The spirit of the evangelicals moves masses of the poorest

Newsday (NY)/April 19, 2005
By Letta Tayler

Sao Paoulo, Brazil -- Between grunts and tongue-wags, the three women writhing on the floor of the arena-sized church hissed the words of the devil who had entered their bodies.

"Jealousy let me get inside her. I will destroy her," one woman rasped in a satanic voice as a gigantic, stained-glass cross on the ceiling cast colorful prisms across her face.

"Out! Out! Out! Stop the cancer! Burn it! Leave in the name of Jesus!" hollered a crisply dressed preacher. His aides dashed toward the women and gripped their heads.

It was a typical group exorcism night at the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, one of the fastest growing Pentecostal movements in Latin America - a region so enthralled with Protestant evangelist sects that some religion experts predict they will eclipse Roman Catholicism within a quarter-century.

A blip on the radar four decades ago, Pentecostalism and other forms of evangelism are now the declared religion of nearly a fifth of Latin Americans, including in Brazil, the world's most populous Catholic nation. Most followers come from an impoverished majority in a region with the world's greatest income disparities.

"The evangelicals have tailored their religious messages to the poorest of Latin Americans," said Ricardo Mariano, a sociologist at Brazil's Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul. Unlike Catholicism, evangelism offers advice on resolving family, love, health or other personal problems. "There is an immediate, emotional connection between daily life and the divine," he said.

Many in the Catholic hierarchy sniff at evangelism's appeal. "This is a religion of consumerism, of instant gratification," said the Rev. Pedro Felix Bassini, director of pastoral outreach for Brazil's National Catholic Bishops' conference. "It's the law of the disposable. Everything for now."

Raimundo Brant, bishop of the Pentecostalist Living Christ Church in Sao Paulo, countered there's no harm in teaching that "when you are connected to God, you can reclaim your life. Good things happen to you."

Worshipers concurred at the exorcism the other night, even when the preacher requested donations of 50 Brazilian reals - about $20, or nearly one-fifth Brazil's monthly minimum wage.

"I used to leave Mass depressed. The service felt claustrophobic," said housecleaner Maria Lehna de Jesus, 57. "Here, a weight has been lifted from my shoulders."

"My anger goes away in here," said Raimundo Correia, 65, a janitor in tattered clothes. "Plus, they helped me find an apartment."

After cleansing the faithful of demons and leading them in boisterous song, a preacher offered tips on dealing with adultery and errant children. He also announced a five-week church program to "stamp out that spirit of misery."

"Raise your hand if you want complete happiness!" he roared. Thousands shot up.

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