Growing in Grace has unconventional beliefs, but isn’t so different from many faith movements
A group of 30 placard-waving Christians marched in downtown Kitchener two weeks ago to show their love for their Lord.
At times, the public reaction was hostile. As the group stood in front of Kitchener City Hall, some people shot comments from passing cars. Motorcyclists slowed and revved their engines to ear-splitting levels. One woman got off her bicycle, strutted up to the protesters, yelled at them and battered one of the placards before storming off.
Why the hostility?
Maybe it was aimed at the group’s controversial claims.
The protesters say Jesus Christ has come back to Earth in the body of their leader — a Miami-based, Puerto Rican preacher.
They also call him the Antichrist.
Some wore T-shirts with foot-tall numbers 666 plastered on their chests, and tattooed on their arms.
Not everyone’s reaction was hostile. Some people stopped to find out what was going on.
In some ways the church, called Growing in Grace, is unique. In other ways, it’s is a textbook example of religious movements that are born, exist and die largely unnoticed.
According to the church, Growing in Grace was born more than 30 years ago in the mind of Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda — also known by followers as The Man Christ Jesus — after two angels told him he was anointed for the ministry.
Most of the Miami-based church’s following is in Central and South America. With the advent of the Internet and satellite television, the church says, it reaches millions around the globe with its Spanish-language broadcasts on Sundays and Wednesdays.
In Canada, congregations in Surrey, B.C., Toronto, Montreal, St. Catharines and Kitchener draw about 150 regular members in total, says Alex Poessy, a Kitchener resident and the church’s bishop for Canada.
The Kitchener congregation, with about 20 members, has met weekly since 1996. Visitors drop in, but often don’t return because they find the message “weird,” Poessy said.
“This message is controversial,” he said. “But it’s Bible.”
Lately, the controversial message has been getting more controversial. Miranda has called on members to tattoo themselves with the numbers 666, the sign of the beast in the Book of Revelation. He has also urged the faithful to take to the streets and protest against the Roman Catholic Church and other established denominations.
Poessy maintains the church isn’t preaching anything new. Rather, it bases its theology and doctrines on the New Testament letters traditionally attributed to the Apostle Paul.
In the living room of his Kitchener bungalow, Poessy, 54, flips through a Bible and finds the foundations for the church’s theology.
Poessy argues there are only two gospels — one for Jews and one for gentiles (Galatians 2:7). The Apostle Paul gave the gospel to the gentiles, so Growing in Grace believes that only the 14 letters traditionally attributed to Paul are valid for determining doctrine.
Other books of the Bible are fine for history and biography, Poessy says, but not theology.
He argues that Paul (I Corinthians 3:10) says “another” will come and build on his gentile gospel — not the Jewish gospel which expired with Jesus of Nazareth’s death on the cross.
The only person teaching only Paul’s gospel, Poessy says, is Miranda.
“If this man is teaching only with gospel of Paul, this person has to be Jesus Christ,” Poessy said. “That means he (Miranda) is the body the Lord chose to be inside.”
Miranda is also called the Antichrist. The Apostle John called the Apostle Paul the Enemy of Christ, or, the Antichrist, Poessy says, smiling.
“The first Antichrist was Paul.”
Other controversial doctrines include the notion that there is no sin (Hebrews 9:26) and that there is no devil because the devil was destroyed at Jesus’ crucifixion (Hebrews 2:14).
That means there’s no hell or punishment in the afterlife, Poessy says.
So what about 666?
The number 666 is known as the sign of the monstrous beast which, in the Apostle John’s Book of Revelation, rules the world in the end times.
But there’s nothing to fear from the number 666 because John got his vision wrong, Poessy says.
As he was receiving his revelation, John thought he was seeing a beast. In truth, Poessy argues, the Apostle was actually seeing Jesus Christ returned to Earth. So the number 666 really represents Jesus Christ, Poessy said.
Earlier this year, Miranda rolled up his sleeve, revealed a 666 tattoo on his forearm and urged parishioners to also get tattooed. Several weeks ago, Poessy and more than a dozen church members followed through.
“It’s a proof of my love for my Lord,” Poessy said.
Members were also inked with the letters SSS — salvo siempre salvo — Spanish for “saved always saved.”
Long before becoming a bishop for the Antichrist, Poessy wanted to be a priest. He was raised Roman Catholic in his native Nicaragua, but switched to a Pentecostal church where he ministered as an unordained pastor while working as a chartered accountant.
By 1988 he was living in Miami.
And although he worked as a part-time pastor, Poessy was still searching for a faith that fit. Then during a drive to work one morning, he found what he was looking for. The words flowing from his car speakers made Poessy pull over to the side of the road.
Miranda was preaching about predestination, the centuries-old Christian doctrine that God determines whether or not a person will be saved even before he or she is born.
It offered Poessy some comfort. Church had taught him that he was destined to sin 24/7. It also taught him that God could come for his soul at any time. So if God came when he wasn’t clean, Poessy believed, God would reject him.
“I was never assured of my eternal salvation,” he said. “I was always afraid to lose my soul.”
Now, it’s different, he says with a broad smile.
