'Antichrist' leader of Doral ministry under investigation amid divorce

South Florida Sun-Sentinel/July 17, 2007
By Madeline Baró Diaz

Doral -- Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda claims to be the latest incarnation of Jesus Christ, but the modern savior has modern troubles.

The leader of the Doral-based Creciendo en Gracia, or Growing in Grace, ministry declared himself the second coming of Jesus Christ and later the Antichrist, symbolizing his opposition to traditional religious views.

His followers got inked with "666" or "SSS" ( "Salvo Siempre Salvo" or "Saved Always Saved") tattoos as television cameras recorded them, and an aggressive campaign against the Catholic Church got him banned from three countries.

But the search for publicity might have backfired for the man who preaches there is no sin and flashes expensive watches and cars given by his followers. Details of how followers' donations also paid for real estate, business dealings and even alimony have emerged in his divorce from his second wife. The testimony in Miami-Dade court about the mixing of church and personal funds prompted the divorce judge to alert federal prosecutors.

"[De Jesus] sought publicity, gained publicity and became a high-profile person attracting attention," said cult expert Rick Ross. "In this divorce proceeding, he probably wishes he didn't have that attention."

A former drug addict, de Jesus, 61, was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, and eventually moved to Miami, where he founded Growing in Grace in 1986. He has denied any financial irregularities and says his congregants give him gifts.

The ministry claims thousands of followers in more than 30 countries and 300 "educational centers," including a group in Broward County. It also has a television station, TeleGracia, that broadcasts de Jesus' services. Over the weekend, itbroadcastde Jesus live from Costa Rica.

Other Central American countries have been less welcoming. In recent years, his followers have mounted a protest campaign against the Catholic Church, which they accuse of spreading "demonic" teachings. They have demonstrated in various countries, including Brazil when the pope visited in May. As a result, predominantly Catholic Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have denied de Jesus entry.

De Jesus has put a positive spin on those controversies, but now he might have to explain murky finances to a higher power — the U.S. government.

According to deposition and divorce court testimony by de Jesus, his daughter Jo-Ann de Jesus, who is the ministry's finance manager; and Carlos Cestero, the ministry's head bishop:

The church used Jo-Ann de Jesus' credit and name for real estate transactions, including Jose Luis de Jesus' suburban Houston home and a pre-construction Miramar home. Growing in Grace leaders said they were church properties, but the church used her name and credit because it was difficult for the church to obtain a mortgage.

Growing in Grace was paying $144,000 a year in alimony to Jose Luis de Jesus' first wife, considering it part of his salary. Later, part of the alimony was set aside to pay another daughter's $36,000-a-year ministry salary.

Followers alternately made out their donations to the church or to de Jesus, who sometimes donated his gift money to the church. Donations from followers in Colombia went to a Colombian bank account in Jose Luis de Jesus' name. De Jesus said the Colombian bishop controlled the money meant for churches there, but he also said some of the money went to de Jesus' Colombian-born wife, including about $4,800 for furniture and $60,000 to build a condominium.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Roberto Pineiro, the divorce judge, forwarded a copy of the court transcript to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"I really don't know where the personal property starts and where the church property ends," Pineiro said during the May 16 court hearing, according to the transcript.

A U.S. Attorney's Office spokeswoman said her office does not comment on investigations.

De Jesus, who could not be reached for comment despite several interview requests, addressed the allegations during a service in Doral in late June. He said the ministry's financial dealings followed Internal Revenue Service guidelines and suggested authorities who come after him could incur the wrath of God.

"Be careful when you deal with me," he said. "I am Jesus Christ Man. Know what you are doing."

De Jesus said some of the ministry's money came from personal gifts followers gave him.

"The church is using my funds," he said.

His declarations got wild applause from his followers. Many, like Donaira Rivera, 25, de Jesus' personal makeup artist, believe he is divine.

"He is the only one who said I am not a sinner," Rivera said during an April service. "For religions, he's the Antichrist. For us, he's Jesus Christ Man."

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