Demons on Broadway

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

LA Weekly/July 5, 2001
By Joseph Treviño

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."

People are out to destroy the good work of the church, says Edward Campiani, a 41-year-old San Fernando member who worked as a church administrator in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. "The Universal Church has the power of God with it. It has helped thousands of gang members and drug addicts for whom the Catholic Church has done nothing."

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. It turns out the woman's husband has been cheating on her. In a deep, strong voice, the spirit tells the mesmerized rows of faithful that it was introduced into the woman by a hex placed by the husband's lover. "I will destroy her and her family!" the spirit declares as the mother claws at the bishop.

Her demon is not the only one raging out of control. Directly in front of the stage, a burly man in his 20s, wearing a satin shirt and cowboy boots, pushes aside several obreros with his powerful arms. "Aaaaarghh," he growls as they pounce on him. Grunts, spasms and the hacking sounds of people spewing saliva mix in with the church servants' shouting "Sal!" ("Get out!"). The noise seems deafening. Facing the crowd, the bishop points at the possessed and yells into his microphone, "We will burn these demons."

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 Brazil. " 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. In heart-wrenching testimonies, converts swear the church saved them from a sure path of self-destruction. "The doctors told me that I had cancer and that I only had six more months to live," said Salvadora Villa. "Thanks to the Universal Church, I no longer have cancer and I am happier than ever before."

Unfathomable despair had stolen every bit of Melanea Quiñones' desire to live. In a matter of months, she had been injured in a bus accident, gone through various stages of a divorce and seen her grown children move out of the house. Quiñones wanted to end her suffering. As she was about to jump off a freeway overpass, a friend managed to pull her to safety.

Quiñones was trying to wrest free from her friend when police plucked her off the Boyle Heights bridge, in May 1993. She was held for examination at a psychiatric ward, then sent home. Several days later, as she walked aimlessly along Broadway Street, a billboard about Pastor Marco and his conversion to the Universal Church caught her eye outside the Million Dollar Theater, the church's original temple downtown. She walked inside and talked to him. That afternoon, Quiñones left behind her suicidal tendencies and became one of the first converts to the church in Los Angeles.

Over the past eight years, the 58-year-old Quiñones has donated more than $60,000 -- about $625 per month. It is a lot for a working-class Latina, but to her it has been worth every cent.

"I used to feel like one of those pennies that everyone steps on," says Quiñones, a grandmother who makes about $30,000 per year as a cook at a Los Angeles County Jail. "I was rescued from a life of hell, suffering and poverty, and [brought] into a life of faith and peace."

In its early years in L.A., the church struggled. Two pastors, Marco and Marcio, opened the downtown temple in February 1993. Services were restricted to the theater lobby; the auditorium was rat-infested and smelled of feces and urine from years of abandonment and squatter-abuse. Quiñones recalls one morning when she brought Pastor Marcio a burrito for breakfast. "One of the many huge rats that remained in the theater stole it when he stepped away for a minute," she says.

Only a handful of people attended the three daily services, but each received individual counseling from church ministers. "They would hear you out when nobody else would," Quiñones remembers. "They would tell you to put your faith in God, and that He would heal you of your problems."

When she joined the church, Quiñones was on leave from an earlier job as a hospital cook while she recuperated from injuries suffered in the MTA bus accident. Every day, she took the bus from her Boyle Heights home to attend all three services -- morning, afternoon and night.

A native of the Mexican state of Jalisco, Quiñones had been a non-practicing Catholic. The attention she received at the Million Dollar, along with the ecstatic prayers, were welcome after the mostly impersonal services at her old church. Grateful for her new way of life, Quiñones helped the pastors scrub walls and sweep the auditorium.

Quiñones found solace by talking to Pastor Marcio, a young Brazilian man in his mid-20s. He instructed her in the faith of the Universal Church. He became her father in her life of faith, she says. Seeing her devotion, the pastors told Quiñones to buy a navy-blue skirt and a white blouse. She was to become the first obrera in Los Angeles.

