It's a balmy Saturday afternoon and hundreds of Protestant faithful are gathered in Miami's Tropical Park. They loll on blankets and canvas chairs surrounded by turquoise porta-potties, red and yellow balloons, and hot dog carts with drooping umbrellas. All the while, a band on the stage churns out Christian pop.
Around 4:00 p.m. the music dies down and Pastor Martin Añorga, a small man with charcoal hair framing his leathery face, climbs to the pulpit. "We are here to celebrate the Holy Spirit," he intones.
But his words are droned out by 80-some protesters gathered behind a knee-high fence a few hundred feet away. They're chanting in Spanish: "Once saved, always saved," and "Jesus Christ has arrived." Most wear T-shirts bearing photos of their leader, a dapper middle-age Puerto Rican man, and hold picket signs that read, "Your pastor lies" and "The Devil was destroyed."
Meanwhile the faithful, who have congregated around the stage to hear Añorga preach, crane their necks to see what the fuss is about. "Don't listen to them!" the pastor barks. "Their position is anti-biblical and absurd."
Then, suddenly, 25 people in camouflage T-shirts scurry onto the patch of grass that separates the protesters from the crowd. "We're a spiritual line of fire," shouts one elfin warrior who wears a gauzy skirt with her commando top. "We will burn those rabble-rousers if they try to pass through."
When Añorga is finished speaking, pastors from other churches make their way, one by one, to the pulpit and deliver sermons salted with scorn for the intruders. Among them is Manuel Ortiz, a stocky man in jeans and a yellow tuxedo shirt, who bellows, "We don't need those clowns telling us what to believe!"
All the while the protesters chant:
"Liar, liar, liar."
"They steal your money."
"Ministers of Satan."
Finally, after nearly two hours of conflict, all the preachers converge on the stage for a closing prayer. And the faithful prostrate themselves on the grass in a gesture of submission to God's will. In response, the agitators blast an air horn and shout, "Get up!" and "They're like worms crawling on the ground."
The protesters belong to a congregation called Creciendo en Gracia, or Growing in Grace. It is headquartered in a drab Doral warehouse but has outposts throughout Latin America, as well as in Spain, Italy, Canada, and Australia. All told, the group claims 300 congregations with more than 100,000 members, plus a 24-hour cable channel that reaches two million homes. And it's growing. In the last year alone, Creciendo en Gracia has added nearly 100 churches to its roster.
The group is organized around José Luis De Jesus Miranda, a 59-year-old Puerto Rican man with impish charm and a taste for indulgence. Some defectors, like Regina Albarracin - a Pembroke Pines woman whose son remains a member - liken him to a cult leader. Devotees call him Jesus Christ and lavish him with gifts and money. More than 400 followers have set up businesses that funnel 20 to 80 percent of their profits into the ministry. Others donate cars, homes, and tens of thousands of dollars in cash and services.
De Jesus's followers believe they are God's true chosen people and call their children the "super race." They are also convinced other churches peddle deceit and spread poverty, war, and disease. But while this antipathy dates back years, only recently have they begun acting on it by disrupting religious events.
Over the past five months, Creciendo en Gracia parishioners have held at least 40 protests in more than a dozen countries. And De Jesus says this is just the beginning. "My purpose," he explains, "is to close down every church so the true church can begin. You could say I'm leading the greatest reformation that has ever happened."
It's Sunday morning inside Creciendo en Gracia's headquarters, a cavernous building with industrial carpet and fluorescent lighting. Some 500 business barons, college students, handymen, and housewives pump their fists in the air and chant, "Dad-dy, Dad-dy" as De Jesus ambles onto the stage.
He waits for the ruckus to die down and then picks up a Bible and flops it open. "These words are very small for me," he says. "I can't read them at a distance." Then he holds up a set of eyeglasses. "But with these I read it perfectly. My teachings are the eyeglasses that your eyes need."
Finally De Jesus gets down to business. "Are there any adulterers in the audience?" he asks, leaning casually on the podium. "Good morning, Mr. Adulterer!"
