Jesus Redux

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The film's plot rivals the raciest telenovela. A perky Colombian protagonist is struggling through law school when her husband, whom she married for a green card, dumps her. Broke and desperate, she agrees to become a surrogate mother for a wealthy couple. But she has to hide her pregnancy from the hunky doctor she's dating.

When Amor en Alquiler premiered at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival in November 2004, the Herald's Rene Rodriguez called it "grating, charmless, and inept" and suggested it was on the fast track to oblivion. But it has been a hit on the Latino film festival circuit. It was the only movie to sell out all 300 tickets during the Miami Latin Film Festival and Albarracin claims it also sold out shows at cinema fetes in San Diego and Chicago. What's more, it won the McDonald's Audience Award at the New York International Latino Film Festival this past August.

Albarracin now aims to bring Amor en Alquiler to the masses. He recently sold rights to HBO. The company plans to release it on DVD and air it on HBO channels in the United States, Canada, and Central Europe, according to HBO spokeswoman Laura Young.

Over the past few months, the film has also been released in theaters in South Florida, Ecuador, Honduras, and El Salvador. Albarracin's goal: Get it on screens in 220 countries and generate $14 million in revenue. In doing so he says he'll advance a tradition that dates back thousands of years. "God has had businesses throughout creation," he explains. "Through Abraham. Through Moses. Through Jesus of Nazareth. He had an accountant and a donkey, which was like a Mercedes Benz back then."

The question is: Where does all the money go? Some churches help the poor or at least aid congregations in less fortunate regions, but not Creciendo en Gracia. Even those branches in impoverished countries send funds back to headquarters. And expenses are modest: Most employees receive no wages and all the group's congregations meet in rented churches.

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.

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Mariah Blake
Contact: Mariah Blake

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