By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
THE DEMONS JUST won't let go. Dozens of people, tormented by the forces of evil, fill the aisles. Church officials clutch the hair of the possessed, their shoulders, their flailing arms, doing whatever it takes to break the spell. Some of the faithful crouch on the floor, coughing up bile on newspapers. The cavernous "temple" -- an architectural gem along downtown L.A.'s historic theater row -- fills with the roar and chanting of 3,000 men and women, as Bishop José Luiz bellows at the altar, directing the mass exorcisms.
This is the Friday-night service of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, one of the best shows in town, where the bishop and his band of pastors battle the dark spirits that dare to mess with humanity.
What is going on here in the old State Theater on Broadway is no ordinary service. It's a raw blend of Christianity and witchcraft, and the top-selling spiritual hope for hundreds of thousands of Latino immigrants in the United States. In fact, the church's popularity is pumped up by the downright frightening nature of this spectacle, and by its firebrand allusions to the horror cinema so common in Mexico. The captivating combination of theology and culture threatens the staid Catholic Church both here and in Brazil. It is the work of a Rio de Janeiro lottery bureaucrat and former street preacher named Edir Macedo, who started the Pentecostal-style religion in 1977.
Twenty-four years later, the church claims to have 6 million mostly working-class members in 85 countries. They stuff the red collection bags with at least $1 billion per year in return for the spiritual care provided at storefront temples and converted movie houses. In Brazil, the church's influence extends beyond spiritual matters, into ownership of Brazil's Rede Record, the country's second-largest television network, and hundreds of radio stations, various newspapers, a bank and a credit company. Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
Along the way, Macedo has become a multimillionaire who draws criticism like the devout attract demons. A few years after he held his first service, in a tiny mortuary in Rio, unsubstantiated rumors began circulating about his multimillion-dollar international empire being little more than a giant money-laundering operation for the Colombian drug cartel. In 1996, the Brazilian press quoted Interpol official Romeu Tuma as saying that the U.S. Department of Justice had been asked to investigate the allegations; now, five years later, neither Interpol nor the U.S. Attorney's Office will comment on the matter. The unproven accusations of seedy drug connections have followed the church to Europe, where a 1997 report by the Belgian parliament claimed the church is out to defraud believers: "This is an authentic crime organization whose only goal is to enrich itself. This is an extreme form of religious merchandizing."
Macedo has been relatively untouched by it all. In 1992, two years after the $45-million acquisition of the Rede Record, he was arrested on suspicion of fraud and quackery, and spent 11 days in jail, according to a Brazilian newpaper. The charges were later dropped. In an interview with Brazilian media, Macedo denied any wrongdoing: "If we were thieves, we would not have bought a TV station, radio stations, nothing. We would have pocketed the cash and traveled around the world." Bishop Macedo Exorcises demons inBrazil on The Universal Church’s 20-year anniversary video
People are out to destroy the good work of the church, says Edward Campiani, a 41-year-old San Fernando member who worked as a church administrator in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. "The Universal Church has the power of God with it. It has helped thousands of gang members and drug addicts for whom the Catholic Church has done nothing."
The Universal Church is well-known for its relentless fund-raising tactics. Rick Ross, an international cult expert, says Universal is the greediest religious group he has encountered. "It is the most aggressive collection of money I had ever seen in a church service, and I've been attending church services and observing groups for about 20 years," says Ross, who testified on behalf of an elderly Salvadoran woman who sued the church after falling and breaking her arm while in line for holy oil after an L.A. service.
Members face not one or two offerings every service, but as many as three or more, with pastors exhorting them to donate as much as $1,000. The church's lore is littered with tales of former members brought to financial doom by excessive giving. In an early training film, the fiery and dynamic Macedo is shown slamming down a Bible as he counted piles of money, and telling pastors, "If they don't pay, they can get out." Macedo says he has matured since then.
ON THIS FRIDAY night, halfway into the service, the congregation is focused on the wide stage, where Bishop José Luiz is interviewing a weeping, middle-aged woman and her two daughters near the altar. They have been selected, in a process that is not entirely clear, to lead the group catharsis. The question-and-answer session grows in intensity as the bishop hones in on the demons within. The screaming dialogue sets the pace for the simultaneous exorcisms of several dozen other "possessed" members and visitors whose bodies wrench back and forth, and who are attended to in the aisles or at their seats by church officials, called obreros.