"How about idolaters?" he adds with a grin. "All of you have practiced idolatry.
"And sorcery, you love sorcery. That's what you're doing every time you play the Lotto." Then he tiptoes to the edge of the stage and glances over each shoulder as if to make sure no one is eavesdropping. "Sorcery," he says, "it feels good - especially when the jackpot is $38 million."
If De Jesus treats sin lightly, that's because it doesn't exist, according to his gospel. He also teaches that Hell is a farce, the Devil is dead, and people are divided into two distinct castes. There are those who have no conscience or ear for his message - they are predestined for damnation. And there are the believers with incorruptible spirits who are programmed to hear his words as truth.
With their salvation assured, De Jesus's followers can indulge sinful urges. "Here it doesn't matter if you are a drug addict," he explains, "or if you have been married ten times. How many failures you've had - even if you've killed someone - we accept people with their weaknesses."
It's a seductive proposition, especially for those from Latin America, where 73 percent of the population is Catholic and most people spend their lives following strict religious mores.
Before discovering Creciendo en Gracia in 1999, 50-year-old Irini Papahui managed a candy factory with 70 employees in her native Guatemala and raised a teenage daughter on her own. She sought solace from the Catholic Church, but its teachings only added to her burden. "They made me feel like I wasn't worthy of God's love," she explains. "I was striving and striving and always falling short."
Eventually she found herself plagued by guilt and stomach problems including chronic vomiting and diarrhea. Then she discovered De Jesus. "He has given me life, true life, and a happiness that never goes away," she says.
De Jesus's gospel flows from an experience he had in December 1976. After a hardscrabble youth in Puerto Rico, where he often stole to feed his heroin habit, he moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts, and ran a Bible-based treatment center for drug-addicted street toughs. But soon he lost faith in conventional churches. "I was getting tired of all the legalism and hypocrisy," he explains. "I kept thinking, Christianity should be something better."
Then one frosty December night, he says he awoke to find himself flanked by two brawny men with stern expressions who told him: "The King of Kings is coming to anoint you." Before he knew it, he was standing in a luminous marble corridor where trumpets blared and a spectral figure crept toward him. Then the apparition merged with him, and he began to hear a man's voice in his head.
"He said, 'Open your Bible,'" De Jesus recalls. "So I opened to Romans 6. And he said, 'Read that ... that means you're dead to sin; sin can't reign in your life.'" The experience left De Jesus transformed. "Ever since that day, I can't learn from anybody - and I mean no one," he says. He now believes that was the night of Christ's second coming.
In the years that followed, the voice continued to offer new revelations. Then in 1986 it said, "Move to Miami. There you'll have a bridge to all nations." So at age 40, De Jesus, his then-wife Nydia, and their five children came to the Magic City, where he secured a fifteen-minute daily slot on WVCG-AM (1080) and began preaching his controversial message.
Before long, other ministers were railing against him from their radio pulpits. And this worked to his advantage. After he had been on the air three months, De Jesus rented a Hialeah warehouse, filled it with 300 chairs, and invited listeners for a weekend seminar. To his surprise, he says, 500 people turned up. "Just like that," De Jesus marvels. "Creciendo en Gracia was born."
In the years that followed, the church increasingly revolved around De Jesus. Then in 1998 he claimed to be the reincarnation of the Apostle Paul. The following year he proclaimed himself "El Otro" - a demigod who would lay the foundation for the Lord's return. Finally in 2004 he named himself Jesus Christ and the ultimate authority on the gospel. Today no one but him - and his right-hand man, Carlos Cestero - are allowed to preach. And De Jesus always dictates the message. Instead of regular sermons, most followers around the world watch videos or simulcasts of these men projected on a screen behind the pulpit.
De Jesus bears little resemblance to the biblical Lamb of God. He wears fine suits and diamond-encrusted rings, drives a 7 Series BMW, and, until recently, lived in a 5000-square-foot Miramar home with Corinthian columns and vaulted ceilings. He also travels with a battalion of guards who wear dark suits and conspicuous earpieces.
