services often turn into theatrical dramas in which members are told they are possessed by demons that only the church can expel.

Women and men collapse to the floor; babble in tongues and even vomit as a pastor hovers over them praying fanatically for a cure - while women volunteers in crisp white shirts wait to catch mesmerized members who grow faint.

Testimonials of unexpected windfalls of cash, cars, homes - or long-awaited jobs are then given. Followers testify they have been cured of depression, insomnia, panic attacks, bad luck and even AIDS. Brooklyn believer Ana Perez, 48, told The Post she was cured of cancer. "I got scared and came here," she said.

"Everyone in the church prayed for me. All these people were praying for me. I had tears running down my face - pouring from my chin. I never cried so hard in my life. These people have power," Perez said.

The church's spiritual leader, Edir Macedo Bezerra, is a former low-level Brazilian national lottery employee and disillusioned Catholic who began his ministry in 1977 by preaching on a weekly radio show, according to Brazilian press reports.

Macedo and his hierarchy of church leaders are under investigation in Brazil for allegedly falsifying documents and evading taxes on almost $5 million worth of electronic equipment for his 30 radio stations.

"It's frustrating," said national prosecutor Andre Libonati, who said he has been waiting three years for Macedo's lawyers to answer the charges in court.

"It is very difficult to get these cases moving in Brazil. I only hope U.S. authorities will begin their own investigation," said Libonati, who is based in Sao Paulo.

In Texas, where ex-members of a Houston temple raised questions about the church's fund-raising tactics, the state attorney's office said it found itself powerless to act because church members make their donations voluntarily.

"There is nothing we can do legally," said Heather Browne, state's attorney spokeswoman. "There's a problem here - but we cannot legally sue." Victoria and Jesus Lorenzo of Houston left the church after giving $60,000. They lost their office-cleaning business and went bankrupt.

"They left us in the street," said Victoria Lorenzo. "It got to the point that we had to give them all our money - literally they were asking members in the church to empty their pocketbooks on the altar."

Ex-church volunteer Ludy Karr of Houston admitted she scammed followers by buying olive oil from the local supermarket that pastors then claimed to churchgoers was blessed, and had come from Israel.

"When I asked the pastor about it, he said I had the devil inside me and that I was being taken over by evil spirits," said Karr. She said she gave $3,500, and later another $2,000, to the Campaign to Israel, in which churchgoers paid to have their petitions and prayers taken to Jerusalem by their pastors.

"They were always inventing gimmicks to get money from people," Karr said. Nonsense, said Cerveira in an interview in the church's office on East 23rd Street in Manhattan. "It's unfortunate that the Universal Church in its concerted efforts to help people who are down and out are criticized and face negative publicity," she said. She said the church's goal in the U.S. is "to bring the people who are suffering out of the misery of drug abuse and alcoholism so they can become normal human beings in society."

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