Monday, March 23, 2015

Religion or Scam?

Two scenarios: A man knocks on the door of an old lady’s house, and offers to repave her driveway. Instead, he puts on cheap coat of paint, and walks off with two thousand dollars.

That, we all agree, is fraud, and the state has the legitimate interest and obligation to interfere.

Second scenario: A man invites an old lady into his church, which is an old movie theater, tells her that God wants her to be rich, and that God will reward her if she gives “until it hurts,” because that’s the way God will listen.

And what’s this? Well, if I told you, you wouldn’t believe me, so here’s Wikipedia:

Prosperity theology (sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, or the gospel of success)[A] is a Christian religious doctrine that financial blessing is the will of God for Christians, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to Christian ministries will increase one's material wealth.

Well, I can tell you all about this because I spent most of the weekend wrapping my head around a Brazilian Church—now the largest in the country—which has spread to over 200 other countries and has an annual income of 735 million bucks.

The church, La Iglesia Universal del Reino de Cristo or The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, was founded in 1977 by “Bishop” Edir Macedo; today, there are eight million followers in Brazil alone and there are 4700 “temples” across the world. Want a more concrete example? In Uganda—always an interesting place for gay people—the church started in 1996, and now has nine “temples.” Here’s one of them:

OK—they’re Pentecostal, they practice “Prosperity Theology,” and they believe in exorcising demons, though when pressed they say that it is all just theater—nothing serious. What else about them?

Well, they seem to get into trouble pretty much everywhere they go: money laundering, failure to register ministers, buying oils and other materials at local supermarkets and reselling them at higher prices as products from Israel, and thus miraculous. In the United States, the treasurer for the church, Regina da Silva, was convicted of obtaining 22 million dollars in fraudulent mortgages that benefitted the church. Two Brazilians, Marcelo Marini Bismarck and Cristina Rodríguez, allegedly shipped 420 million dollars over a six-year period from 1995-2001.  In addition, The Guardian had this to say in 2011:

Three leading members of one of Brazil's most powerful churches have been accused of laundering millions in church donations and using worshippers' money for personal gain.

The charges, unveiled on Monday by São Paulo's public prosecutor, relate to 404m reals (£150m) allegedly obtained from mostly impoverished churchgoers by leaders at Brazil's Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

The church, as you can imagine, has critics: Here’s one quote from the New York Post:

“There is nothing we can do legally,” said Heather Browne, state’s attorney spokeswoman. “There’s a problem here – but we cannot legally sue.” Victoria and Jesus Lorenzo of Houston left the church after giving $60,000. They lost their office-cleaning business and went bankrupt.

“They left us in the street,” said Victoria Lorenzo. “It got to the point that we had to give them all our money – literally they were asking members in the church to empty their pocketbooks on the altar.”

All of this would be bad enough, but check out this picture, taken from a blog post titled “Un ejército Cristiano para exterminar a los gays or “A Christian Army to Exterminate Gays.”

…or especially this:

Then there’s this:

Who are all these people? According to the church, they are young men—called the Gladiadores del Altar and part of the Fuerza Joven Universal—who have had problems, turned to Christ, and are preparing to be pastors. But a gay legislator, Jean Wyllys, in Brazil caused a flurry of activity in the Spanish social networks by asking the following:

Ahora están formando un ejército, ¿cuándo nos daremos cuenta del monstruo que emerge de la laguna? ¿Cuando comiencen a ejecutar a los que llaman infieles? ¿Cuando empiecen a empujar a los homosexuales desde las torres, como el ISIS? No porque tenga la palabra cristiano deja de ser más peligroso este tipo de fundamentalismo”.

(“Now they’re forming an army: When will we see that monster emerge from the lagoon? When they start executing the infidels? When they start pushing the homosexuals from the towers, as did ISIS? No, because the word “Christian” lets that form of fundamentalism be more dangerous.”)

Wyllys also notes that under Brazilian law, paramilitary organizations are illegal. The church claims that that’s rubbish, and points out that the Boy Scouts and the Legionaries of Christ have similar traits. And listening to the clip below, the message is rather innocuous, unless the bit about going into hell each day to cleanse the sinner struck a nerve or two.

And watching the second clip, in which the founder of the church is directing another minister to perform an “exorcism” of a young gay man—well, wait, if the state of California can make conversion therapy illegal, what’s the deal here?

But poking around, I realized that there’s more, since I went into the Departamento de Estado, which registers churches as well as corporations, and guess what? The Catholic Church is there, as is the—arguably—most famous of the gay churches, the Metropolitan Community Church, which here in Puerto Rico is called Iglesia de la Comunidad Cristo Sanador. But what happens when you type in this? Take a look:

Or what about the name that the church also goes by: Pare de Sufrir?

In fact, Pare de Sufrir was quite familiar to me, since I rode the bus every day past the movie theater which had been abandoned all those years and then had become…you can guess.

“Hey,” said Lady, the owner of the café where I write, “you should register yourself and become the legal owner of those names. Then you could turn around and sue them!“

“Get a gun,” said my New-York city lawyer / brother, when I explained this brilliant scheme. So then I wondered, were these guys registered in New York?   


So I thought about it—should this old atheist finally come to Jesus, and become the minister of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God? I actually started the process of inscription, when it occurred to me: Do I want to be affiliated with, or the legal head of such a gang of gangsters? Somehow, I didn’t hit that “submit” button.

I never had much truck with churches, since the church I grew up in was solidly middle class, and didn’t have too many problems to deal with. It was a different age, and of course the problems were there: The drunkenness, the wife-beating, physical abuse. But if any of those were being addressed—and I doubt it—I didn’t see it.

But once I was playing a Christmas service in Cristo Sanador, and couldn’t help but notice that a woman was sobbing all the way through it. People would come, put their arm around the woman, hold her hand. Then they drifted of; another one came.

“Her family kicked her out, saying she was possessed with demons, and they didn’t want ever to see her again. So this Christmas, at least, we’re pretty much all she has….”

That’s what Pablo, my friend and then minister of the church, had to say. So I may start a church, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God Reformed. But there’s one thing I do know…

…there won’t be a place for Bishop Macedo and his fellow bastards in it!