Among the softly lighted houses that line a quiet stretch of Corona Avenue in central Queens, a visitor will encounter a mosque, a Jehovah's Witnesses assembly hall, two Buddhist temples and, finally, a onetime hair salon that is home to a congregation of a Christian sect called Growing in Grace.
The sect meets in a spare single room whose furnishings consist primarily of seven rows of white aluminum folding chairs, a crimson carpet and a classroom-size video screen. To the right of the screen stands an American flag. To the left is the flag for an entity called God's Government on Earth, a blue, yellow and silver banner depicting a globe; an anchor; an eagle clutching a sword; and the 14 books that the sect attributes to the Apostle Paul.
"We don't have any crosses here," said Yajaira Reyes, a 23-year-old worshiper who lives in the Bronx. "We don't have any images. The only image we have is of him."
Ms. Reyes pointed to a poster-size photograph of a heavyset man who was wearing a dark suit and a wan smile and giving the sect's two-fingered salute. He is José Luis De Jesús Miranda, the 61-year-old founder of this ministry, and he is known to his followers by the majestic title the Man Christ Jesus.
Mr. Miranda and his church have their idiosyncrasies. He has called himself both Jesus Christ and the Antichrist, putting his own spin on the latter term, and he and some of his followers have tattooed themselves with the number 666, the mark of the beast in the Book of Revelation.
Although the church claims to have a quarter of a million members worldwide, with large followings in Latin America and in its base city, Miami, its membership in New York is only about 150, split among the Corona church, one in Woodhaven, Queens, and one in Inwood in Manhattan. But in an important respect, this small church is representative of an abiding theme in a large and growing swath of the city. Religious fervor may not be strikingly common among native New Yorkers, but among the city's multiplying number of immigrants it is a frequent and prominent feature of the landscape.
"Religion has such an important function in immigrant life," said David Badillo, author of the 2006 book "Latinos and the New Immigrant Church" and the research director at the Bronx Institute of Lehman College. "They need the organization, the networking. They need everything from the employment network to the prayer groups." And beyond that, he said, "there's a lot of religious enthusiasm and passion."
This zeal is much in evidence among members of Growing in Grace. Their standard greeting to one another reflects their blissful state of mind. "You're blessed," they say upon meeting a fellow adherent, "with all spiritual blessing."
At the church on Corona Avenue, a 49-year-old data technician from nearby Elmhurst named Gilbert Fuentes fiddled with his laptop to set up the video that would soon bring the Man Christ Jesus into the room. More than a dozen congregants filed in, laughing and hugging. It was nearly 8 p.m. Feb. 14, and the sect, also known to its largely Spanish-speaking members as Creciendo en Gracia, would soon begin its weekly Wednesday service. The church meets on Wednesday and Sundays, coinciding with Mr. Miranda's twice-weekly broadcasts.
If the church borrows its aesthetic from anywhere, it is from the American presidency. Mr. Miranda sometimes refers to himself as the president of God's government on Earth — hence the slogan on the blue, yellow and silver flag — and when he speaks he stands at a lectern behind a near-replica of the presidential seal. A copy of this seal is taped to the church's front door.
But religious drama and rhetoric also loom large at Growing in Grace. "We call it the Beloved," Mr. Fuentes said of his congregation. "That's what God called it: the Beloved. And we are the Beloved from Queens."
Mr. Fuentes, a son of a Colombian mother and an Ecuadorean father, has been a member of the church for 18 months. He said that his father, a reluctant Catholic, once had a vision of Christ returning to Earth wearing a business suit. When Mr. Fuentes visited the Corona congregation on a friend's recommendation, the preacher he saw onscreen, Mr. Miranda, matched this vision.
"When I came to the center for the first time, I felt like he had taken hold of me," Mr. Fuentes said. As Mr. Fuentes spoke, he continued pressing keys on his laptop. In a moment, behind him, the church projector displayed a Web page. It read: "Welcome to the signal that will transform your mind."
