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With their salvation assured, De Jesus's followers can indulge sinful urges. "Here it doesn't matter if you are a drug addict," he explains, "or if you have been married ten times. How many failures you've had even if you've killed someone we accept people with their weaknesses."
It's a seductive proposition, especially for those from Latin America, where 73 percent of the population is Catholic and most people spend their lives following strict religious mores.
Before discovering Creciendo en Gracia in 1999, 50-year-old Irini Papahui managed a candy factory with 70 employees in her native Guatemala and raised a teenage daughter on her own. She sought solace from the Catholic Church, but its teachings only added to her burden. "They made me feel like I wasn't worthy of God's love," she explains. "I was striving and striving and always falling short." Eventually she found herself plagued by guilt and stomach problems including chronic vomiting and diarrhea. Then she discovered De Jesus. "He has given me life, true life, and a happiness that never goes away," she says.
De Jesus's gospel flows from an experience he had in December 1976. After a hardscrabble youth in Puerto Rico, where he often stole to feed his heroin habit, he moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts, and ran a Bible-based treatment center for drug-addicted street toughs. But soon he lost faith in conventional churches. "I was getting tired of all the legalism and hypocrisy," he explains. "I kept thinking, Christianity should be something better."
Then one frosty December night, he says he awoke to find himself flanked by two brawny men with stern expressions who told him: "The King of Kings is coming to anoint you." Before he knew it, he was standing in a luminous marble corridor where trumpets blared and a spectral figure crept toward him. Then the apparition merged with him, and he began to hear a man's voice in his head.
"He said, 'Open your Bible,'" De Jesus recalls. "So I opened to Romans 6. And he said, 'Read that ... that means you're dead to sin; sin can't reign in your life.'" The experience left De Jesus transformed. "Ever since that day, I can't learn from anybody and I mean no one," he says. He now believes that was the night of Christ's second coming.
In the years that followed, the voice continued to offer new revelations. Then in 1986 it said, "Move to Miami. There you'll have a bridge to all nations." So at age 40, De Jesus, his then-wife Nydia, and their five children came to the Magic City, where he secured a fifteen-minute daily slot on WVCG-AM (1080) and began preaching his controversial message.
Before long, other ministers were railing against him from their radio pulpits. And this worked to his advantage. After he had been on the air three months, De Jesus rented a Hialeah warehouse, filled it with 300 chairs, and invited listeners for a weekend seminar. To his surprise, he says, 500 people turned up. "Just like that," De Jesus marvels. "Creciendo en Gracia was born."
In the years that followed, the church increasingly revolved around De Jesus. Then in 1998 he claimed to be the reincarnation of the Apostle Paul. The following year he proclaimed himself "El Otro" a demigod who would lay the foundation for the Lord's return. Finally in 2004 he named himself Jesus Christ and the ultimate authority on the gospel. Today no one but him and his right-hand man, Carlos Cestero are allowed to preach. And De Jesus always dictates the message. Instead of regular sermons, most followers around the world watch videos or simulcasts of these men projected on a screen behind the pulpit.
De Jesus bears little resemblance to the biblical Lamb of God. He wears fine suits and diamond-encrusted rings, drives a 7 Series BMW, and, until recently, lived in a 5000-square-foot Miramar home with Corinthian columns and vaulted ceilings. He also travels with a battalion of guards who wear dark suits and conspicuous earpieces.
De Jesus says the cost of his security detail, which runs upward of $300,000 per year, is covered by follower Lazaro Seijo. A successful entrepreneur, Seijo is also building De Jesus a house in Homestead. And this kind of generosity is not unusual. Devotees continually lavish De Jesus with money and extravagant gifts. And the doctrine encourages it.
Creciendo en Gracia parishioners, like those of most churches, are taught to sacrifice a tenth of their income to the church. But they are also expected to give an additional sum directly to their pastors and bishops or to God himself. And during many services, the faithful are told that those who give "beyond their means" who put "the Lord before car payment and mortgage" will prosper, and angels will protect them. Some surrender almost everything. "We invest our last dime, our entire life, so one person can understand, so the message can be spread," says Pastor Ivan Lopez, who works in the Miami headquarters.
One of those who has given his life over to Creciendo en Gracia is Alvaro Albarracin. Before joining the church, the baby-face 37-year-old Colombian native struggled to find his spiritual path. He sampled teachings from Mormon temples, Kingdom Halls, and evangelical Christian churches. "I came to the point where I didn't want anything to do with religion at all," he says. Then in early 1992 his mother Regina gave him a cassette of De Jesus's preaching. He later attended a service. "Right away I fell in love with him," Albarracin recalls. "His face, his voice, everything. I knew he was God."