Cover story November 95

Praise the Lord

and pass the catch-up

"We are like an omelet. The more they beat us, the more we grow." Perhaps Edna Fernandes has found the best explanation for the incredible growth of the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus not only in Brazil but in 46 other countries. Fernandes, a São Paulo assemblywoman, is the sister of Edir Macedo, the self-appointed bishop of Universal and the man who in less than two decades has transformed a little sect, gathering in a place used as a funeral parlor, in the biggest Brazilian franchise all over the word.

Elma Lia Nascimento

His enemies say bishop Edir Macedo's dream is to convert Brazil into a religious state, a kind of new Iran in which he would be its all-powerful ayatollah. Carlos Magno de Miranda, an ex-coordinator of the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (Universal Church of the Kingdom of God), says his former boss and mentor wants one day to be Brazil's President. Macedo, who rarely gives any interview, denied recently any political ambition to newsweekly Isto É. "God has anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor in spirit, to free those oppressed by Satan and to announce the pardon of Jesus Christ," he answered to a question sent by fax by the magazine.

At his house in Purchase, north of New York City — Igreja Universal's founder and leader lives with his wife Ester and two children (Cleonice, 18 and Moisés, 9) between the US and South Africa, the two countries in which his church is growing faster — one of Macedo's pastimes is to attach pins to a huge worldmap. It's been a busy time for pin manufacturers. Every pin means a new church in his empire, which by last count had more than 2,000 temples in 46 countries. Three hundred of these prayer houses are outside Brazil.

Precise numbers are hard to gather due to secrecy and the rapid spread of the church. The Igreja Universal started its foreign expansionism in 1985 when the first temple was opened in Paraguay, a country on Brazil's southwestern border. Another Brazilian church, Deus É Amor, has already spread to 30 other countries, but the 33-year old church has had a steady and slow expansion, nothing that compares to the Universal's boom. By 1990 the church was established in all Brazilian states and had added temples in Argentina, Portugal and the United States. In a same Sunday in September the Igreja Universal assembled 50,000 people in Johannesburg, South Africa, for a session of exorcism and close to 6,000 in New York for a celebration called Domingo dos Milagres (Sunday of Miracles).

The Universal church, whose headquarters is a former movie theater in Brás, a working-class neighborhood next to downtown São Paulo, is only one among dozens of other Brazilian churches which were inspired by Pentecostalism, the evangelical branch of Christianity that centers its faith on the power of the Holy Spirit. In addition to the theatrics of their worship with "miracle cures", exorcisms and personal accounts of the church's effectiveness, the Igreja Universal offers cure and solution for any kind of problem, be it financial, sentimental, or health. "Jesus Christ is the solution" is the pastors' answer to afflictions as diverse as depression, vices, unemployment, family disharmony, insomnia and headaches. They even promise to cure AIDS and homosexuality.

With close to 6 million believers all over the world and an estimated $1 billion annual income, the Igreja Universal has become the biggest Brazilian multinational, employing around 40 bishops and more than 7,000 pastors. The Church owns TV Record, a traditional Brazilian television network that they had bought in 1990 for $45 million. While Record was converted for some time into a 24-hour pulpit for the church, market considerations have confined the preacher to the wee hours of the morning. The direction of the programs and news has been given to professionals not linked to Universal and the church now has to pay for the time it uses. The ratings are still low with an average of 5% of the viewing public and peaks of 10% or more during soccer games or auditorium shows. Those who were betting that the dilapidated Record would die under Macedo's ownership are now eating their words. TV Record has bought 160 films never shown on Brazilian TV, hired respected journalists and presenters and bought the rights to transmit São Paulo's soccer championship in 1996.

The Igreja Universal also owns 30 radio stations in Brazil, four in Portugal, one in Mozambique and several publications including the national weekly newspaper Folha Universal, which prints 1 million copies, and US-based Universal News, with more than 100,000 copies. All of this is administered by LM Consultoria, a holding company. The church also owns Banco de Crédito Metropolitano, a smaller bank. Among many of the church's plans, there is the publication of a national mass-circulation daily.