Mr. Miranda, the center of this sect, acknowledges his earthly origins in Ponce, Puerto Rico. He moved to Massachusetts in 1979 and founded his faith seven years later. His organization refers to him as a doctor, though in an interview in March with ABC News, he acknowledged that he had not earned a doctorate.
The sect holds that while sin died on the cross with Jesus, the idea of sin still oppresses people. Mr. Miranda himself struggled with drugs and served time for robbery, but Bishop Rafael Encarnación, his spokesman, dismissed those events as a youthful interlude.
"That was when he was a young guy, when he was 15 or 16," the bishop said. "He went to jail when he was 21. But after that he never went back to addiction."
Mr. Miranda's transformations have punctuated the short history of Growing in Grace. In 1991, he introduced himself to his flock as El Otro, or the Other, a sort of transitional deity that prefigured the Second Coming of Christ. In 2004, Mr. Miranda announced to the world that he was Jesus Christ. Then in January this year, during an appearance on his weekly broadcast, he rolled up his sleeves to reveal the numbers 666 tattooed on one arm and the letters SSS, a Spanish abbreviation that stands for "Once Saved, Always Saved," on the other. Then, to the cheers of his audience, he proclaimed that he is the Antichrist.
Mr. Miranda uses the startling word Antichrist to underscore the idea that while Christ's death secured heavenly salvation for all, Mr. Miranda's mission is to save people from the misery of their life on Earth. If they tithe — contribute 10 percent of their income — and make additional offerings, then prosperity will follow, Mr. Miranda promises. He can achieve this result, he says, because he is God.
This message has found an audience among disaffected Latino Christians, of which the worshipers in Corona seem representative. Some of the congregants are native New Yorkers, but most are immigrants from countries like Ecuador, El Salvador and Venezuela. Members of the sect can be found throughout the city, and their numbers include older couples, young singles and young couples whose toddlers pad up and down the church's carpeted floor as their parents greet their friends.
In the opinion of Dr. Badillo of Lehman College, it is not surprising that this church and others like it speak powerfully to immigrants. "When people come to the United States, they become more consumerist about their beliefs," he said. A new life in a new country, he explained, creates opportunities to explore religion beyond the faith in which one was raised.
But where Dr. Badillo sees social trends, Mr. Fuentes and his fellow adherents see spiritual truth. "We believe that he is God," Mr. Fuentes said of Mr. Miranda. "That even though he was born in Puerto Rico, when he speaks, he is God."
As the worshipers settled into their seats on the evening of Feb. 14, they were welcomed by Pastor Javier Mackenzie, a trim man wearing a pinstripe black suit, an olive green shirt and a gold tie.
Then the Internet broadcast began, the announcer's voice intoning, "You will be exposed to the mysteries of the Gospel of Grace — mysteries that have been kept hidden since before the foundation of the world."
A slightly fuzzy image of a woman in a strapless floral dress appeared onscreen, swaying to what sounded like a lackluster cruise band. The audience onscreen and the one in the room rose to their feet and sang a hymn that included as its chorus "We are his church and his Beloved." The broadcast, which is beamed to members of Growing in Grace worldwide, is one of two weekly services conducted in Florida and transmitted both online at www.cegenglish.com and via Mr. Miranda's cable television channel, Telegracia.
Later, envelopes embossed with the church's seal were circulated among the audience. Congregants placed checks and cash inside and jotted their names and addresses on the outside.
"In the tithing is a mystery," Mr. Fuentes explained later. "And in that mystery is where prosperity begins." Many congregants refer to their offerings as "planting a seed."
To outsiders suspicious of the purposes behind the tithing, Bishop Encarnación is firm about its theological roots. "The Apostle Paul teaches us the right way of prosperity," he said. "He established in Hebrews that the tithing and offering is the way to prosperity. It's biblical. We don't sell anything."
The sect is publicity-conscious, though. Early in the Feb. 14 broadcast, for example, a bishop presented a report on the prior week's media coverage of the sect. At one point, he replayed a news clip from a Miami television station about Growing in Grace followers getting "666" tattoos at a South Beach tattoo parlor. The audience sat, rapt.