De Jesus says the cost of his security detail, which runs upward of $300,000 per year, is covered by follower Lazaro Seijo. A successful entrepreneur, Seijo is also building De Jesus a house in Homestead. And this kind of generosity is not unusual. Devotees continually lavish De Jesus with money and extravagant gifts. And the doctrine encourages it.
Creciendo en Gracia parishioners, like those of most churches, are taught to sacrifice a tenth of their income to the church. But they are also expected to give an additional sum directly to their pastors and bishops - or to God himself. And during many services, the faithful are told that those who give "beyond their means" - who put "the Lord before car payment and mortgage" - will prosper, and angels will protect them. Some surrender almost everything. "We invest our last dime, our entire life, so one person can understand, so the message can be spread," says Pastor Ivan Lopez, who works in the Miami headquarters.
One of those who has given his life over to Creciendo en Gracia is Alvaro Albarracin. Before joining the church, the baby-face 37-year-old Colombian native struggled to find his spiritual path. He sampled teachings from Mormon temples, Kingdom Halls, and evangelical Christian churches. "I came to the point where I didn't want anything to do with religion at all," he says. Then in early 1992 his mother Regina gave him a cassette of De Jesus's preaching. He later attended a service. "Right away I fell in love with him," Albarracin recalls. "His face, his voice, everything. I knew he was God."
At the time, Albarracin was working in a furniture factory and earning $250 a week. Several months later he says he landed a sales job at Rooms to Go, where he was quickly promoted to sales manager and began earning $75,000 a year. He credits De Jesus for his success. He decided to express his gratitude by building a Website for the ministry. At first he hired a company to host it, but that cost $46 per month. So he set up a Web server in his home. Then, Albarracin says, "Dad placed the idea in me to start a business."
By the late Nineties, Albarracin had parlayed his backroom startup into Dialtone Internet, a successful Web-hosting company. He believes his firm prospered even as its competitors sank because of his faith in De Jesus and his $12,000-per-month contribution to the ministry. In 2001 the South Florida Business Journal named Dialtone the third-fastest-growing company in the region. The following year, Hispanic Business magazine wrote, "Someday, Alvaro Albarracin may step back and smile when he thinks about how he guided his company through the dot-com implosion of the last two years." According to the article, his firm grossed $7.9 million in 2001 and expected to bring in $10.8 million the next year.
But in June 2002 Albarracin says he sold Dialtone to Atlanta-based Interland for $16.5 million. The acquisition vaulted Interland to the number one spot among U.S. Web-hosting companies, according to the Miami Herald. And Albarracin was tapped to head services for major clients and supervised hundreds of employees. But then in early 2003, Albarracin quit his Interland post to work with De Jesus. "I wanted devote my life to Dad," he explains. "I truly believe he's my God, my creator."
Albarracin was named Creciendo en Gracia's entrepreneur of entrepreneurs. His role: helping other parishioners set up businesses that feed money into the ministry. So far, he says he has had a hand in launching hundreds of ventures, including shoe stores, mortgage companies, a plastic factory, and a winery. The most devoted owners make De Jesus their CEO. The rest simply give him 20 to 80 percent of the take.
One contributor is Leonel Martinez, who owns a twenty-person company that imports medical equipment from Asia and distributes it in Venezuela. He donates about $50,000 each year to the ministry. "Our Apostle gives us the opportunity to give part of our money," he explains, "so he can travel to different countries and other people can prosper just as we do."
Albarracin has also established several companies for the ministry. He says he bought a 50 percent stake in the Colombian soccer team, Expreso Rojo, for $300,000 in 2003; he's now selling his share of the club for more than $1.5 million. Every cent will go to Creciendo en Gracia. "It all belongs to Dad anyway," he says with a shrug. "He controls everything. I believe strongly that Dad will control businesses around the world one day."
Albarracin launched a Miami-based film and music production company called MiamiLA Entertainment in 2003 as well, and hired a staff of 110 people. Then he set to work on a feature-length film called Amor en Alquiler (Love for Rent) - a project he says took a year to complete and cost two million dollars.
