'The time is finished': Religious sect erects billboards in Toronto ahead of the 'transformation'

National Post, Canada/May 1, 2012

St. Catharines, Ontario -- Doris Rosado watches her teenage daughters, Ninette and Kiara Mongrut, get the numbers "666" tattooed on their wrists, beaming with pride. The number typically conjures up biblical symbolism tied to the Antichrist, but this St. Catharines, Ont., family belongs to a obscure Christian sect for which "666" is a positive symbol of their group's messianic leader.

"They wanted to do it," Ms. Rosado, 45, said at the St. Catharines tattoo parlour where her daughters were inked. "But now it's more important because we're counting down… I'm so proud."

For this family, and other members of Growing in Grace International, these tattoos are a way of demonstrating their faith as true believers of Jose de Luis de Jesus — who they fervently believe is the second coming of Jesus Christ — before a day of reckoning they believe will wipe out most of humanity.

The group, which they say has branches in five Canadian cities and members in more than 130 countries, believes that on June 30 (or July 1 across the international dateline), their Texas-based leader and his followers will be transformed, said Alex Poessy, the group's bishop in Canada.

To spread the word, Growing in Grace put up billboards in Toronto this week featuring Mr. de Jesus.

"That day, the body of Jose de Luis de Jesus, who is a human like you and me, his flesh is going to be immortal…. He's going to be living forever. And that will happen to him, but also his followers."

But, said Mr. Poessy: "All those that are not believers are going to be destroyed."

Growing in Grace International is not the first to prognosticate that the so-called end of the world will come this year. The Mayan calendar famously picks Dec. 21, 2012.

But Mr. de Jesus also predicts that the "transformation" will endow him, and his loyal followers, with superpowers, such as the ability to fly and walk through walls, said Axel Cooley, the bishop's daughter.

"[We can] run and not get tired. Go through fire and not get burned…. I could be talking to you right now, and then I could go through that wall. So, you'll know there is a difference," Cooley said.

The global economy will collapse as currency markets "fail" and governments around the world will be forced to resign. These predictions are based on biblical passages, she adds.

"The world's not going to end. What is going to end is the system…. All the governments and the currencies will fall. The new government of the 666 will take over," she said.

The group's billboards feature a picture of Mr. de Jesus, with such messages as "666, number of wisdom" or "Countdown to the transformation June 30, 2012." The group is eyeing billboard locations in Ottawa and Kitchener as well, she said. Growing in Grace has also put up billboards in at least 10 countries, including the U.S., Brazil and Puerto Rico, Ms. Cooley said.

Mr. de Jesus, whom followers lovingly call "Dad," had a vision in 1973 while living in Massachusetts of two angels coming to him. "The body of Christ manifested in Jose de Luis de Jesus, and all of a sudden, that's when he knew," Ms. Cooley said.

By 1986, he founded Growing in Grace, or Cresciendo en Gracia, in 1986 in Puerto Rico. His teachings are based on the writings of the Apostle Paul, Ms. Cooley says.

The group has come under fire and accused of being a cult.

Regina Albarracin of Pembroke Pines, Fla., whose son Alvaro became estranged from his family after he joined Growing in Grace, said its members are "brainwashed."

"They're stupid people who believe in stupidities," she told the Miami New Times in 2006. "They're like those people in Waco, Texas. When you go there, you get brainwashed."

Questions have also been raised about the funds flowing from followers into Growing in Grace's coffers.

The church had been paying $144,000 a year in alimony to de Jesus' first wife, considering it part of his salary, according to a 2007 article in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. Also, donations from followers in Colombia went to a Colombian bank account in Jose Luis de Jesus' name, the Sun-Sentinel reported. De Jesus said the Colombian bishop controlled the money earmarked for churches there. However, he also said some of the money went to de Jesus' wife, including about $60,000 for a condominium.

Canadian member Ana Guevara, 20, brushes the cult claims off.

"All our lives have been enriched with this…. If we were a cult, then I guess we're a pretty awesome cult. Because it's teaching you how to live happy. How to live in a good mood," says Ms. Guevara, whose family is also part of Growing in Grace.

The group has roughly 200 members in Canada, including branches in Toronto, St. Catharines, Montreal and Calgary. Its newest branch is in Vancouver, which officially opened in March, Mr. Poessy said.

Ontario Growing in Grace members congregate in hotel conference rooms for what they call "tracings." During a tracing in January in Niagara Falls, a few dozen members sat in rows of padded chairs facing a screen. The sermon-like Spanish broadcast was streamed live online, beaming in images from other members' gatherings around the world. Members listened to speakers and sang along with the hymns.

"We're the ones who will live eternally," they sang in Spanish.

Usually, Mr. de Jesus addresses his followers during the tracings. But on April 22, his 66th birthday, he gave his last speech before retreating from public view.

In a video posted on YouTube and on their website, cegenglish.com, Mr. de Jesus called for his followers to enter into the final countdown until, he says, their government will come into power. "A government where we will govern everything with a perfect order. This is my last farewell for you. The time is finished… We will see each other soon in Armageddon."

Dr. Lorne Dawson, a University of Waterloo sociologist and religious studies professor who specializes in new religious movements, says that when a religious group sets a deadline, it is a sign that the "movement is starting to run into trouble."

"It's a strong indicator that their authority is slipping, they're losing followers, not acquiring followers at a level that they used to … and nothing galvanizes a group and galvanizes attention like a new mention of an apocalypse."

Last year, California preacher and evangelical broadcaster Harold Camping infamously said that the world would end on May 21, 2011. When the day passed without incident — after many of his followers sold off all their belongings — Mr. Camping apologized for the faulty predictions, and subsequently retired.

Jehovah's Witnesses have prophesied that the world would end eight times, as recently as 1975. The Church Universal and Triumphant, a new age religious group from the U.S., forecast that nuclear war would strike in 1990, says Dr. Dawson.

Even after their prophecies failed, such groups continued to survive at a similar level, or become even stronger, he said. "The leader will quickly come up with an explanation, rationalize, and that rationalization will be spread quickly to all of the membership … and gear them up for another prophecy down the line," Dr. Dawson said.

Common explanations include blaming the members who doubted, or that the prophecy happened on another spiritual plane, he added.

Growing in Grace members, however, insist their prediction will come true, and their transformation is on its way.

They cite recent erratic weather patterns and global economic woes as signs that change is afoot.

"We are sure that it's going to happen," said Mr. Poessy.

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