An hour into the broadcast, Mr. Miranda appeared onscreen, wearing a navy vest emblazoned with "666" and "SSS." The crowd jumped to its feet, screaming and clapping. In his soft, familiar voice, Mr. Miranda announced that he had just returned from Colombia, where many of his followers live, and had historic news. He planned to install one of his followers as Colombia's next president, he said, making that nation the first to come under his control in a vision of global rule that the sect believes is set out in the Bible.
Then, switching gears, Mr. Miranda turned to what he called God's true message, that human beings needed to remove their "veil," or the identity that the Christian idea of sin had created in them.
Inspired, Ms. Reyes jotted on a piece of notebook paper: "I am a perfect angel/spirit. We are Gods."
Pastor Mackenzie, 49, who is one of the three pastors in the Corona church, first heard Mr. Miranda's message in 1991, when he was living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. An Ecuadorean who moved to the United States in 1988, the pastor belonged to two Pentecostal churches back then, but he still felt what he described as "an emptiness."
One day, someone gave him two tapes of Mr. Miranda's sermons. The message so infuriated the pastor's wife, who was Pentecostal, that he had to sneak away to listen to the tapes alone.
Their message moved him deeply. The sermons promised Pastor Mackenzie something that his Pentecostal church could not: a life removed from the shadow of sin. His new faith outlasted the marriage — though his former wife would also eventually join the Beloved.
Since he began to follow Growing in Grace, Pastor Mackenzie has watched the ministry prosper. He has also tithed diligently, even continuing to give $35 or $40 from the weekly unemployment benefits of about $360 he has received since he lost his job as a private-school bus driver a few months ago. Thanks to his newfound faith, he says, trials like the loss of his job do not bother him. Mr. Miranda's message is enough to sustain him.
"It's freedom," Pastor Mackenzie said. "We have freedom."
One evening in early March, nearly 30 members of the Corona church gathered at Pete & Cubo's Tattooing and Body Piercing shop in Ozone Park to take part in another rite of the church. An odor of cigarette smoke and rubbing alcohol hung in the air, paired with the hum of tattoo needles at work.
Cecilia Salazar, a school custodian who lives in Harlem and is a member of Growing in Grace, sat on a stool, her long dark hair held off her shoulders by a barrette. As the tattoo artist drew on her neck, the blue-black ink mixed with the red of blood. The completed tattoo read: "666."
"This is the mark of the beast," said Ms. Salazar, whose husband and 20-year-old daughter were also receiving tattoos. "This is the mark of my father."
Like Pastor Mackenzie, Ms. Salazar credits her faith with turning around her life. "I used to feel lost or lonely," she said. "I wasn't happy. I only looked for God, and I couldn't find the God I needed. I didn't have faith in God. But now it's reality. It's here. I can see him."
The Salazars were among more than a dozen members of Growing in Grace who got tattoos that day. (Other worshipers chose not to get tattoos, but went along to watch and lend moral support.) Ms. Reyes, who also got a tattoo, said the congregation had been turned down by four tattoo parlors before finding this location. The cost negotiated was $40 for those wanting just "666" and $70 for those, like Pastor William Salazar, Ms. Salazar's brother-in-law, who also wanted "SSS" engraved.
In the tattoo parlor's waiting room, representatives of the news media had gathered, invited by the sect. As a reporter from ABC News and a crew from Fox News documented the event, sect members chanted and displayed a large banner bearing Mr. Miranda's image.
Similar tattooing events have taken place among followers in Massachusetts, Florida, Texas and Canada, each heralded by a press release from Growing in Grace's energetic media operation. The sect perceives attention from the news media as proof of Mr. Miranda's celestial authority, and as was the case on Feb. 14 in Corona, that attention is highlighted at the beginning of each service. The Corona worshipers were excited; maybe this time their fellow adherents around the globe would see them on the screen.
Mr. Fuentes and Pastor Mackenzie watched the media flurry. Both had declined to be tattooed, and Mr. Fuentes said there was no pressure among sect members to do so.
"This is happening around the world," he said. "This is all part of God's spectacle."