The film's plot rivals the raciest telenovela. A perky Colombian protagonist is struggling through law school when her husband, whom she married for a green card, dumps her. Broke and desperate, she agrees to become a surrogate mother for a wealthy couple. But she has to hide her pregnancy from the hunky doctor she's dating.
When Amor en Alquiler premiered at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival in November 2004, the Herald's Rene Rodriguez called it "grating, charmless, and inept" and suggested it was on the fast track to oblivion. But it has been a hit on the Latino film festival circuit. It was the only movie to sell out all 300 tickets during the Miami Latin Film Festival and Albarracin claims it also sold out shows at cinema fetes in San Diego and Chicago. What's more, it won the McDonald's Audience Award at the New York International Latino Film Festival this past August.
Albarracin now aims to bring Amor en Alquiler to the masses. He recently sold rights to HBO. The company plans to release it on DVD and air it on HBO channels in the United States, Canada, and Central Europe, according to HBO spokeswoman Laura Young.
Over the past few months, the film has also been released in theaters in South Florida, Ecuador, Honduras, and El Salvador. Albarracin's goal: Get it on screens in 220 countries and generate $14 million in revenue. In doing so he says he'll advance a tradition that dates back thousands of years. "God has had businesses throughout creation," he explains. "Through Abraham. Through Moses. Through Jesus of Nazareth. He had an accountant and a donkey, which was like a Mercedes Benz back then."
The question is: Where does all the money go? Some churches help the poor or at least aid congregations in less fortunate regions, but not Creciendo en Gracia. Even those branches in impoverished countries send funds back to headquarters. And expenses are modest: Most employees receive no wages and all the group's congregations meet in rented churches.
De Jesus claims the money he receives is spent on headquarters operations, which run about $1.4 million a year, or goes toward buying airtime. As he puts it: "Everything I get goes to making sure the word is spread."
These days his vehicle of choice is Telegracia, a Colombia-based network that purportedly broadcasts to two million homes. Believers call it "the channel that all eyes will see."
Tune in any day and you might see a music video with Rebequinha, a willowy eight-year-old Brazilian girl strolling the beach in a flimsy tank top and cuffed jeans while crooning, "Not all the riches would separate me from you ... José Lu-is!" Or you might catch a posse of voluptuous women in cowboy hats and fringy skirts gyrating to a cumbia/hip-hop medley. On a recent Wednesday morning, a toothy teen in a yellow do-rag rapped, "We are the super race."
Telegracia also airs talk shows and sermons in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. Then there's the news, which is taped on a CNN-style set in the group's Miami headquarters. It includes weather, sports, and international coverage with a colorful twist. One recent story about the Peruvian presidential election concluded, "But soon all countries in the world will have only one head, our father José Luis de Jesus Miranda."
The rest of Telegracia's programs are recorded in the network's Colombia studio and then beamed to a satellite that delivers the signal to local television providers. These companies, in turn, pump the signal into homes around Latin America. Telegracia's operating expenses run more than $30,000 per month, according to De Jesus. Most local companies air the programming for free.
Telegracia's Website lists 32 cable companies that carry its signal in Colombia and dozens more in other countries. De Jesus also claims to have shows on more than 60 radio stations. And the faithful can tune in to a 24-hour-a-day Internet radio feed at NetGracia.com.
Through these broadcasts, De Jesus aims, in part, to reach the millions of chosen who are still languishing in other churches. He and his followers believe poverty, war, and disease exist largely because Catholicism and other religions have corrupted governments and other institutions. The Creciendo en Gracia Website describes ministers of other faiths as "evil and perverse men." And it makes this promise: "We are going to shut the mouths of those dogs!... We are ready to give our lives for this."
Clergy-bashing abounds even in the prepackaged curricula used in Creciendo en Gracia Sunday schools. Children of De Jesus's followers study vocabulary lists with terms like minister of Satan and enemy of the cross of Christ and practice marching with "We are the super race" picket signs.