The success of Edir Macedo, 50, an ex-public servant who started two college courses (studying Mathematics and Statistics) without finishing them, has a lot to do with his ability to use the media in his favor. The Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus has been promising miracles and cures even for AIDS, but the biggest miracle of all has been how fast the church has grown. It was in 1977 that Macedo and four other friends transformed an old funerary house in Abolição, a suburb on the Northern side of Rio, into the first temple of the incipient evangelical multinational.

Bishop Macedo was barely surviving and had less than 100 followers when he started his church. It was Maria Veronesi, a woman who believed to be cured by him and is still in the church, who sold a lot she had inherited from her father, giving the money to Macedo. He used it to buy 10 minutes a day of air time at Rio's Metropolitana radio. By 1980, the bishop had already a daily half-hour program at Rio's TV Tupi and had opened a temple in São Paulo, together with a program at Rádio Cacique in the Greater São Paulo.

By 1982 his program at Metropolitana had grown to five hours a day. Two years later he would buy in Rio Copacabana radio, the first acquisition of what would soon become a communications empire, with 35 radio stations in Brazil, Mozambique and Portugal (they buy time on radio and TV in other countries), several publications including Hoje em Dia, a respected daily from Minas Gerais state, and the 25 stations of the TV Record network.

More recently the church has also acquired its own recording company, Line Records, which has under contract Nelson Ned, a singer famous throughout Latin America for his romantic ballads. Nowadays Ned is more interested in recording religious hymns like "Jesus é a saída" ("Jesus is the solution") which says, "Ele é o Cristo que te ama/ Que te ama de verdade/ Ele é a força que te abriu a eternidade/ Ele é o sol" ("He is the Christ who loves you/ The one who loves you truly/ He is the power who has opened eternity to you/ He is the sun").

Macedo was 20, when disenchanted with the Catholic church he became an evangelical, joining the Igreja Nova Vida (New Life Church). He would stay 10 years with the congregation before leaving it in 1975, accusing the church of elitism. In Casa da Bênção (Blessed House), the new church he had joined, the restless maverick was advised to start his own religious movement. So, Macedo and a small group of friends created the Cruzada do Caminho Eterno (The Eternal Road Crusade), an aggressive bunch of people brandishing bibles on public squares and preaching in rented movie theaters. Once again he didn't agree with what was being done and started his Igreja Universal.

For many years nobody besides his followers was paying any attention to this evangelical minister. To the dominant Catholic church and the complacent Brazilian media he seemed just like one more fanatic among hundreds who profited from the public ignorance, poverty and suffering to start a new sect and make some money for themselves in the process. But all of this changed since Macedo showed his lack of compromise with the powers that be and the more established churches.

He put some fear in the hearts and pockets of the establishment when he started buying radio stations, theaters and supermarkets to put them in the service of his church. The acquisition of TV Record network in 1990 was a watershed showing he was serious about getting bigger and more legitimate. The Igreja Universal has also made serious incursions into the middle class, recruiting doctors, economists, lawyers and business owners. This made life much harder for Macedo, the minister who had by now given himself the title of bishop. Where had his money come from? The media started to ask questions. The police got involved. He was accused of fraud and embezzlement, and in 1992 ended up in jail for 12 days. The courts have found him innocent every time there was a process against him.

Even today the Universal is not the biggest evangelical church in Brazil. The Assembléia de Deus (Assembly of God), for example, has 13 million followers and the Congregação Cristã do Brasil (Brazil's Christian Congregation) and the Igreja Luterana (Lutheran Church) have 4 million apiece. Some evangelicals, however, are trying to distance themselves from Macedo. The Associação Evangélica Brasileira (Brazilian Evangelical Association) led by Presbyterian Caio Fábio D'Araújo Filho has been in the forefront of this movement, accusing the bishop of using manipulative methods to get money. The Igreja Universal has allied itself to a branch of the Assembly of God to start its own evangelical organization, the Conselho Nacional dos Pastores do Brasil (National Council of Brazil's Pastors). D'Araújo contends that Macedo's church has "no legitimacy to represent the diversity of the Evangelical Church."

