José Luis De Jesús Miranda — who teaches that sin and the devil don’t exist — has emerged as an exalted yet divisive figure
Pastors usually don’t travel in armored vehicles, preach on a stage flanked by undercover guards, and spend $350,000 a year on security.
But José Luis De Jesús Miranda isn’t just a pastor: He says he’s Jesus Christ incarnate.
A round-faced, affable and youthful-looking 61-year-old from Puerto Rico, De Jesús has emerged as a powerful and deeply polarizing figure in a religious landscape dominated by charismatic televangelists and politically savvy megachurch pastors.
De Jesús is neither of those. He doesn’t preach about helping the poor or aligning society with Christian values. Rather, he teaches that sin and the devil don’t exist, and that his followers already are spiritually perfect.
‘I don’t deal with the flesh, I don’t deal with `walk this way, dress this way, don’t drink, don’t smoke,’ ” he said in an interview. “Christianity doesn’t prohibit anything.”
His congregants call him Apostle, Daddy, God, the Man Christ Jesus and, most recently, ”Antichrist,” a title that De Jesús says he adopted to signify that he has replaced Jesus of Nazareth. Opponents call him an opportunist, a charlatan, a false prophet and even “the beast.”
Despite growing criticism from mainstream churches, De Jesús — a one-time teenage heroin addict who claims thousands of followers in the United States and Latin America — hasn’t backed down from his quest to form ”God’s government on Earth,” one that would install him as universal head of state. If anything, he has grown more determined.
In recent weeks, De Jesús has been denied entry to several countries, including El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, where immigration officials cited disruptions and protests by his congregants.
Members of Nicaragua’s Catholic and evangelical clergy have called on their government to keep De Jesús out. Former congregants and even his own family members have spoken against his claims to divinity.
De Jesús and his followers see such criticism as fulfillment of a biblical prophecy that the world would reject the second coming of Christ. They’ve responded with increasingly bellicose rhetoric. For example, De Jesús predicts natural disasters will strike countries that ban him.
And last month, 400 members of his Doral church — Creciendo en Gracia, which means ”growing in grace” — protested at the headquarters of the Archdiocese of Miami.
”We’re out here to tell people enough is enough, religion is coming to an end,” said Juan Saavedra, 44, a mortgage-bank executive and longtime church member.
De Jesús’ followers have disrupted Catholic processions on Good Friday, protested outside an evangelical church gathering in Miami’s Tropical Park, and destroyed rosaries and statues of the Virgin Mary during a march last summer in Miami.
Similar protests in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Argentina and Colombia have been largely peaceful, but occasionally have led to shouting matches or worse. During a Christian Congress meeting at a baseball stadium in Cartagena, Colombia, last year, a shoving match between Creciendo en Gracia protesters and congress participants left several people with minor injuries.
Several thousand of De Jesús’s followers from around the world were expected to gather today in Guatemala to mark his birthday at a church seminar, despite the Guatemalan government’s announced ban; the country argues De Jesús is a security risk because he provokes conflict with Roman Catholics and evangelicals.
De Jesús had told followers not to change their travel plans. No government could stand in the way of God’s will, he said.
But Saturday, he canceled his visit. Instead, he would address the gathering today in a video teleconference, said the church’s head pastor in Guatemala, Jorge Batres.
”We’re a church respectful of the law, and we will have to wait until the judge gives us an injunction,” Batres said.
A GLOBAL MOVEMENT
The tension surrounding De Jesús’ planned appearance in Guatemala marks the latest in a deluge of controversies surrounding the 21-year-old church.
De Jesús had just a few hundred followers when he launched his church in a Hialeah warehouse. Today, he heads a global movement that boasts 335 education centers in more than 20 countries, 200 pastors, 287 radio programs and a 24-hour Spanish-language satellite TV network that’s available to 2 million homes. Only De Jesús and his top bishop, Carlos Cestero, are authorized to preach.
De Jesús, who bases his messages on his interpretation of select biblical verses, preaches that churches have misinterpreted the Gospels for 2,000 years.
He says children in his church are members of a ”super race” that has never been exposed to other religions. He also preaches that his followers will one day evolve to have immortal, perfect bodies.
His sermons are often laced with invective against the Catholic Church and other religious institutions. During a recent service at his Doral headquarters, De Jesús told worshipers that he had come to put a stop to other religions.
”Up until now, there’s been no one to shut their mouths, but we possess the true gospel, and we are going to shut their mouths,” he said, drawing applause and cheers.
A media storm erupted in February after De Jesús revealed a 666 tattoo on his arm and claimed to be the Antichrist. Following his example, dozens of De Jesús’ followers crowded into a South Beach tattoo parlor and branded themselves with 666. Hundreds elsewhere in the United States and Latin America followed suit as church members announced “national tattoo days.”
Creciendo en Gracia has begun to draw interest among some anti-cult organizations, which are posting information about it on websites.
But Rick Ross, an anti-cult consultant based in New Jersey who has followed the movement, was careful to distinguish De Jesús from dangerous cult leaders like Jim Jones. Jones’ Peoples Temple followers obeyed his command to commit mass suicide in 1978 at a jungle camp in Guyana after followers killed a U.S. congressman and others who had gone there to investigate the camp.
”He seems like a businessman, someone who is making an extraordinary amount of money from his followers,” Ross said. “He’s not carving out a niche in the jungle.”
The Rev. Julio Perez of Nuevo Esperanza, a faith-based community advisory board in Hialeah, said De Jesús’ promotion of 666 — which appears in the Book of Revelation as the mark of the beast that dominates the Earth before Christ’s return — shows how far his teachings have veered from Christian doctrine.