According to Growing in Grace theology, there is no sin, no devil and no hell where his soul can be punished.
Poessy says he knows he is saved. So there’s no need to be afraid of God.
“I’m ready to go with him,” he said. “Now I’m happy.”
While Growing in Grace spreads some unconventional interpretations theology, it isn’t unique in the way it functions.
“They’re almost textbook in religious movements,” said Lorne Dawson, a professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Waterloo.
Dawson, whose specialty is researching new religious movements, also says Growing in Grace’s attack on established churches isn’t new. New religious groups often argue big churches have adopted unnecessary traditions and have strayed from the biblical truth.
“They believe that they are restoring Christianity to its true original form according to the way they read the Bible,” Dawson said. “Basically, they’re saying everybody else has gone off course, (that) we’ve gone back to what’s the real core.”
New churches always support their arguments with some accepted premises — in this case, that only Paul’s letters are valid to determine doctrines.
“They’ve given a certain reading of the Bible and then they very consistently and logically follow through on that reading.”
And they don’t shirk from the results, Dawson adds.
Street evangelism, like the march in Kitchener, rarely wins converts, Dawson says. However, it strengthens group solidarity because those who march in the streets and withstand public reaction have invested themselves more into the church.
Miranda’s exhortations for members to tattoo themselves with 666 is a test to see how committed people are to the church, Dawson says. Getting tattoos sets up a level of tension between church members and the rest of society.
But the tension level isn’t too high and the test isn’t too hard. A small tattoo can easily be hidden, Dawson notes.
“Your shirt sleeve covers it. Unlike if you were tattooing it on your forehead.”
If the test was to tattoo the forehead, members could expect to be singled out, beaten up, harassed and fired from their jobs. For many, the social costs would outweigh the benefits and the church could lose members.
Growing in Grace resembles other new religious groups in that parishioners come from a closely knit network of family and friends, Dawson says.
At the rally in Kitchener, almost all of the marchers came from eight families. About half were teenagers and children. Most of the adults appeared to be immigrants from Latin America.
Like Poessy, many in that area of the world were raised Roman Catholic and have turned to Pentecostalism. But after arriving in Canada, the Spanish-speaking people wouldn’t be comfortable in English-speaking Pentecostal churches, Dawson says.
In their small Spanish-speaking congregation, they find community, status, moral and material support.
In news reports, Miranda is criticized less for his theology than for his material wealth and a perceived lust for power.
He likes Rolex watches and BMW cars. Growing in Grace followers observe biblical tithing, giving 10 per cent or more of their income to the church.
Miranda has also taken on the persona of a head of state. At times he is surrounded by a squad of body guards.
The church’s logo, a bald eagle clutching an anchor and sword, resembles the American Presidential seal. It includes the words, “Government of God on Earth,” written in Spanish.
At some point, the church will form a global government, Poessy says. But before that can happen, Miranda must undergo a major transformation.
Poessy says he doesn’t know when or how it will happen, but says it will be so fantastic that everyone will acknowledge the spirit occupying Miranda’s body is, in fact, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Then all governments will turn over the reins of power to the Lord.
In short, it’s an apocalypse.
That conjures images of a final all-out battle between good and evil. It also brings comparisons to self-destructive cults like the one led by Rev. Jim Jones who, along with his followers, committed mass suicide by drinking poisoned punch in Guyana in 1978.
Fear not, Poessy says. If Miranda asks him to drink poison, he has a ready response.
“If it’s not in the Bible, I won’t do that.” And if Miranda strays from Paul’s gospel, “that’s gonna be my last day in the church,” Poessy said.
Compared to the vision of the end times that many conservative Christians await, Growing in Grace’s apocalypse is pretty tame.
“As a result, then, they’re not likely to be violent because of this style of (apocalypticism),” said Dawson, who has written a book on his study of about 50 incidents in which religious movements became violent.
“It is only catastrophic forms of apocalypticism that set the conditions for potential violence because they lead people to behave in ways that put them into increasing tension with the society around them.”
A pattern has emerged among violent faith groups, Dawson says.
In general, they ignore secular laws, arguing that they’re not God’s laws. That puts members in conflict with secular authorities. Minor conflicts escalate. Anyone opposing the group is seen as an agent of the devil. Because they believe the world will end in a catastrophic battle between good and evil, members start stockpiling food and weapons.
At this point, that’s not the case for Growing in Grace, Dawson said. The transformation is expected to be magical, so it’s out of the hands of human beings. Also, the end is predicted to be relatively peaceful and no date has been set for Miranda’s transformation.
“When you have no actual date, that makes things less likely to revert to violence,” Dawson said.
It’s not surprising that the Kitchener congregation remains small despite being around for a decade, he adds.
And if Growing in Grace follows the pattern of other new religious groups, he says, most children who grow up in the church will leave the faith.
“Their children will be involved to a degree, but probably . . . taper off.”
And as the grandchildren grow into adulthood, probably very few will stay involved because they’ll be adapted to Canadian society and won’t seek the same community as their grandparents, Dawson says.
“They’ll (feel) Canadian and they don’t need this and they’ll just find it strange and the social costs too high.”
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