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The Rebel Preacher

CLOAKED IN THE DARKNESS OF NIGHT, MÁRIO Justino hunched behind a garbage can, a gun between his hands. His heart pounded as he waited for Bishop Macedo to come out of a Brooklyn building, an old movie house turned into one more temple of the Universal Church.

Justino had been waiting for this chance for months, after sleepless nights and hellish days. Only one thing fed his will to live: to kill Bishop Macedo.

As the bishop walked out of the New York temple, Justino's grip tightened on the automatic handgun. But he couldn't pull the trigger. Macedo walked away, unaware of how close to death he came on that summer night in 1991. Justino never again tried to kill the bishop, but he did manage to become one of his most formidable detractors.

Justino, a Universal pastor for 11 years, wrote of his lying in wait for Macedo and his problems with the Universal Church in a book called Behind the Curtains of the Kingdom: The Secret Life in the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God," published in 1995. Born in Rio, in the state of São Goncalo, Justino joined the church in 1980 after he heard a pastor promise on a local radio broadcast: "A miracle is waiting for you."

An Afro-Brazilian, Justino lived with his family in a very poor home on the outskirts of Rio. At 15, he gave up a scholarship to study in a private school to work for the church full time. In 1980, the Universal Church was just expanding beyond Rio and into neighboring Brazilian states. As an obrero, one of the church workers, Justino opened the temple early and swept the floors. In a matter of months, Justino became a pastor. He could easily fill the old theater with new converts attracted to the church's message of putting an end to suffering.

Still a teenager, Justino counseled parishioners after the services. Often he would hear about their sexual problems, a subject he knew little about and had trouble dealing with himself.

Another troubling aspect of his pastoral duties was asking parishioners for money. Seeing poor people donate most of their money to the church ate him up inside. But, according to Justino, the pastors faced monthly goals.

During services, Justino preached against homosexuality, which the Universal Church considers to be evil and a sign that a person is possessed by demons. In private, he carried on an affair with a pastor.

In his book, Justino tells about his gay lover, his first wife and an adulterous affair with another woman. At one point, when he was assigned to a church in New York, Justino became ill and confided in a church counselor that he might have HIV. In 1991, Macedo learned of Justino's rapid weight loss and fevers, and kicked him out of the church.

When Justino asked why, Macedo responded, "Please don't play the fool! You know quite well why you have to leave. But I will refresh your mind. You can no longer stay with us because you have AIDS!"

A short time after getting fired, Justino made his failed assassination attempt on Macedo. Now homeless and an illegal immigrant, he plunged into crack cocaine and heroin and wandered New York's grittiest streets. He overdosed on heroin and was hospitalized for a month.

In the hospital, Justino was visited by Danusa, the only Brazilian on the volunteer staff of the Gay Men's Health Crisis, an organization that has several programs for AIDS patients. Danusa told Justino about state benefits, such as free access to medicine and a monthly income.

Justino was rehabilitated, and his consuming anger toward Bishop Macedo and his church eased. In 1998, Justino was granted political asylum on the grounds that if he returned to Brazil, he might be killed.

Justino now lives in an apartment in the Bronx. He volunteers at an orphanage to help children with AIDS. He says that he is giving back for the many tithes he took from the poor who gave their very last cent. "I believe this is my contribution, I feel that I am really helping people for no personal interest," Justino says. "A help that I never gave during the time that I was part of the Universal Church."