By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
De Jesus claims the money he receives is spent on headquarters operations, which run about $1.4 million a year, or goes toward buying airtime. As he puts it: "Everything I get goes to making sure the word is spread."
These days his vehicle of choice is Telegracia, a Colombia-based network that purportedly broadcasts to two million homes. Believers call it "the channel that all eyes will see."
Tune in any day and you might see a music video with Rebequinha, a willowy eight-year-old Brazilian girl strolling the beach in a flimsy tank top and cuffed jeans while crooning, "Not all the riches would separate me from you ... José Lu-is!" Or you might catch a posse of voluptuous women in cowboy hats and fringy skirts gyrating to a cumbia/hip-hop medley. On a recent Wednesday morning, a toothy teen in a yellow do-rag rapped, "We are the super race."
Telegracia also airs talk shows and sermons in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. Then there's the news, which is taped on a CNN-style set in the group's Miami headquarters. It includes weather, sports, and international coverage with a colorful twist. One recent story about the Peruvian presidential election concluded, "But soon all countries in the world will have only one head, our father José Luis de Jesus Miranda."
The rest of Telegracia's programs are recorded in the network's Colombia studio and then beamed to a satellite that delivers the signal to local television providers. These companies, in turn, pump the signal into homes around Latin America. Telegracia's operating expenses run more than $30,000 per month, according to De Jesus. Most local companies air the programming for free.
Telegracia's Website lists 32 cable companies that carry its signal in Colombia and dozens more in other countries. De Jesus also claims to have shows on more than 60 radio stations. And the faithful can tune in to a 24-hour-a-day Internet radio feed at NetGracia.com.
Through these broadcasts, De Jesus aims, in part, to reach the millions of chosen who are still languishing in other churches. He and his followers believe poverty, war, and disease exist largely because Catholicism and other religions have corrupted governments and other institutions. The Creciendo en Gracia Website describes ministers of other faiths as "evil and perverse men." And it makes this promise: "We are going to shut the mouths of those dogs!... We are ready to give our lives for this."
Clergy-bashing abounds even in the prepackaged curricula used in Creciendo en Gracia Sunday schools. Children of De Jesus's followers study vocabulary lists with terms like minister of Satan and enemy of the cross of Christ and practice marching with "We are the super race" picket signs.
Meanwhile their parents are protesting for real. Myrna Cestero, Creciendo en Gracia's Puerto Rican bishop, began the trend this past September when she showed up with twenty members of her congregation and placards that read "Wake up, the Lord has arrived" at Clamor a Dios, a religious gathering held in that nation's capital. Telemundo and Univision covered the confrontation, and De Jesus was so pleased he urged other congregations to follow suit.
Besides the November 19 action in Tropical Park, Creciendo en Gracia devotees have disrupted two other Miami-based religious celebrations. And they've turned out to heckle attendees of scores of events throughout Latin America. In many cases, media have covered the demonstrations, and Creciendo en Gracia posts photos and video footage of the events on its Website.
The disturbances have taken various forms. De Jesus's followers have burst into church services in Havana; held simultaneous protests in 22 Colombian cities; and disrupted a Costa Rican Jewish parade with signs that read, "Israel is cursed" and "We are the true chosen people."
In some places, the demonstrations have sparked widespread outrage. For nearly four centuries, Peru has dedicated October to venerating Lima's patron saint, El Señor de los Milagros. The highlight of the celebration is the final procession, held the last two days of the month. When Creciendo en Gracia's Peruvian congregation turned out to jeer the parade, Monsignor Hugo Garaycoa labeled the group a "satanic" sect. The melee made headlines throughout Peru and on Telemundo.
Even more dramatic was a skirmish at the Congreso Cristiano Extranjero, a conference in Cartagena, Colombia, this past December. First attendees and protesters swapped insults. Then they began trading blows. Conference sponsors issued a press release claiming a parishioner named Leandro Garcia was knifed in the brawl. Olado Ligardo, who heads Creciendo's Cartagena operations, insists this isn't so. "Our weapons aren't carnal, they're spiritual," he told the Colombian paper, El Universal. The official report issued by Colombian police did not include any record of a stabbing.
Besides lashing out at other faiths, some of De Jesus's followers distance themselves from their own families. A year after joining Creciendo en Gracia, Irini Papahui, the Guatemalan candy baron, abandoned her eighteen-year-old daughter, a posh apartment in the capital, and her job running the factory that had been in her family for more than 80 years. She then moved to Miami to volunteer full-time at Creciendo en Gracia's headquarters. Here she lives in a tiny efficiency apartment. Though she continues to receive dividends from the factory, she says she gives every cent she can spare to De Jesus.