‘Jesus said to his disciples, `Beware that someone will come in my name and you will have a fake prophet, a fake Christ,’ ” Perez said. “666, according to the Bible, is the mark of the Antichrist. It’s totally insane.”
De Jesús said outsiders misinterpret his message. He said his newest title, ”Antichrist,” refers not to Satan but to his belief that his message has replaced the teachings of the historical Christ.
When he’s not denouncing other religions or railing against detractors, De Jesús has a relaxed, friendly, unguarded air.
During an interview at church headquarters, he wore a pale yellow polo shirt, tinted sunglasses and an $11,000 Rolex watch. He smelled faintly of cigarette smoke and sipped a Cuban coffee. He joked about how congregants compete to lavish him with gifts — including a $70,000 BMW sedan, a two-story home in a Houston suburb and a $25,000 Pasha watch — and showed reporters the bar in his office, where he said he often gathers with his inner circle to drink and smoke cigars after services.
De Jesús’ annual salary is about $104,000, he said.
He and his followers say there is no reason for religious leaders to live modestly. ”I don’t live a double life,” said De Jesús, who moved to Houston last year and now commutes once a week to lead services at his flagship church on Northwest 25th Street in Doral. “They think I deserve the best.”
Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1946, De Jesús grew up in a poor neighborhood and became a heroin addict at age 14, he says. After he was jailed for theft, he was sent to a Christian-based U.S. rehab program called Teen Challenge and converted to Christianity.
At age 20, he moved to Lawrence, Mass., where he worked in industrial jobs to support his siblings and worshiped at a conservative evangelical church.
De Jesús says he began to have revelations one night in 1976, when two angels appeared to him, heralded by trumpets. De Jesús says that at that moment, Jesus Christ merged with him. After that, he began to preach his version of the gospel.
In 1986, he says, God told him to move to Florida. De Jesús and his wife and five children rented a one-bedroom apartment in North Miami and he founded his church. More than 500 people attended services at a rented Hialeah warehouse that first Sunday, he says.
Since then, De Jesús has drifted far from the teachings of mainstream Christianity.
In 1988, he announced that he was the Apostle. 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 claims created rifts in his family and led to some high-profile defections from the movement, including his first wife, Nydia, and a son, José Luis Jr., who has his own church in Puerto Rico.
His brother, an evangelical Christian minister at the Hialeah-based church Palabra de Fe, or Word of Faith, said De Jesús’ teachings arose out of narcissism.
”He has no biblical basis for what he does. It’s just his personal interpretation,” said Carlos De Jesús, who says he prays daily for his older brother’s soul. “He doesn’t promote justice, a better community, helping anybody. They just promote themselves.”
Such criticism has done little to shake the faith of the thousands drawn to De Jesús’ message. He teaches that murder, stealing and adultery aren’t sins, just crimes against society with earthly repercussions.
He has had one brush with the law as an adult: a 1997 arrest in Miami-Dade County for driving under the influence and having an open alcoholic beverage in his car. He was found guilty of drunken driving and was ordered to pay $1,495 and undergo counseling.
His followers say De Jesús has brought them happiness and spiritual fulfillment.
Lisbet Garcia, 36, a former Catholic who joined the church when she was 17, said De Jesús freed her from her fear of the devil. She said she never gets sick now and that the church has made her prosper.
Garcia, who works in the church’s finance office, gave $40,000 to the movement after selling her house in Cutler Bay for $290,000 last May. ”We believe totally that the more we give, the more we receive,” she said.
Members of Creciendo en Gracia are taught to tithe 10 percent of their income, but many give much more. De Jesús’ followers include hundreds of business owners who give a cut of their corporate profits to the church.
Alvaro Albarracin, a former Internet CEO who gave millions and holds the church title ”entrepreneur of entrepreneurs,” said about 450 businesses are linked to the church.
Carlos Gonzalez, 50, who joined Creciendo en Gracia in 1989, said he gives anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent of the profits from his Hallandale Beach company, Apos Mortgage.
Followers say they give as much as they can out of gratitude. Rebeca Mojica, 18, said she would set aside paychecks and tips while working part-time at Chuck E. Cheese’s, and donate what she could to De Jesús. This year, she gave Creciendo en Gracia leftover college scholarship money — about $350. ”I’m part of the super race,” she said.
Joann De Jesús, the pastor’s daughter and the ministry’s accountant, said donations last year topped $2.5 million, while church expenditures amounted to $1.5 million. Most of the difference goes toward expanding De Jesús’ satellite TV network and building education centers in Latin America, she said.
Not all of De Jesús’ devotees have stayed in the fold.
One of his most vocal detractors is Regina Albarracin, mother of Alvaro Albarracin, the “entrepreneur of entrepreneurs.”
”He is a fraud,” Regina Albarracin said of De Jesús. Albarracin and her husband, who live in Pembroke Pines, were among the first members of his congregation. But as his theology strayed, the couple broke away, which ruptured their relationship with their son.
The man who has called himself an angel, the son of God and even the Antichrist, hints at yet another metamorphosis.
For his ”Government of God” to happen, De Jesús says he will have to evolve into an immortal, incorruptible physical state.
”I think that will have to happen first,” he said, rubbing his forearms with both hands. “Maybe in 10, 15 years. I don’t know.”
Miami Herald correspondent Sibylla Brodzinsky contributed to this report. Information from The Associated Press was also used.