About three months after Quiñones joined the church, her shoulder pains ceased. The next year, she got a better-paying job as a cook at the jail. "God was bestowing his miracles through my faith in him and in the Universal Church," she says. When pastors asked the faithful to donate whatever was in their heart, Quiñones began by rummaging in her purse for $5 or $10 bills to put inside the red collection bag. But in mid-1994, a windfall came to Quiñones. Eleven months behind on her rent, she was awarded $40,000 as part of a class-action lawsuit filed after the bus accident. She headed over to the Million Dollar, where she wrote a check for $8,000, sealed it in a church envelope and placed it in the collection bag. "I did a double tithe," she says, showing a copy of the check. "I was so happy that God had done that miracle for me that I felt compelled to tithe that amount to the church."

L.A.'S fledgling congregation got a big boost in early 1993, when Bishop Renato Suhett, considered by many the most charismatic and popular preacher in all of Brazil, took over the downtown temple.

It was an assignment not entirely to Suhett's liking. He and Macedo had clashed in Brazil, and Suhett figured his boss was trying to get rid of him. As it turned out, their greatest conflict was yet to come, in Los Angeles.

In Brazil, before joining the church in the mid-1980s, Suhett had been a professional guitar player. He became the Universal Church's trademark gospel singer, selling millions of tapes, even writing songs with Macedo. With the dark good looks of a soap-opera leading man, Suhett was the second-most important bishop in the church. When Macedo temporarily left Brazil in 1992, after getting in trouble with the authorities, he put Suhett in charge of the 3,000-plus Brazilian temples. Though not responsible for church finances, Suhett was the unquestionable leader in spiritual matters, he told the Weekly.

All that ended the day Macedo ordered him to move to Los Angeles. His commission: Make the church prosper.

But Suhett saw the order as a demotion. He was surrendering the second most important post in the church to lead a small congregation. "You have to start all over. You are young and can become filled with pride," Suhett recalls Macedo telling him. "My name had become too big in Brazil," Suhett says. "It was necessary that people forget my name, because that's the way it is in the Universal Church. There can only be one big name -- Bishop Macedo's."

The 32-year-old bishop arrived, browbeaten, in Los Angeles. He took over a church-rented Los Angeles apartment and a church-owned Ford Explorer. He found solace in the small but warm-hearted group of 50 members. "I was very sad because I knew I was there not by the hand of God, but by the hand of the man who wanted to see me far away from Brazil," Suhett says. "But the people [in Los Angeles] made me happy. I have never seen people as marvelous as them. They gave their all."

From seven in the morning to midnight, Suhett and his wife, Lucia, would work at the Million Dollar, holding three services, counseling followers sick in body ä or soul. Suhett began a daily television program on Telemundo's KVEA Channel 52, called Despertar de Fe (Faith Awakening). Since the tithes were minute compared to those collected at other Universal Church temples, little attention was paid to the Los Angeles facility.

By mid-1994, however, the church had grown so much that the Los Angeles Fire Department actually intervened when an overcapacity crowd showed up for services. Church leaders began to take notice of the potential of the L.A. market and ordered Suhett to begin holding "campañas," a special offering made by a believer requesting a cure or miracle from God. Campañas, which are usually named after a biblical figure or place, can cost the parishioner from $1,000 to $10,000.

Suhett refused. "They told me, 'You have to make some money through a campaña of Israel.' I told them, 'I'm not going to do that. I am against that,'" Suhett says. "They said 'Then you are not good enough to be there.' I told them, 'that's true. I am no good for that.'"

Suhett was transferred to San Diego. Macedo himself moved from Miami to Los Angeles, to oversee the daily television and video productions of his media company, Latin American Television, which is now called Total Digital Productions, and to stimulate the growth of his church.

Under Suhett's leadership, the San Diego congregation grew as fast as the church had in Los Angeles. In September 1995, he was told that he would be transferred again, this time to San Francisco. Suhett felt he was being used by the church to increase the levels of tithing at various temples.

What hurt Suhett most were rumors about the high-pressured collection of money at the Los Angeles temple. Expensive campañas and the ever-increasing demand for donations was the new way of life. "I saw that they were abusing those people my wife and I had treated with such tenderness," Suhett says. "That's when I took the decision that was in my heart -- to leave the church."

