Meet the Controversial Brazilian Church Behind Flagler Street "We Undo Witchcraft" Sign
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The sign on the corner of West Flagler Street and SW 35th Avenue is huge and explicit: "DESHACEMOS BRUJERIA," it says in white block letters over a red-and-black background, with an 800 number listed below. "WE UNDO WITCHCRAFT."
It's left many a driver doing a doubletake and mouthing, ¿Qué? Curiosity has built in recent months, with a Reddit post on the topic inspiring dozens of comments and a Twitter outburst speculating as to what the church is up to. The truth may actually be stranger than the internet speculation about bubbling cauldrons and Santería rituals.
In fact, the bizarre sign belongs to one of the world's fastest-growing -- and most controversial -- Christian evangelical movements: the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a Pentecostal organization commonly known as Pare de Sufrir.
The organization was founded in Brazil in 1977 by Edir Macedo, at the time a 30-year-old former lottery worker who promoted himself as a bishop. Macedo charismatically preached the ability to cast out evil spirits through prayer, and his church gained a rapid following.
Within two decades, Pare de Sufrir had a reported eight million believers in Brazil and another four million internationally. His first American temple was established in Manhattan in 1986; others followed everywhere from Uganda to Japan.
But as the church's ranks swelled, so did the controversies. Pare de Sufrir advocates a Pentecostal strain called "prosperity theology,"which holds that a follower's donations directly affect his favor with God. The church has been accused of exploiting members by demanding they donate 10 percent of their salaries.
In 2000 one ex-follower in Texas publicly denounced the organization after claiming she had been bilked out of $60,000 in just three years. The same year, two members in London, believing their 8-year-old daughter was possessed by
demons, infamously tied her up in a bathtub and beat her with bicycle chains. The girl eventually died.
Throughout the years, Macedo, now a billionaire media mogul who travels by private jet, has battled frequent accusations of money laundering and corruption, but the church has continued prospering. Just last week, the New York Times reports, it opened its most garish temple yet: a $300 million replica of the Temple of Solomon that occupies an entire São Paulo block.
"We sought to build a colossus, something that would make people stop and gaze," the project's architect, Rogério Araújo, told the Times.
The Flagler Street temple is only several years old (though Pare de Sufrir has been in the area for around 20 years). Step inside and you might not find any particularly gripping witchcraft-undoing ceremonies.
At a sermon last week, only six elderly parishioners sat in the pews while a young, clean-cut Brazilian pastor spoke in heavily accented Spanish. He encouraged the parishioners to bring as many people as they could to later services. After half an hour or so, the small group congregated at the front of the pews and sang.
Afterward, an elderly woman told New Times she's originally from Argentina and has been a devotee for around 20 years. She says that the prayers have helped her and her family and that she dutifully pays 10 percent of her housekeeping salary every week -- about $30.
"You have to be loyal to God," she says in Spanish. "Ten percent of your salary -- that's nothing. I've been cured of alcoholism. I've been cured of so many things."