Meanwhile their parents are protesting for real. Myrna Cestero, Creciendo en Gracia's Puerto Rican bishop, began the trend this past September when she showed up with twenty members of her congregation - and placards that read "Wake up, the Lord has arrived"- at Clamor a Dios, a religious gathering held in that nation's capital. Telemundo and Univision covered the confrontation, and De Jesus was so pleased he urged other congregations to follow suit.
Besides the November 19 action in Tropical Park, Creciendo en Gracia devotees have disrupted two other Miami-based religious celebrations. And they've turned out to heckle attendees of scores of events throughout Latin America. In many cases, media have covered the demonstrations, and Creciendo en Gracia posts photos and video footage of the events on its Website.
The disturbances have taken various forms. De Jesus's followers have burst into church services in Havana; held simultaneous protests in 22 Colombian cities; and disrupted a Costa Rican Jewish parade with signs that read, "Israel is cursed" and "We are the true chosen people."
In some places, the demonstrations have sparked widespread outrage. For nearly four centuries, Peru has dedicated October to venerating Lima's patron saint, El Señor de los Milagros. The highlight of the celebration is the final procession, held the last two days of the month. When Creciendo en Gracia's Peruvian congregation turned out to jeer the parade, Monsignor Hugo Garaycoa labeled the group a "satanic" sect. The melee made headlines throughout Peru and on Telemundo.
Even more dramatic was a skirmish at the Congreso Cristiano Extranjero, a conference in Cartagena, Colombia, this past December. First attendees and protesters swapped insults. Then they began trading blows. Conference sponsors issued a press release claiming a parishioner named Leandro Garcia was knifed in the brawl. Olado Ligardo, who heads Creciendo's Cartagena operations, insists this isn't so. "Our weapons aren't carnal, they're spiritual," he told the Colombian paper, El Universal. The official report issued by Colombian police did not include any record of a stabbing.
Besides lashing out at other faiths, some of De Jesus's followers distance themselves from their own families. A year after joining Creciendo en Gracia, Irini Papahui, the Guatemalan candy baron, abandoned her eighteen-year-old daughter, a posh apartment in the capital, and her job running the factory that had been in her family for more than 80 years. She then moved to Miami to volunteer full-time at Creciendo en Gracia's headquarters. Here she lives in a tiny efficiency apartment. Though she continues to receive dividends from the factory, she says she gives every cent she can spare to De Jesus.
After Papahui left Guatemala, her 80-year-old mother Katina confronted her about the drastic lifestyle change, and their relationship crumbled. In fact, when Papahui returned to her homeland for three months this past summer, she saw her mom only once - when they bumped into each other at a party. Papahui believes her mother lost a third of her tongue to cancer because she spoke out against De Jesus. Papahui has also cut ties with her sister.
Alvaro Albarracin has watched his family disintegrate too. His mother and father, who live in Pembroke Pines, attended Creciendo en Gracia services for more than a decade before pulling up stakes in 2001. The couple says they were worried that, among other things, the ministry was too focused on De Jesus. And they were alarmed their son was lavishing so much money on the church.
After they left the church, Albarracin cut them off. "He abandoned his family," says his father Alvaro Sr. "He left his business, everything, to follow some guy who fakes being Jesus Christ so he can squeeze money out of people from the poorest countries in the world." Albarracin's mother Regina has equally harsh words for De Jesus's flock. "They're stupid people who believe in stupidities," she grumbles. "They're like those people in Waco, Texas. When you go there, you get brainwashed."
Rick Ross, executive director of the New Jersey-based Ross Institute, which tracks cults, agrees that De Jesus's group bears some of the markers. "The most defining element of a cult is its personality-driven nature," he explains. "That leader is the hub, the glue that holds it all together. And they manipulate members into giving free labor or large gifts."
But De Jesus insists Creciendo differs from cults in one important way. "People may confuse us with Jim Jones or David Koresh," he says. "But we are just a happy family. We aren't controlling minds. We don't oblige people to do anything."
