Jesus Redux

They're waging a war on organized religion, they bring in millions of dollars, and defectors say they're a cult

At the time, Albarracin was working in a furniture factory and earning $250 a week. Several months later he says he landed a sales job at Rooms to Go, where he was quickly promoted to sales manager and began earning $75,000 a year. He credits De Jesus for his success. He decided to express his gratitude by building a Website for the ministry. At first he hired a company to host it, but that cost $46 per month. So he set up a Web server in his home. Then, Albarracin says, "Dad placed the idea in me to start a business."

By the late Nineties, Albarracin had parlayed his backroom startup into Dialtone Internet, a successful Web-hosting company. He believes his firm prospered even as its competitors sank because of his faith in De Jesus and his $12,000-per-month contribution to the ministry. In 2001 the South Florida Business Journal named Dialtone the third-fastest-growing company in the region. The following year, Hispanic Business magazine wrote, "Someday, Alvaro Albarracin may step back and smile when he thinks about how he guided his company through the dot-com implosion of the last two years." According to the article, his firm grossed $7.9 million in 2001 and expected to bring in $10.8 million the next year.

But in June 2002 Albarracin says he sold Dialtone to Atlanta-based Interland for $16.5 million. The acquisition vaulted Interland to the number one spot among U.S. Web-hosting companies, according to the Miami Herald. And Albarracin was tapped to head services for major clients and supervised hundreds of employees. But then in early 2003, Albarracin quit his Interland post to work with De Jesus. "I wanted devote my life to Dad," he explains. "I truly believe he's my God, my creator."

Creciendo en Gracia devotees protest a religious celebration 
in Tropical Park
Jonathan Postal
Creciendo en Gracia devotees protest a religious celebration in Tropical Park
Creciendo en Gracia devotees protest a religious celebration 
in Tropical Park
Jonathan Postal
Creciendo en Gracia devotees protest a religious celebration in Tropical Park

Albarracin was named Creciendo en Gracia's entrepreneur of entrepreneurs. His role: helping other parishioners set up businesses that feed money into the ministry. So far, he says he has had a hand in launching hundreds of ventures, including shoe stores, mortgage companies, a plastic factory, and a winery. The most devoted owners make De Jesus their CEO. The rest simply give him 20 to 80 percent of the take.

One contributor is Leonel Martinez, who owns a twenty-person company that imports medical equipment from Asia and distributes it in Venezuela. He donates about $50,000 each year to the ministry. "Our Apostle gives us the opportunity to give part of our money," he explains, "so he can travel to different countries and other people can prosper just as we do."

Albarracin has also established several companies for the ministry. He says he bought a 50 percent stake in the Colombian soccer team, Expreso Rojo, for $300,000 in 2003; he's now selling his share of the club for more than $1.5 million. Every cent will go to Creciendo en Gracia. "It all belongs to Dad anyway," he says with a shrug. "He controls everything. I believe strongly that Dad will control businesses around the world one day."

Albarracin launched a Miami-based film and music production company called MiamiLA Entertainment in 2003 as well, and hired a staff of 110 people. Then he set to work on a feature-length film called Amor en Alquiler (Love for Rent) — a project he says took a year to complete and cost two million dollars.

The film's plot rivals the raciest telenovela. A perky Colombian protagonist is struggling through law school when her husband, whom she married for a green card, dumps her. Broke and desperate, she agrees to become a surrogate mother for a wealthy couple. But she has to hide her pregnancy from the hunky doctor she's dating.

When Amor en Alquiler premiered at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival in November 2004, the Herald's Rene Rodriguez called it "grating, charmless, and inept" and suggested it was on the fast track to oblivion. But it has been a hit on the Latino film festival circuit. It was the only movie to sell out all 300 tickets during the Miami Latin Film Festival and Albarracin claims it also sold out shows at cinema fetes in San Diego and Chicago. What's more, it won the McDonald's Audience Award at the New York International Latino Film Festival this past August.

Albarracin now aims to bring Amor en Alquiler to the masses. He recently sold rights to HBO. The company plans to release it on DVD and air it on HBO channels in the United States, Canada, and Central Europe, according to HBO spokeswoman Laura Young.

Over the past few months, the film has also been released in theaters in South Florida, Ecuador, Honduras, and El Salvador. Albarracin's goal: Get it on screens in 220 countries and generate $14 million in revenue. In doing so he says he'll advance a tradition that dates back thousands of years. "God has had businesses throughout creation," he explains. "Through Abraham. Through Moses. Through Jesus of Nazareth. He had an accountant and a donkey, which was like a Mercedes Benz back then."

The question is: Where does all the money go? Some churches help the poor or at least aid congregations in less fortunate regions, but not Creciendo en Gracia. Even those branches in impoverished countries send funds back to headquarters. And expenses are modest: Most employees receive no wages and all the group's congregations meet in rented churches.

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