If the church's finances are kept under seven veils, the philosophy behind Universal's growth has been amply explained. Macedo himself is the author of 14 books, all published by Gráfica Universal which belongs to the church. There the bishop explains how bad company can compromise redemption: "Look for friendship among people who have the same faith and avoid at any cost talk, discussions or contacts which can jeopardize your salvation." He also talks about the presence of the devil: "There are some diseases that characterize possession (by the devil): neurosis, constant headaches, insomnia, fear, faint or attacks; suicidal wishes, diseases whose causes are not discovered by doctors, vision of shadows and voice auditions, vices, depression."

But it's about the graces bestowed upon those who part with their money as a contribution to the church that Macedo is more eloquent. "Don't lose your chance to be God's partner. Be at His disposal with all that you own and start to participate too in all that God has." He also writes, "Money is a sacred tool used in God's work." Or, "To give the tithe is to be a candidate to receive ceaseless blessings, according to what the Bible says, under the physical, spiritual and financial aspects... When we pay God the tithe, He has the obligation (because he promised) to keep His word, reproaching the devouring spirits which disgrace man's life."

"If we want a better salary," he also says, "we have to tell God, 'Lord , I'd like a salary of x dollars a month.' If my wish is to get a new car, then I have to ask for a new car, and tell its make. And so on. We need to know how to ask in order to be able to receive."

Since 1990, Magno de Miranda, a Macedo's former ally, has been accusing the bishop of having used $ 1 million in drug money from Colombia to buy Record TV. He also says that Macedo has smuggled radio equipment into Brazil for his radio stations. According to him, sophisticated studio equipment entered the country with the aid of Brazilian customs agents. In a recent interview to daily Folha de São Paulo, Miranda seemed resigned when he talked about the police's lack of interest in investigating his charges. "That's Brazil," he said. "The same has happened to charges against ex-President Fernando Collor de Mello and the banks that have been going bust."

São Paulo's public prosecutor is accusing Macedo of embezzlement, charlatanism and quackery. The penal code establishes a fine and a prison sentence from one to up to five years for those found guilty of embezzlement. Charlatanism and quackery also carry sentences that go up to two years in jail. The process against Macedo has been dragging since 1992. The main accusation is that he had amassed a personal fortune of $100 million by '92 by exploiting the good faith of his church's members. He spent 12 days in jail but Justice absolved him. The prosecution has appealed the verdict.

While most other religions draw believers, promising a better life after death in exchange for sacrifice and a life of moderation, the Igreja Universal believes the rewards of the faithful will be given here on earth. More than that, new temples are only opened after the area and the customs of a proposed new place are studied. That's what happened, for example, earlier this year, in the Dominican Republic. A group of ministers went there beforehand and not only decided that the temple should be opened in the capital Santo Domingo, but also that some elements of Umbanda (cult with African influences) should be included. Curiously, in Brazil, Umbanda has been condemned constantly by the church.

Macedo and his ministers seem also decided to fill any void left by the other religions. If Catholics have dry and emotionless worship services, they invite participation, making people talk about their experiences of knowing Jesus during the worship, sing, raise their arms, cry, applaud and even have their demons expelled in dramatic and cathartic ceremonies in front of the whole congregation. As another way to fight Catholicism, the temples are being used to distribute condoms among the believers.

It's on the social front, however, that the Igreja Universal is successfully striving for legitimacy. Their ministers have been seen on Rio's hills distributing food among favelados (shanty-town dwellers) and ABC (Associação Beneficente Cristã (Christian Beneficent Association), a Universal creation, has been one of the most active groups helping those in need. Since October of last year, their campaign against hunger has distributed only in São Paulo more than 1.5 tons of food.

