A religious leader embraced as 'the Man Jesus Christ' offers a spiritual alternative

Ventura County Star/June 9, 2007
By Tara Dooley of the Houston Chronicle

Houston -- In some circles, it's the mark of the beast, the sign of the devil, an omen of doom.

On Miriam Chapman's wrist, the "666" tattoo is a sign of her faith.

"It is not the number of the devil," the 20-year-old Houston resident said. "The devil was destroyed. ... It's a sign. It's love that God has upon his children."

Chapman's inspiration for the tattoo came from a Miami-based religious leader with a home in Sugar Land, Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda. He calls himself the Antichrist, an attention-grabbing term that does not mean he considers himself the devil, but rather a true Christian, he says.

Indeed, for de Jesus who admits to a teenage history of heroin addiction and crime there is no devil. And far from embodying evil, de Jesus has declared himself a reincarnation of the spirit of Jesus.

His followers agree, and they have attached to his Spanish-language ministry, Ministerio Internacional Creciendo en Gracia, or Growing in Grace International Ministry. Many have embraced him as "the Man Christ Jesus" or, affectionately, Papi, or daddy.

"I don't see him as a person who has deficiency," said Hugo Aguilar, a 33-year-old Houston follower of the ministry. "I see him as an instrument of God."

De Jesus and his ministry have grabbed headlines and airtime with provocative actions such as picketing the offices of the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami and holding demonstrations in countries including Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

Recently, the president of El Salvador issued a statement declaring de Jesus unwelcome in the country. The governments of Guatemala and Honduras have taken similar actions.

For followers, the ministry offers a spiritual alternative to traditional Christian churches. Some of de Jesus' believers come from Catholic backgrounds, and many have roots in traditionally Catholic countries. But many in the Houston area who have joined the ministry come from evangelical and Pentecostal traditions.

Divine approach not unique

Though de Jesus' claims are unusual to traditional ears, he is not unique, said Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, professor emeritus at Brooklyn College and co-author of "Recognizing the Latino Resurgence in U.S. Religion." Throughout history, some believers have declared themselves divine and preachers of the true Gospel, he said.

With exponential growth of Hispanic communities in the United States, the varieties and opportunities for religious expression in Spanish have multiplied, he said.

"The different churches each fill a niche," Stevens-Arroyo said. "There is a niche for the gospel of prosperity, there is a niche for Pentecostals who are trying to rehabilitate drug addicts, and there is a niche for Catholics who want to send their kids to Catholic school."

In Houston, de Jesus' followers gather Wednesdays and Sundays in a rented office in a southwest Houston strip center.

Attendance at services is not required of the faithful. But on a recent Sunday about 40 people trickled into the darkened room, parents with children taking over the back rows of folding chairs with diaper bags and baby carriers. Many greet each other with "You are blessed."

The focus of the service is the screen at the front of the room. The weekly messages are delivered from ministry headquarters, a center that seats about 600 in Miami. In the United States, the service is broadcast over the Internet. It also travels the Internet to centers in Latin America, though about 16 countries receive the message on TV stations.

Everyone hears the same message. And there is no room for regional or personal interpretation.

"The difference between our ministry and the other religions is that even though they have the same name, they talk differently, they teach different theology," said Rafael Encarnacion, the ministry's bishop of the United States.

De Jesus, 61, founded the ministry in 1986 in Puerto Rico, his home. He moved its headquarters to Miami in 1988. The Sugar Land home was a gift from a follower, a ministry spokeswoman said. Because of his busy schedule, de Jesus has spent about 12 days here since he received the house nine months ago.

In addition to Houston, the ministry has 35 meeting centers in 12 states from New York to California (in Carlsbad, San Diego, Los Angeles and Oceanside). Internationally, it operates in 26 countries, including Venezuela, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Cuba.

No membership list

The exact number of de Jesus followers is hard to pinpoint, since there are no membership rolls and weekly attendance is not required. Encarnacion will only say thousands.

"There is no way for us to know," he said.

"Our congregation through the Internet, it is impossible to count," he added.

The theology veers from standard Christian doctrine.

His teachings follow the outline of the Christian story of Jesus, but emphasize the resurrection and stories and writings that come from the Bible's letters of Paul, for example.

As de Jesus followers see it, other Christian churches have missed the point by focusing on teachings and rituals from the Bible stories that depict Jesus' life an approach that should have been discarded after the resurrection, said Pastor Boris Martinez, who oversees the ministry's Houston chapter.

"We, in 20 years, are trying to change the minds of the world that has been convinced for 2,000 years," he said.

According to de Jesus, there is no sin, and people are perfect in God's eyes. The goal of believers is also to see themselves and others as perfect. There's crime in the world, of course, and followers are encouraged to steer clear of behavior harmful to themselves or others.

"In our flesh we make mistakes, but God himself, he doesn't see you in your flesh. He sees you in your spirit," said 24-year-old Yorneglia Bruda, who considers this teaching one of the main attractions of the ministry.

The ministry also emphasizes predestination summarized in its slogan: "Saved Always Saved," or in Spanish "Salvo Siempre Salvo."

The group shares Christian prosperity theology the idea that God wants you to prosper financially and rewards generosity, often to the church, generously. Followers are encouraged to tithe the standard 10 percent to the ministry, Martinez said.

That may be the only ritual of churchgoing the ministry follows. There are no rituals of baptism, laying on of hands, marriage or death, Martinez said.

The approach has offered a switch from feeling like a "slave to religion," said Chapman, whose childhood religious experience was in a Pentecostal church.

Religion, in her previous experience, "makes you feel horrible, and it makes you feel like you are captive, because if you do something wrong you feel like you are going to hell," she said. In contrast, she said, de Jesus' teachings give her a sense of peace.

She knows the 666 on her wrist may raise eyebrows, but it also gets conversation started.

"This is a way we will teach other people," she said. "They can believe or not believe."

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