Prayer for sale - 'Blessings' can cost you at the Universal Church

The Jamaica Observer/January 9, 2011

Prayer is regarded as talking to God. So when persons are told that they need to pay for church leaders to petition the Creator on their behalf, many would naturally see this as not the Christian thing to do.

But that is what obtains at the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God which, since its establishment over 30 years ago in Brazil, has spread to many countries, including Jamaica where, over 14 years it has set up 25 branches, including a local headquarters on Hagley Park Road in Kingston, and enjoys a huge following.

A Sunday Observer undercover investigation conducted over two weeks last year found an extraordinary zeal within the Universal Church to collect money from congregants for so- called 'blessings'.

"You are here because you need something from God," the officiating pastor told more than 150 worshippers at a 7:00 pm Tuesday service at the Hagley Park Road church attended by this reporter. "But in order to get something from God, you have to proposition Him."

This proposition was explained as monetary contributions.

The service was nothing like what obtains at traditional churches. There was no praise and worship session, no devotion. The format was simple.

The service began when the congregation was told by the assistant pastor to stand and receive the officiating bishop who, after taking his place at the rostrum, called two persons to give testimonies of healing or financial breakthrough. Next, the bishop requested that persons deliver their tithes and 'special offerings' to the altar - this was 12 minutes into the service.

Following that, the bishop gave a short address in which he told the congregants that if they wanted something from God, they first had to give something to Him.

A few days later this reporter observed a similar script played out at a service at the church's Spanish Town branch.

After the officiating pastor's remarks, worshippers were each given a piece of string and told to tie it on their wrists. Three days later they would return to the church where the string - symbolic of confinement - would be cut in order to set them free from any bondage that they were experiencing in their lives.

The congregation was then invited to collect another envelope for tithes and special offerings.

Throughout the two-week investigation, the sermons heard by the Sunday Observer all centred around the importance of monetary contribution with Bible scriptures used to justify the points made by the preachers.

Each worshipper at the services was issued with an envelope labelled 'week of answers', in which they were told to enclose $2,100. This, the pastor explained, was in accordance with the scripture as told in Daniel 10:12-13 when the answer to Daniel's prayer was delayed by the prince of Persia for 21 days.

If persons wanted prayer for a loved one, they were told to write down the names of the persons for whom they wished prayer and place it at the altar - with money.

If they had no money, they were encouraged to go to the altar where their hands/face were washed with water or oil. This, the officiating pastor explained, was to wash away bad luck and bring prosperity so they could give money the next time.

Forms and flyers were also distributed with the expectation that they were to be returned with a stated amount of cash.

After the first four days, this reporter received seven such envelopes, flyers and 'special gift' bags - all of which were to be returned with money within a week. One of the envelopes was for the regular tithes (10 per cent of the worshipper's earnings) and another for double tithes (for those who wanted double blessing, which required 20 per cent of one's earnings). A rough calculation of the total that would be required of an average low-income earner could amount to somewhere in the region of $27,000, depending on their prayer request.

Upon taking their envelopes to the altar, worshippers were encouraged to pick up another. They were also encouraged to wash their hands in honey and milk in a basin placed on the altar, or lick honey that was poured into the palm of their hands.

When this reporter asked one of the Brazilian pastors about the church's focus on collecting money he said, "We collect money to help in the churches and to build more churches. We have to pay for light, and air conditioning and to make the building beautiful for the people.

"We did not leave our country to come here for the money. We are here because we want to see people prosper. You go to the supermarket and you see someone picking up one juice and one patty and that would last them for the day, while you have the rich who have so much and can get all they want. We want to let people see that they can achieve more, that is why we talk about tithing. The Bible tells you about tithing and being blessed as a result."

He appeared offended by accusations from the public on the issue, saying, "People who make those talk are persons who never came to the Universal Church, and so they don't know what is happening here. Ask anyone who comes here, once they come they begin to prosper and they don't want to leave, that is why they say we work obeah and things like that. But the ones who never come are the ones who say bad things."

The pastor's defence was somewhat justified by the comments directed at this reporter by an acquaintance who saw me entering the Spanish Town branch of the church one day.

"A dat deh church yuh go?" the person asked. "A science (obeah) church yuh really go? Bwoy, mi a keep far from yuh, mi fraid a yuh!"

The accusation of obeah apparently has its genesis in the activities of the church on Friday nights which are labelled 'Armageddon'.

"People call us the obeah church because mainly on Fridays when we meet here, we have the manifestation of the Spirit and you see demons coming out of people, people talking with different voices and things like that," the pastor explained in his thick Brazilian accent. "So when persons don't understand what is happening they say it is obeah. But it is not obeah. It is just the manifestation of the Spirit."

At those services, worshippers were given a flyer in a small transparent plastic bag and encouraged to indicate on the flyer which of the following problems - constant headaches, infections, bad dreams, unemployment, poverty, debt, separation, jealousy, witchcraft, love life problems and nightmares - the "evil forces provoke" in their lives. They were also asked to "write behind this paper the problems by faith you are going to stop in Armageddon".

Worshippers had to place $200 in the transparent plastic bag along with their requests.

Over the two weeks, the Sunday Observer learnt that services were held four times per day - 7:00 am, 10:00 am, 3:00 pm and 7:00 pm. While worshippers were not compelled to attend all four, they were required to attend at least one per day.

People attended services in very casual attire and one pastor told the Sunday Observer that theirs was the only church open to anyone at anytime. A handful of street people among the congregants at one of the services at Hagley Park Road proved his point.

During the weekday services, persons were given a red double-heart-shaped cut-out stapled to a sheet of white paper and told to write the names of their loved ones and themselves on it if they were having problems in their love life.

The hearts were prayed over, then placed in a container on the altar filled with grape juice and water, after which the officiating pastor would again pray over them in private.

Persons who wanted loved ones prayed for were told to place a duplicate picture of the person in a plastic bag and take it to the church. They were then advised to dip the pictures in a container filled with olive oil and water while the pastor prayed.

The church also provides a 'Monday of prosperity' flyer. Before distribution, the pastor would place the palm of his hand in a basin of olive oil then stamp it on the flyer. Persons were told to tick their dream on the paper, which listed finance, house, car and job. The cost of placing that flyer on the altar was $700.

According to some worshippers, the church's practices may sound strange, but once they are explained, they are acceptable.

"Yes, sometimes when they tell you to tie white string over yuh window or carry in pictures of people that you want to see get save and dip it in oil, it might sound weird, but after they explain why, then you understand it," one woman told the Sunday Observer.

A young man with whom the newspaper spoke expressed confidence in the power of prayer. "Anything you pray for can happen, yes - anything," he said. "All you have to do is believe. But if yuh faith not strong, then yuh can't expect nothing to happen."

He, however, admitted that he had not yet received his miracle as he had just started attending the church. "But mi know people who tings happen for them," he said.

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