Since 1992 the church has been helping, with at least $15,000 a month, São Paulo's Sociedade Pestalozzi, a traditional institution which takes care of 280 mentally handicapped children who spend the day at the organization. The institution helps another 2,000 handicapped youngsters every year. The Igreja Universal has also opened a health clinic in the south area of São Paulo in conjunction with a neighborhood association. Their main work there will be family planning and distribution of contraceptives. "If the state doesn't do it, we will do our own campaign of family planning," says pastor Ronaldo Didini, ABC's director and one of the star presenters at TV Record. The clinic has already seen more than 11,000 people. Some of the doctors working there are volunteers and are not affiliated to the church. The idea is to open a new health clinic every three or four months. Other social initiatives include a plan to recuperate public schools abandoned by the state and the administration of soup kitchens and night shelters in downtown São Paulo. In one of these projects, with capacity for 400 people, City Hall will pay the salary of the 38 workers. ABC will be in charge of distributing food and clothes as well as providing medical and dental care.

Another proof of the importance of this work for the church is the fact that Didini takes one day a week to go to the favelas personally. He also goes to the children's centers to distribute food from the top of a truck's body. Didini, an ex-Army lieutenant, talks grandiosely about the church's work, "We are going to do the country's biggest social work." In the next few weeks they will be launching a health plan to compete with other private plans established in the country. "We are going to break the health plans' monopolies," promises Didini.

They might. While the rest of the world has seemed to be in a recessionary mode for years, the Igreja Universal doesn't lack money to spend. Be it the One Million Dollar Theater in downtown Los Angeles, which had been a jewel of the Hollywood golden era, frequented by, among others, Charles Chaplin. Likewise the traditional Coliseu, and main show theater in Porto, Portugal, which was bought for $6.5 million or the London's Brixton Academy concert hall. All of these purchases have provoked protests in the countries where they happened.

Of Universal's nine US temples, five are in New York; one in Newark, New Jersey; two in Miami and one in Los Angeles. The group is known in the United States as the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. For half an hour every day Edir Macedo presents a program on Telemundo, a Spanish-speaking cable TV network. It' s estimated that the church has 8,000 members only in New York. In a Brooklyn neighborhood church, for example, most of the faithful are Hispanic, the same as in LA.

Macedo himself explains all this activity by saying, "The church is like a moving bicycle: if it stops, it falls down." The church seems unstoppable. There are plans to start a mission in Russia and to conquer the whole of Asia since Japan has already a temple, and the Philippines seven. Only this year has the Igreja Universal stretched its reach to include England, Luxembourg, India, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi and Congo. In Africa the growth has been staggering. In only one day 3,000 believers have been recently baptized in Mozambique (a former Portugal colony). Ministers have been in France learning the language in order to spread open the Universal to French-speaking African countries.

Macedo has no special place or privileges in the church's hierarchy. He is only one of the 30 bishops who make up the Bishops' World Council, the top layer in the power structure. This group gets together twice a year. The day- to-day instructions are more likely to come from the bimonthly meetings of the 17 bishops, who comprise the Bishops' Council in Brazil. Each of these leaders is in charge of one or more states in Brazil and among their tasks, is the analysis of each temple's accounts, after they have been approved by the Pastors' Council, the next tier in the power chart. Below the pastors there are pastors' aides and obreiros (workers). The last are volunteers who only work a few hours a week. Some of them become pastors. Thanks to them the church is able to give individual attention to all of those who come for help.

A pastor has an average salary of $700 depending on which city he is living in. He also receives a house and a car when he is responsible for more than one temple. He gets health care from the church too. Bishops, in addition to a better salary and all of the above, are entitled to aides and cellular phones.

