Brazilian church casts out demons and saves souls - for a price

Asahi Shimbun News Service/June 30, 2002
By Paul Murphy

It doesn't take long for the sobbing to begin at the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God's basement chapel in Tokyo's Hamamatsu-cho.

At a recent Sunday morning service, Brazilian construction worker turned preacher Neto Portari is in full flow, hammering the keys of his Yamaha electric organ and belting out hymns.

He switches to his cordless microphone and strides between the congregants, exhorting the Lord to "deliver the people from our sicknesses, diseases and problems'' and exhorting the people to expel their demons.

He and a Japanese pastor press their hands on congregants' heads, asking the Lord for their "deliverance.''

There are only 13 people, mostly Brazilian, in the 84-seat basement chapel, but the room is full of raw emotion. One woman bursts into tears and others begin to quietly sob, before giving way to individual prayers in a rapid mumble.

The tears are no surprise. The Universal Church makes a virtue out of recruiting from among the miserable. One English-language recruitment leaflet is headed in large capitals: "What's Your Problem?'' above a graphic of a depressed-looking youth on a park bench.

While its mainstream Christian competitors focus on abstractions such as eternal life, the Universal Church dangles the temporal carrot of financial and social success-which can be attained only after a believer's evil spirits are eliminated.

"Almost all the other churches preach about love and peace, but the people are suffering. Almost all the problems are caused by demons,'' said Portari.

The Pentecostal Church, which claims 10 million members and has been the subject of a police investigation in Brazil and a highly critical report to the Belgian parliament, is small but growing in Japan.

In only two years, membership has trebled to around 1,000. Most are from Japan's 260,000-strong Brazilian community, but the church has its sights set on spreading into other communities and countries.

"When the Universal Church started in Japan (six years ago) we had two pastors. Today we have about 20 and we have the desire to open churches all over the continent of Asia,'' said Celso Rebequi, the bishop at the Universal Church's cathedral and headquarters in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture.

Japan is intended as the base for the church's Asian expansion.

The growing popularity mirrors a trend in Brazil, where the church is the fastest-growing evangelical group, but it also reflects a crisis of increased domestic violence and family breakdown among Brazilians in this country.

The Universal Church is on hand to offer a ready solution to social woes. Give yourself to the Lord and pay what amounts to hefty membership dues, and you can have a better life-is the general message. Many members say the church and God helped them to beat addictions or solve problems, including Rebequi, a former teenage alcoholic.

One Brazilian immigrant working in a factory in Kobe spoke of his conversion.

"I felt I was lost,'' said Allesandro, 28, of his days before joining the church. His marriage was falling apart until last year when he and his wife signed up for a church-run course called Married Forever. "The course was based on the Bible and we became more interested in the Bible.''

He said the church also helped him deal with homesickness and immigrant loneliness. "We go on picnics and it gives us a sense of community.

"My wife (who also joined) and I used to fight a lot and I was tense all the time, but now our relationship has changed,'' said Allesandro, who has just become a father.

Kenneth Serbin, professor of history at University of California, San Diego, and an expert on Latin-American religion, says the church is partly "a business organization and a multinational organization'' that aims to make "lots of money.'' But he also says critics often overlook the fact that believers get a lot out of the church.

"Many of the criticisms of the church are that that they are just taking advantage of poor people and taking their money. And to a certain extent I agree, but I also think that they are fulfilling people's needs.''

Those needs are growing for Brazilian immigrants, who provide the church's base in Japan. Brazilians are increasingly being squeezed by Chinese and other Asian workers who will labor for as little as one-third of the 1,200 yen to 1,400 yen hourly wage that Brazilian manual workers typically command.

"The unemployment rate is rising and hourly wages are going down,'' for Brazilians in Japan, said a spokeswoman at a Tokyo jobs agency for immigrant workers.

Portari acknowledges that many of his members come to the church because of problems related to the economic slump. They aim to fill spiritual voids and build self-esteem, a combination that is held out as a springboard to financial success.

Donating money to the church is seen as an important part of building that self-esteem, said Cecilia Mariz, an associate professor of sociology at Rio de Janeiro State University who has done research on the Universal Church. "When you give money you feel you are rich.''

That makes for a virtuous cycle. Members' self-esteem rises, in theory, and the church gets richer.

Donations are repeatedly emphasized. Four times in his two hour and 20-minute service, Portari asked for money offerings, each preceded by a pitch lasting up to five minutes. The biggest donation is the tithe-10 percent of a donor's pretax income.

The tithe is voluntary, but members are strongly encouraged to fulfill what the Universal Church advocates as a Bible-ordained duty. "The tithe belongs to the Lord,'' Portari told his congregants. "To give your heart to the Lord, you have to stop robbing the Lord.''

How much money is utilized in the service of the Lord is unclear. Portari said the church uses the "money to open new churches (in Japan) and to help open churches in the Philippines and Israel.'' It also gives food to the homeless in Japan and runs projects such as a major rural irrigation scheme in Brazil.

But much has found its way into the hands of founder, Bishop Edir Macedo, who, according to some estimates, has a personal fortune of $100 million (12.5 billion yen).

Macedo was briefly imprisoned on allegations of fraud in 1992.

"He was put in jail for two weeks and after that they could prove nothing against him. The judge responsible for imprisoning him was fired,'' said Rebequi.

If it is to prosper in Japan and convert a populace long uninterested in Christianity, the church has to shake off that and other past controversies.

It has already been forced to adapt its modus operandi in Japan, ceasing street proselytizing because people associated such activities with doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, said Rebequi.

To move from its base in the small and relatively poor Brazilian community, it has trained some Japanese pastors. But while a handful of Japanese have joined, most tend to visit once and not come back, said Portari. So does the pastor believe the church can replicate its success in Brazil?

"We believe the Japanese people will be converted to Jesus. The Japanese people are not happy and their religions cannot provide them with what they are looking for.''

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