Two years after Albarracin lost contact with his parents, his wife Madelyn filed for divorce. The Colombian entrepreneur claims she was upset he had quit his Interland post to dedicate his life to De Jesus. But in a petition filed with the court, Madelyn contends her then-husband was having an affair with Martita Roca, a 24-year-old Guatemalan starlet who acted in Amor en Alquiler - and who married Albarracin in 2004.
In the divorce documents, Madelyn also expresses concern that Albarracin was giving "in excess of $6000 per month" to Creciendo en Gracia in 2003, and that he believed "half of everything he owns belongs to the church." She also requested that Albarracin be barred from taking their two children, Roger and Stephanie, to De Jesus's church because it was having "unreasonable influence" on the family. She got her wish.
Despite the turmoil, Albarracin has no regrets. "I believe all this was predestined," he explains. "Now I don't have commitment to anyone, just my ministry. Dad, when he was in Nazareth, said whoever loses mother, father, brother, sister will gain me forever."
Even De Jesus's family has been ripped apart by the ministry. The process began in 1999, when he went from being a mere Apostle to being El Otro. Most Creciendo en Gracia's pastors embraced his new position, but a few resisted. Among the mutineers was De Jesus's son, José Luis Jr., who had led a Creciendo church in Colombia and oversaw headquarters' operations.
José Luis Jr. says his objections were only partly theological. "Once my father started presenting himself as God," he explains, "there was no room for different interpretation. He lost all sense of responsibility to the congregation and his family. It became about José Luis the star."
De Jesus sees it differently. "I think my son just had a big ego problem," he says. "He didn't want to submit to me."
De Jesus's four grown daughters also resisted, as did his then-wife, Nydia. "She developed this type of protection every time I began teaching," De Jesus says. "One time she said, 'It doesn't bother you to deceive so many people?'" So in late 1999, De Jesus left her. In March the following year, he says he was living in Colombia with a woman named Josefina, who would become his second wife. And in August 2002 the divorce settlement agreement was signed. He was awarded the BMW and a South Beach condo, according to court records. She took a house in Puerto Rico and $144,000 per year in alimony.
Almost as soon as the papers were filed, José Luis Jr. denounced Creciendo en Gracia. "I was hysterical," he recalls. "How can [my father] tell a congregation that God has guided his entire life, told him all the secrets of the Gospel, but can't fix his marriage?" Junior later moved with his mother to Puerto Rico, where they both live today. He refused to speak to his father for two years.
De Jesus and Albarracin aren't the only members of Creciendo en Gracia leadership to divorce in recent years. Carlos Cestero, the ministry's second in command, left his wife too. The turmoil has chased away some of the faithful. While worldwide membership has climbed, the Miami congregation has seen its numbers slide from 800 to around 500, according to Ivan Lopez. "We've had a lot of persecution," he says by way of explanation.
José Luis Jr., meanwhile, has established a congregation of his own. He says he has about 80 members in Puerto Rico and groups of 30 to 40 in Peru, Brazil, Guatemala, and Miami. Virtually all are former Creciendo en Gracia members. Among them are his mother and two of his four sisters.
In many ways José Luis Jr.'s teachings mirror his father's. He believes the Devil was destroyed and that salvation is predestined. But parishioners don't have carte blanche to indulge their urges. And he never claims to be Jesus Christ. As he puts it: "I offer people a safe alternative to that kind of fanatical thinking."
Creciendo en Gracia devotees believe, on the other hand, that Junior is just another minister of deceipt and that, little by little, De Jesus is exposing the one true Gospel. As he does, their minds are evolving. When it's all over, they'll have perfect knowledge - but only if they believe. De Jesus says his followers will then shed their tired flesh and he'll give them new bodies that feel no pain and never die. Although he can't say exactly when the change will come, the buzz around headquarters is that it could be any moment.
Some of his followers, like Albarracin, are so convinced salvation is imminent that they refuse to plan for retirement or take out health and life insurance.
After all, when the transformation is over, they won't want for anything.
"We're the government of God on Earth," explains De Jesus. "We will spread all over and rule the world. We will control the church, the economy, society, education, politics, technology. There will be no war, no corruption. I mean, if a lie can change the world, why can't the truth do it?"