Taking in the Name of God

In Brazil it's called o jeitinho and it means "the little way." When you are a tourist who gets caught smoking pot on a beach in Rio, you employ o jeitinho and offer a courtesy tip to the police. They accept your offering and you avoid languishing in jail a la Midnight Express.

Estevam and Sonia Hernandes, leaders of the Brazilian Evangelical sect Reborn in Christ, may have been attempting jeitinho flair when they declared they each carried only $10,000 in cash upon entering the United States in early January. In reality they had about $56,000 hidden in bags, folded in CD cases, and even stuffed in the cover of the Holy Bible.

The couple was already in hot water at home in Sao Paulo, where more than one hundred lawsuits have been filed against them in regional courts — most by their erstwhile followers -- and where public prosecutors had recommended preventative imprisonment for charges of money laundering, fraud, and "false ideology."

The fraud, first exposed in the Brazilian news magazine Epoca in 2002, went something like this: The church would arrange to rent a property supposedly for church-related businesses. Pastors would ask faithful congregants to serve as the guarantors. The church would fail to pay the bills. The guarantor would often have their own assets and inheritances confiscated as a result.

As of November 2006, Apostle Estevam and Bishop Sonia, as they are known popularly, were in hiding. On radio addresses Estevam claimed they were "being persecuted by the Devil himself." Their assets were frozen. It was only after they managed to overturn the preventative prison sentence that they attempted their cash-laden escape to the U.S., where they have a home in a gated community in Boca Raton.

Tuesday morning the couple pleaded not guilty in Federal District Court in Miami to charges of currency smuggling. The arraignment was brief, and they offered no comments to the press. Ensconced in a small cadre of supporters, who wrapped their arms around the spiritual leaders, they quickly left the building followed by scurrying reporters and photographers. Even if they win this case, they are likely to be extradited back to Brazil.

One of Reborn in Christ's fundamental theological tenets, the "Theory of Prosperity," says that if one gives in the name of god, one's desires will be fulfilled. The consequences of taking in the name of god might not be as pretty. --Emily Witt


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