During his two years in the United States, Suhett never received a call from Macedo, he says. But Suhett did call Macedo, to tell him that he was resigning over their profound differences about fund-raising practices.

He had developed a close bond with many members of the Los Angeles and San Diego congregations. He later told them that he had not filled them in on details of his departure because he had not wanted them to lose their faith in God. "They were like a family to me. They are still my family," Suhett says.

Without saying goodbye to his flock and friends in San Diego and Los Angeles, Suhett and his wife returned to Brazil in September 1995. He left behind the two most important temples in California, with congregations that would soon become the Universal Church's biggest in North America.

Suhett's public disagreement, voiced in countless interviews with the Brazilian media, bothered church officials. They countered by having pastors spread word that the former bishop was possessed by demons, and gay -- which the church considers depraved. "We were told to throw away his audio cassettes," Quiñones says. "But I didn't throw away mine. To me, he was the sweetest man I ever met." Still, Suhett insists that he does not hold a grudge. The differences, he says, were doctrinal, especially when it came to campañas and excessive tithing.

"With campañas, the church makes a lot of money. It is only a way to take people's money," Suhett says. "How can you pay to obtain God's blessing? God does not do that. He does not accept that."

Salaries vary for Universal pastors, depending on their levels of authority. U.S. bishops earn up to $4,000 and pastors $1,000 monthly, Suhett says. Their lifestyle is spartan compared to their counterparts in Brazil, where bishops drive church-owned BMWs and Mercedes Benzes.

Suhett went on to found the Church of Amor e Graça. He says other pastors and bishops would leave the church, but are afraid of becoming possessed by demons. "It is really easy to do [such exorcisms]," says Suhett, who no longer believes in the Devil. "If a person has a headache, it is demons. So I start shouting 'Demons, get out!' And the person falls and ends up confused and believing she had demons."

Bishop Edir Macedo started out as an evangelical street preacher, one of hundreds who have sprouted up in Brazil. The social and religious landscape of that nation was to be changed forever by this fragile-looking Rio de Janeiro lottery worker.

Macedo was born in 1945 in the small town of Rio das Flores, in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Like most Brazilians, he and his seven brothers were raised Catholic in a tough and poor environment. In one of the few interviews he has granted, Macedo told the Brazilian magazine Veja that among his most enduring childhood memories was a lesson taught to him by his strict father. As a boy, Macedo had stolen ice cream from a local deli. When his father found out, he beat him and forced him to pay for it and confess to his friends.

"At least I learned my lesson," Macedo said. "Sometimes talking has no use. A beating is the only solution."

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 became a pastor at Igreja Nova Vida. The bespectacled, studious-looking preacher transformed himself into a fiery orator with an almost hypnotic stare. He could hold a crowd's attention for hours.

In the Veja interview, Macedo shared his strong views on more than religion. He called himself a former womanizer, and said women should be submissive to men. He quoted the New Testament to reinforce his beliefs, which are now church doctrine.

"A woman can lead a man to the presence of God, but she can also lead him to hell," Macedo told Veja. "When she is the devil, she can bring disgrace to men. We saw many of them like this when they first came to the Universal."

Despite Macedo's mistrust of women, Ester, the granddaughter of a Pentecostal preacher, caught Macedo's eye. They married in the mid-1970s and remain together today.

In July 1977, Macedo and a group of three other pastors left Igreja Nova Vida to form their own church. Originally called the Church of Divine Grace (Igreja da Benção), Macedo later registered it under the name Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus.

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.

In a 1997 church video marking Universal's 20-year anniversary, Macedo and his wife say they were inspired to form a church by the birth of their daughter, Viviane. Like her father, Viviane was born with five fingers and no thumb. "When our daughter was born, I learned the pain of those persons who don't have anybody's help," Macedo said. His wife, Ester, added, "That's when the Universal Church was born, with the birth of Viviane."

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 the mid-1980s, the church attracted notice when Macedo filled Rio de Janeiro's Maracana soccer stadium. The gathering of more than 150,000 believers at one of Brazil's historic sports sanctuaries was the first of many such stadium shows held throughout the country.