The Igreja Universal has been heavily criticized for the way it gets its money. The gatherings are very similar in every temple in the world. They last an average of two hours (three times a day every day of the week in some places) with half of the time dedicated to the preaching of the Bible and the other half to the collection of money.

In the New Jersey temple, for example, the minister reminds the faithful that the American government takes 30% of their paycheck. Ten percent for God, goes the argumentation, it's a real bargain. Ten percent of the gross income is what Igreja Universal asks for. During a recent worship service at headquarters, a pastor explained the reasoning behind the financial contribution, "The more you give to the church, the more you will receive. There are many people who got a new car and bought a home after coming to the church." He also talked about spreading Universal's message: "We have churches in countries all over the world, but we still need more. That's our only hope to one day destroy the devil."

It's common for the preacher to start the bidding high in a kind of the-other-way-round auction until everybody gives his contribution. It can start with $500 going down to $5 when practically everybody approaches the bag to leave their contribution. In a recent worship service in São Paulo, the minister explained the hesitation of some in giving, "There is war inside each one of us. God wants you to give, but the devil is there holding on to your wallet. Come, come now. Tomorrow you might be dead. If you don't pay God, you are paying the devil."

The sermons invite participation. The pastor might invite to the stage those who can't abandon a vice, those who are afflicted by a disease, or simply those who are not happy enough in life. At his point most of the people go towards the minister. The exercise in collective catharsis is also common. The pastor will say, for example, in a continuous, hypnotic, way, "Close your eyes. Place your hands on your hearts. Now let Christ touch you. Don't fight back. If you feel like crying, let your tears flow." While obreiros walk the corridors making sure people don't open their eyes, phrases, cries, laughs start to pour spontaneously from the crowd. And they sing tunes like "If I'm here it's because I have repented. Forgive me, Lord, forgive me".

On Fridays it's also exorcism's time. "Come, Jesus," the pastor says, "Burn the demons of prostitution, of adultery, of alcohol." "Get out, get out, get out", chant in chorus, hundreds or sometimes thousands of believers. Some are caught in trance and are helped by the obreiros. That's a good time to start the money collection. Even Catholic Friar Beto, a priest linked to the left-leaning Liberation Theology, sees the superiority of Universal's appeal and technique among the masses. "The Catholic liturgy is cold and rigid," he says. "Among the Pentecostals, however, emotion has a place to show up and expand. Catholic churches are built on the top of stairways and are kept closed most of the day. Most of their temples have their door open to the sidewalk, like hungry mouths looking for believers."

How to explain Universal's success? "They know better than anybody how to work in the business world. They deal with money without any feeling of guilt. For them money is something positive and very desirable," says Flávio Pierucci, a sociologist from Universidade de São Paulo. "Due to their entrepreneurial vision, they are able to grow much faster than other evangelical churches.

Universal is a prodigious multinational," argues Paul Freston, a social scientist who has been studying the rise of the evangelical movement in Brazil. Andrew Chestnut, his American colleague, interested in the evangelical phenomenon, has a conclusion, "the Catholic church has chosen the poor, but the poor chose the Pentecostals."

Nobody better than Macedo has understood the meaning of one of the favorite terms of the business world nowadays, flexibilization, that is, the skill to quickly adapt to the market. While past generations of evangelicals would say, "Christians don't get into politics", the Universal church has created the slogan, "Brother votes for brothers."

It all started in 1986 with a rumor that the Catholic church would use the Constituent Assembly (87-88) to establish Catholicism as Brazil's official and only religion. Nowadays, the Evangelical group in Congress has grown to four senators (of a total of 81) and 27 federal deputies (of 513). Most of them (10) belong to the Assembly of God, but the Igreja Universal comes in second with five house representatives. Two of them are from São Paulo, two from Rio and one from Bahia. They have also won at least six seats on state assemblies. Among Universal's assembly people are two of the bishop's siblings: Eraldo Macedo and Edna Fernandes. Elected to São Paulo's assembly with 41,000 votes, Edna explained, "We are like an omelet. The more they beat us, the more we grow."

