Son-Of-The-Father Figure

Charismatic Minister Is Latest In A Long Line Of Would-Be Christs

Hartford Courant/March 4, 2007
By Jesse Leavenworth

At a Michigan state mental hospital more than 40 years ago, a psychiatrist brought together three patients, each of whom said he was Jesus Christ. Dr. Milton Rokeach, author of "The Three Christs of Ypsilanti," thought a messianic showdown might dull the patients' delusions. All three, however, refused to be dethroned.

Whether mentally ill, hedonistic or genuinely inspired, self-declared saviors have risen through the ages and stood firm against disbelief and outrage. The most charismatic have attracted hundreds and sometimes thousands to their altars.

The latest and most prominent figure to declare Christhood is the Rev. Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, whose flock numbers up to 100,000 in the U.S. and Central and South America.

"I am the Second Coming of Christ, that messiah they've been waiting for," de Jesus has said.

Building membership for the past 20 years, de Jesus' Florida-based Growing in Grace church now boasts 335 education centers, 200 pastors, 287 radio programs and a 24-hour Spanish-language TV network that's available to 2 million homes, according to the Associated Press.

De Jesus was in the news last month when followers crowded into a Miami tattoo parlor to be branded with their leader's latest symbol - "666." In the Bible's book of Revelation, 666 is considered a sign of the Antichrist, but de Jesus and his followers say the number instead connects them to a new gospel, one without sin or Satan. All Growing in Grace members are Antichrists, de Jesus preached recently, because they reject mainstream Christianity's lies and promotion of guilt.

The title of "Jesus Christ, Man," however, is reserved for de Jesus. Along with divinity, he also has arrayed himself with expensive jewelry, clothes and cars. Some members of his mostly Hispanic flock reportedly contribute up to half their earnings to the church.

How does a former heroin addict whose identities have evolved from the Apostle Paul to the Son of God get people to believe in him and give him money?

"People are credulous," said the Rev. Lowell Streiker, a California-based United Church of Christ minister who has counseled cult members and their families.

Streiker has ministered to former followers of one of the most notorious God claimants, the Rev. Jim Jones, leader of the People's Temple. The break-a-way church became famous in 1978 after more than 900 members, including the drug-addled Jones, died in a combination of mass suicide and murder in South America.

"They had a very deficient idea of who God was," Streiker said of the People's Temple members. "For instance, if you said to one of these people, `Does he [Jones] make it rain?' - they didn't know. They had no concept of God being in charge of the universe. They only had this image of a super-father who exercised control within the community."

These super-fathers (most Christ claimants have been men) are usually charismatic and confident. They often know the Bible well and use scriptures that tell of prophets and Christ's second coming as springboards for their own messages.

"In some ways, the text lays some groundwork for folks to think of themselves or to recognize in others a kind of prophetic figure," said Eugene Gallagher, professor of religious studies at Connecticut College in New London.

One hallmark of those who proclaim Christhood is a previous declaration of divine inspiration, Gallagher said. De Jesus has said he was visited by both angels and Jesus. Henry James Prince, who helped found a 19th-century English religious community, said the Holy Ghost had entered his body.

People who have such experiences, or claim to have them, sometimes move toward divine identification, Gallagher said. As with de Jesus, some do it in steps, starting with an angel or prophet and proceeding to Christianity's top slot. The big leap, however, is getting others to believe in a message that mainstream religion labels outrageous.

"Otherwise," Gallagher said, "you're a legend in your own mind."

People come to believe, cult expert Rick Ross wrote in an e-mail, because the leader's message is constant.

"Within the world, each [leader] controls," Ross wrote. "Their faithful devotees are expected to reinforce such fantastic claims, and they create a kind of alternate universe, where fantasy becomes reality."

People also believe, Streiker said, because they see a fulfillment of their needs in a charismatic, confident leader. Some are disillusioned with their former churches, he said, often because of the hypocrisy they see in leaders who preach morality, then sleep with the church organist or steal from the offering plate.

But new religious groups are often not an escape from immoral leadership. In fact, experts say, groups that come to be labeled cults because of the absolute control of one leader or a handful of leaders often are steeped in immorality.

Connecticut's own "Brother" Julius Schacknow, who died in 1996, called himself `the sinful messiah," saying he had to sin to know what it was like. Disillusioned former followers said Schacknow's sin of choice was sex. They said he manipulated teenage girls and women into his bed, suggesting it was God's will.

Henry James Prince, the English minister who led a religious community called Agapemone, or Abode of Love, reportedly had sex with a 16-year-old girl in front of her fellow congregants, and Hulon Mitchell Jr., a racial separatist who called himself the "Black Christ," was convicted of conspiracy in connection with the murders of up to 23 people in Florida in the 1980s.

In any list of Christ claimants, sex, money and power are prominent, but experts say it's often difficult to tell whether leaders fell from their pedestals after starting their groups with good intentions or if they were in it for power and pleasure all along.

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