Justino, a pastor at Salvador in the state of Bahia, remembers an early 1980s revival in Fonta Nova stadium. Macedo, asking the throngs for bigger donations, compared them to the Rio crowd.

"'Can it be that the Cariocas (citizens of Rio) have more faith than Bahianos?'" Justino says, quoting Macedo. "'No!' was the thunderous response." By 1985, Macedo had opened a temple in neighboring Paraguay and, soon after, opened one in Argentina. 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."

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.

Pope John-Paul II intervened to quell the tension between the churches. Some Catholic bishops begrudgingly called their faithful to peace, while demanding that the Universal Church apologize. Through a taped statement from his home in New York, Bishop Macedo apologized to Catholics. He said that he would discipline and transfer Von Helde. (Two years later, Von Helde resurfaced in the Coachella Valley town of Indio. He has since been transferred to Los Angeles and other temples throughout the United States.)

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.

Universal Church backers like to say that the Catholic Church doesn't have a clue about how to win this war of religions. An example, they say, is the Archdiocese of Los Angeles' plan to close smaller parishes when a new, towering cathedral opens on the edge of downtown. Such a plan runs contrary to Universal's cost-saving strategy of establishing a network of dozens of storefront temples in Southern California.

The L.A. archdiocese -- the biggest and most influential in the country -- oversees 285 parishes from Santa Barbara to Orange County, some 4 million Catholics. It is the largest church among Latinos in Los Angeles and in the United States, and its leaders have said Latinos are going to carry the church in the decades to come. But it's clear to some that the Catholics are losing ground to evangelical churches. In a 1998 study by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, more than half the bishops noted that Pentecostal-style churches are luring both new immigrants and established Latinos.

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.

"She used to be quick-thinking and very sound of mind," says Amado Chavez. "Now I can't take her out because she starts yelling at people or says things that do not sound right at all."

In 1996, Maria began attending services at the Million Dollar. The couple ä began falling behind on their bills, and Maria explained that all of her income had gone for tithing. "We had a big argument," says Amado. "When my sons found out, they also became enraged. She would make about $500 a week from pies. She was donating all of her money, and some of mine, to the church!"

Amado Chavez went to the pastors at the Million Dollar to complain about what was happening to his wife and about how they were going broke. "A pastor told me coldly that they did not obligate anyone to tithe or to go to their church," Amado Chavez contends. "They told me to leave -- that this country protected them, and that if I ever came back they would have me arrested."

Maria Chavez never returned to the Million Dollar, and is convinced that she was taken advantage of by an evil church. The Chavezs now live in an apartment complex in Highland Park. Unable to work because of a back injury, the 58-year-old Amado takes care of his wife the best he can and struggles to pay rent.

Maria goes about her apartment in jeans, her hair uncombed. She says the birds outside her window are Universal spies and that Satan sleeps in their living room. "We used to be such a happy couple. We would go out to places for walks," Amado Chavez says. "Now we rarely go out. We can't trust even our shadows. I think that when you take a poor man's wife, which is the only thing he has left in his old age, you are doing a very evil thing."

No one in the Universal Church would comment on the Chavezs' complaint. It is rare for the church to respond to its critics, though it has been known to sue its enemies. In Texas, the church filed a lawsuit in an effort to silence former members Jesus and Victoria Lorenzo, who had gone public to complain about tithing abuses. The Lorenzos, who ran a janitorial service in Houston, showed reporters $70,000 in checks made out to the church during a five-year period and said several of their vehicles had been repossessed.

Jesus Lorenzo sought to enlist the help of then-Governor George Bush, but an aide responded that his problems were outside the scope of the governor's office. Left to fend for themselves, the Lorenzos say they live in constant fear and see the long arm of the church everywhere. "They have money. They own banks. I know that they were angry about what I said, but what we said was true."

"I only want to warn people about the church so that they don't end up like me," Lorenzo told the Weekly. Houston Bishop Carlos Moncada denied any wrongdoing and said the Lorenzos' personal problems were not related to the church, which has since dropped the lawsuit.

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!"


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