Jesus Redux

It's a balmy Saturday afternoon and hundreds of Protestant faithful are gathered in Miami's Tropical Park. They loll on blankets and canvas chairs surrounded by turquoise porta-potties, red and yellow balloons, and hot dog carts with drooping umbrellas. All the while, a band on the stage churns out Christian pop.

Around 4:00 p.m. the music dies down and Pastor Martin Añorga, a small man with charcoal hair framing his leathery face, climbs to the pulpit. "We are here to celebrate the Holy Spirit," he intones.

But his words are droned out by 80-some protesters gathered behind a knee-high fence a few hundred feet away. They're chanting in Spanish: "Once saved, always saved," and "Jesus Christ has arrived." Most wear T-shirts bearing photos of their leader, a dapper middle-age Puerto Rican man, and hold picket signs that read, "Your pastor lies" and "The Devil was destroyed."

Meanwhile the faithful, who have congregated around the stage to hear Añorga preach, crane their necks to see what the fuss is about. "Don't listen to them!" the pastor barks. "Their position is anti-biblical and absurd."

Then, suddenly, 25 people in camouflage T-shirts scurry onto the patch of grass that separates the protesters from the crowd. "We're a spiritual line of fire," shouts one elfin warrior who wears a gauzy skirt with her commando top. "We will burn those rabble-rousers if they try to pass through."

When Añorga is finished speaking, pastors from other churches make their way, one by one, to the pulpit and deliver sermons salted with scorn for the intruders. Among them is Manuel Ortiz, a stocky man in jeans and a yellow tuxedo shirt, who bellows, "We don't need those clowns telling us what to believe!" All the while the protesters chant:

"Liar, liar, liar."

"They steal your money."

"Ministers of Satan."

Finally, after nearly two hours of conflict, all the preachers converge on the stage for a closing prayer. And the faithful prostrate themselves on the grass in a gesture of submission to God's will. In response, the agitators blast an air horn and shout, "Get up!" and "They're like worms crawling on the ground."

The protesters belong to a congregation called Creciendo en Gracia, or Growing in Grace. It is headquartered in a drab Doral warehouse but has outposts throughout Latin America, as well as in Spain, Italy, Canada, and Australia. All told, the group claims 300 congregations with more than 100,000 members, plus a 24-hour cable channel that reaches two million homes. And it's growing. In the last year alone, Creciendo en Gracia has added nearly 100 churches to its roster.

The group is organized around José Luis De Jesus Miranda, a 59-year-old Puerto Rican man with impish charm and a taste for indulgence. Some defectors, like Regina Albarracin — a Pembroke Pines woman whose son remains a member — liken him to a cult leader. Devotees call him Jesus Christ and lavish him with gifts and money. More than 400 followers have set up businesses that funnel 20 to 80 percent of their profits into the ministry. Others donate cars, homes, and tens of thousands of dollars in cash and services.

De Jesus's followers believe they are God's true chosen people and call their children the "super race." They are also convinced other churches peddle deceit and spread poverty, war, and disease. But while this antipathy dates back years, only recently have they begun acting on it by disrupting religious events.

Over the past five months, Creciendo en Gracia parishioners have held at least 40 protests in more than a dozen countries. And De Jesus says this is just the beginning. "My purpose," he explains, "is to close down every church so the true church can begin. You could say I'm leading the greatest reformation that has ever happened."

It's Sunday morning inside Creciendo en Gracia's headquarters, a cavernous building with industrial carpet and fluorescent lighting. Some 500 business barons, college students, handymen, and housewives pump their fists in the air and chant, "Dad-dy, Dad-dy" as De Jesus ambles onto the stage.

He waits for the ruckus to die down and then picks up a Bible and flops it open. "These words are very small for me," he says. "I can't read them at a distance." Then he holds up a set of eyeglasses. "But with these I read it perfectly. My teachings are the eyeglasses that your eyes need."

Finally De Jesus gets down to business. "Are there any adulterers in the audience?" he asks, leaning casually on the podium. "Good morning, Mr. Adulterer!"

"How about idolaters?" he adds with a grin. "All of you have practiced idolatry.

"And sorcery, you love sorcery. That's what you're doing every time you play the Lotto." Then he tiptoes to the edge of the stage and glances over each shoulder as if to make sure no one is eavesdropping. "Sorcery," he says, "it feels good — especially when the jackpot is $38 million."