Divine or dangerous, he's got disciples

The Miami Herald/July 22, 2006
By Alexandra Alter

The apostle wears a bulletproof vest when he's preaching in Colombia, retains a battalion of 50 bodyguards across the United States and drives to his Doral church headquarters in an armored Seven Series BMW.

Followers say he's Jesus. Detractors call him a cult leader. And José Luis De Jesús Miranda -- a paunchy, middle-aged man from Puerto Rico who favors $10,000 Rolexes and claims millions of disciples worldwide -- believes many people would like to see him dead.

It's no wonder the sect generates controversy. De Jesús' followers have disrupted Catholic processions on Good Friday, protested outside an evangelical church gathering in Miami's Tropical Park and chanted anti-Catholic slogans during a parade in Lima honoring the city's patron saint, El Señor de los Milagros.

Today, some 500 members of Creciendo en Gracia -- Growing in Grace -- plan to march in downtown Miami to proclaim their leader as Christ incarnate. In a show of solidarity with their prophet, members say they will destroy crucifixes, rosaries, statues of the Virgin Mary and other saints and tear up literature published by the Jehovah's Witnesses and other Christian movements. Simultaneous protests are planned in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Argentina and Guatemala -- countries where De Jesús has sizable followings.

"We don't believe Christians have the right to call themselves Christians," De Jesús said, leaning back in a plush leather chair at his church headquarters, a gray corporate warehouse in Doral. "For 2,000 years, they used the wrong gospel."

Some Christian leaders dismiss the protests as ill-conceived publicity stunts. Others regard them as disruptive and even dangerous.

"He has developed a campaign against mainstream churches and they have been vicious," said the Rev. Julio Perez of Nuevo Esperanza, a faith-based community advisory board in Hialeah.

De Jesús -- who during a recent interview wore tinted glasses, a black polo T-shirt and a conspicuous gold pendant around his neck with the moniker SSS (short for the church's motto, Salvo Siempre Salvo, "saved always saved") -- could more easily pass for a banker or lawyer than the messiah.

Adherents call him Apostle, the Man Christ Jesus, God and Daddy and shower him with money and gifts.

"I believe he's the lord," said Alvaro Albarracin, 37, a Miami businessman who oversees corporate donations to the church. "I will be thankful to him in as many ways as I can, especially with money, because money is nothing."

When De Jesús founded Creciendo en Gracia in a Hialeah warehouse 20 years ago, he claimed a few hundred followers. As his movement and reputation grew, so did his title. In 1988, he announced he was the reincarnation of the Apostle Paul. In 1999, he dubbed himself "the Other," a spiritual super-being who would pave the way for Christ's second coming. In 2004, he proclaimed himself to be Jesus Christ and the sole interpreter of the gospel.

His claim to divinity led to defections -- including his first wife, Nydia, and his son Jose Luis Jr., who started his own church in Puerto Rico.

Thousands more, however, have flocked to the movement.

Creciendo en Gracia now lists more than 300 education centers in 52 countries, 200 pastors, 225 radio programs and its own 24-hour Spanish-language satellite network that's beamed into some 3 million homes.

Religious leaders in the United States and Latin America have criticized De Jesús, calling him a false prophet who deceives his followers.

"They have really strange catchy phrases that are reflective of their bad theology," said Father Albert Cutié, pastor of St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, a South Beach parish where De Jesús' followers protested a Good Friday procession this year. "When any rabbi, priest, pastor or minister presumes to be a divine being there's a serious problem. This is more of a cult."

The church seems eager to court controversy. After The Miami New Times published an article last February that was critical of the movement, church members distributed copies during services and used the cover art -- an illustration of the historical Jesus with the headline "He's Back!" -- in a promotional film.

Sin Abolished

Devotees say De Jesús -- who preaches that sin was abolished when Jesus died on the cross, that the devil doesn't exist and that God's chosen are predestined for salvation -- has brought them happiness and personal prosperity.

Lucy Fuentes, a former Catholic who joined the movement in 1988, said she was tired of feeling like a sinner. De Jesús' message freed her from such ideas, she said.

"My life belongs to him," said Fuentes, who lives in Hollywood and works at a mortgage company. 'People say, `You're brainwashed.' I say, look, I'm happy. I didn't drink any poison."

José Luis De Jesús Miranda was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1946. He grew up in a poor neighborhood and says he became a heroin addict at age 14. After landing in jail for theft, De Jesús converted to a conservative Protestant movement through a faith-based juvenile justice program. He later moved to Lawrence, Mass., joined an evangelical church and became a pastor.

In 1986, De Jesús moved his wife and five children to a rented one-bedroom apartment in North Miami after, he says, God told him to found a Florida church. De Jesús rented a Hialeah warehouse to hold services and more than 500 people showed up the first Sunday.

As the movement mushroomed, De Jesús retained tight control over the message. Today, only De Jesús and his right-hand man, Carlos Cestero, are allowed to preach. Followers repeat De Jesús' distinct religious vocabularly, calling other religions "the system," and labeling his religious messages "codes."

"I don't study the Bible," he said, chuckling. "I don't go into rooms for prayer. Who am I going to pray to?"

In his quest to form "God's government on earth," De Jesús has created a powerful financial and religious network. De Jesús congregants run more than 450 businesses, including a Miami mortgage business, a massage parlor in Honduras and a Brazilian restaurant in the Dolphin Mall.

Some of the companies bear the title "Apos," short for apostle. Among them is Apos Mortgage in Hallandale Beach and Apos Health and Beauty in Miami. Many of the businesses give 10 percent or more of their proceeds to the church, said Alvaro Albarracin, a church member and enthusiastic donor who holds the title "Entrepreneur of Entrepreneurs."

De Jesús said all the money feeds into the ministry. The satellite network costs about some $40,000 a month, while the Doral headquarters costs about $1.4 million a year to maintain. He receives an annual salary of $98,000, he said.

Wealth praised

His followers reject the notion that religious leaders should live modestly.

Albarracin, who heads MiamiLA Entertainment -- a film production company that lists De Jesús as its owner and chairman on its website -- credits De Jesús with his financial success, calling him his "personal angel."

When he joined the church more than a decade ago, Albarracin was working as a salesman at Rooms To Go. Within a few years, Albarracin started a website, and then a successful Web-hosting company.

In 2002, he sold the company, Dialtone Internet, for more than $16 million. He said he gave 20 percent of the profits to Creciendo en Gracia.

Albarracin said his parents used to belong to the movement but became suspicious when he started giving De Jesús so much money. He no longer speaks to his parents.

Albarracin chooses to side with his prophet.

"This could be the truth, or this could be the biggest cult that ever existed," he said with a smile. "I'm cashing in on the truth."

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