By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
After Papahui left Guatemala, her 80-year-old mother Katina confronted her about the drastic lifestyle change, and their relationship crumbled. In fact, when Papahui returned to her homeland for three months this past summer, she saw her mom only once when they bumped into each other at a party. Papahui believes her mother lost a third of her tongue to cancer because she spoke out against De Jesus. Papahui has also cut ties with her sister.
Alvaro Albarracin has watched his family disintegrate too. His mother and father, who live in Pembroke Pines, attended Creciendo en Gracia services for more than a decade before pulling up stakes in 2001. The couple says they were worried that, among other things, the ministry was too focused on De Jesus. And they were alarmed their son was lavishing so much money on the church.
After they left the church, Albarracin cut them off. "He abandoned his family," says his father Alvaro Sr. "He left his business, everything, to follow some guy who fakes being Jesus Christ so he can squeeze money out of people from the poorest countries in the world." Albarracin's mother Regina has equally harsh words for De Jesus's flock. "They're stupid people who believe in stupidities," she grumbles. "They're like those people in Waco, Texas. When you go there, you get brainwashed."
Rick Ross, executive director of the New Jersey-based Ross Institute, which tracks cults, agrees that De Jesus's group bears some of the markers. "The most defining element of a cult is its personality-driven nature," he explains. "That leader is the hub, the glue that holds it all together. And they manipulate members into giving free labor or large gifts."
But De Jesus insists Creciendo differs from cults in one important way. "People may confuse us with Jim Jones or David Koresh," he says. "But we are just a happy family. We aren't controlling minds. We don't oblige people to do anything."
Two years after Albarracin lost contact with his parents, his wife Madelyn filed for divorce. The Colombian entrepreneur claims she was upset he had quit his Interland post to dedicate his life to De Jesus. But in a petition filed with the court, Madelyn contends her then-husband was having an affair with Martita Roca, a 24-year-old Guatemalan starlet who acted in Amor en Alquiler and who married Albarracin in 2004.
In the divorce documents, Madelyn also expresses concern that Albarracin was giving "in excess of $6000 per month" to Creciendo en Gracia in 2003, and that he believed "half of everything he owns belongs to the church." She also requested that Albarracin be barred from taking their two children, Roger and Stephanie, to De Jesus's church because it was having "unreasonable influence" on the family. She got her wish.
Despite the turmoil, Albarracin has no regrets. "I believe all this was predestined," he explains. "Now I don't have commitment to anyone, just my ministry. Dad, when he was in Nazareth, said whoever loses mother, father, brother, sister will gain me forever."
Even De Jesus's family has been ripped apart by the ministry. The process began in 1999, when he went from being a mere Apostle to being El Otro. Most Creciendo en Gracia's pastors embraced his new position, but a few resisted. Among the mutineers was De Jesus's son, José Luis Jr., who had led a Creciendo church in Colombia and oversaw headquarters' operations.
José Luis Jr. says his objections were only partly theological. "Once my father started presenting himself as God," he explains, "there was no room for different interpretation. He lost all sense of responsibility to the congregation and his family. It became about José Luis the star."
De Jesus sees it differently. "I think my son just had a big ego problem," he says. "He didn't want to submit to me."
De Jesus's four grown daughters also resisted, as did his then-wife, Nydia. "She developed this type of protection every time I began teaching," De Jesus says. "One time she said, 'It doesn't bother you to deceive so many people?'" So in late 1999, De Jesus left her. In March the following year, he says he was living in Colombia with a woman named Josefina, who would become his second wife. And in August 2002 the divorce settlement agreement was signed. He was awarded the BMW and a South Beach condo, according to court records. She took a house in Puerto Rico and $144,000 per year in alimony.
Almost as soon as the papers were filed, José Luis Jr. denounced Creciendo en Gracia. "I was hysterical," he recalls. "How can [my father] tell a congregation that God has guided his entire life, told him all the secrets of the Gospel, but can't fix his marriage?" Junior later moved with his mother to Puerto Rico, where they both live today. He refused to speak to his father for two years.
De Jesus and Albarracin aren't the only members of Creciendo en Gracia leadership to divorce in recent years. Carlos Cestero, the ministry's second in command, left his wife too. The turmoil has chased away some of the faithful. While worldwide membership has climbed, the Miami congregation has seen its numbers slide from 800 to around 500, according to Ivan Lopez. "We've had a lot of persecution," he says by way of explanation.