For Eraldo, his latest victory gave him a third mandate in Rio de Janeiro's state assembly. Another brother, Celso Macedo, is a Rio councilman. Universal has already started the selection of candidates for the next election. They promise also to fill up many seats on city councils all over the country. The church hasn't started its own party in Brazil, but it has done so in Portugal with the Partido da Gente (Party of Ours), whose symbol is a broom.

The Igreja Universal has declared war against two of the most powerful forces in Brazil, the Catholic church and TV Globo, the television network which ranks fourth in the world, just behind the three US sisters. Apparently, Universal with its 3 million faithful is no match for the 105 million Catholics (35 million of which are practicing) and TV Record and its 25 stations is just a little mouse for Globo's 87 broadcasting stations.

The church, however, seems to play the underdog and martyr role very well. For some time now they have been presenting Globo and the Catholic church as emissaries of the Devil. The recent presentation by Globo of the mini-series Decadência (Decadence) was the pretext Universal needed to declare a holy war against the leading TV network in Brazil. The Rio network had already harshly criticized Macedo and his techniques showing the collection of bags of money and people being exorcised during a Universal worship service, in a segment of Fantástico, Globo's Sunday leading news and entertainment show. Decadência presented the story of Mariel, a corrupt and lecherous Minister who has a striking resemblance to bishop Edir Macedo. At the end, Mariel goes to prison despite all his effort at buying everybody. Even though Globo and Dias Gomes, the miniseries's author, have denied that the work was based on Macedo's life, it was discovered that the fictitious preacher borrowed verbatim entire phrases of an interview given by Macedo to Veja magazine in November 1990.

The response from Universal started even before the first chapter of Decadência was aired. In 25ª Hora (25th Hour), a debate program, Record brought Romero Machado da Costa, Globo's former auditor, to discuss his book Afundação Roberto Marinho (Roberto Marinho Sinking). Roberto Marinho is Globo's founder and President and the word afundação is a play with fundação (foundation).

And Record has announced the exhibition by year's end of a mini-soap-opera to be called Chantagem (Blackmail) in which the main character is a man who inherits a mediocre newspaper from his father and makes it into a communication empire putting his paper at the service of a military dictatorship in the country. That's the story Marinho's enemies have painted of Globo's patriarch.

In its fight against Globo, Universal use to include the Catholics since Marinho has been a good friend of the more conservative leaders of the Catholic church in Brazil. Silas Malafaia, an Assembly of God minister, who has a program at Record, declared, "If Globo attacks an evangelical church, it is provoking all of them." He and other pastors insinuated that the miniseries had been ordered by the Catholic church. The war among Catholics and Macedo's church escalated dangerously in mid-October when Sérgio Von Helder, the highest authority of Universal in São Paulo, kicked on the air an image of Nossa Senhora Aparecida, the patroness saint of Brazil and the representation of the Virgin Mary. The act that was shown by Record during the religious programs Despertar da Fé and Palavra de Vida and was replayed dozens of times afterwards by Globo and the other networks, provoked immediate retaliation from Catholics with Universal temples being attacked and menaces of bombing.

Three days after the provocation, Macedo himself intervened, taping a message in which he asked forgiveness to the Catholics for his pastor's acts and accused Von Helder of being foolish and inconsequent. "Bishop Von Helder acted like a child. He thought and acted like a child bringing about this new inconsequent act for all Brazilian people," declared Macedo. He used the occasion to talk about "the injustices, infamies and persecutions" that his church has suffered, but ended his message with a plea for forgiveness: "We want to ask for forgiveness to all of you Catholics who were hit by Bishop Von Helder's attitude."

Rio's conservative cardinal-archbishop Dom Eugênio Sales heard the contrite words, but wasn't ready to forgive. "Let's have him show by acts, that he means what he says," the Catholic leader declared.

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