The Iglesia Universal in Woodside, Queens isn’t just an average, storefront neighborhood church. It’s massive, taking up an entire city block. Inside, a young pastor addresses God on behalf of the congregation, speaking Spanish with a thick Portuguese accent. He’s handsome, and smartly dressed.
“Dear Lord, when I put my hands on this person’s head, you’re going to open the door for a new job. This person needs to pay their debts. They need to receive this money,” he prays, almost screaming.
The Iglesia Universal del Reino de Dios, as the church is known is Spanish, has more than 6000 churches spread all over the globe. Based in Brazil, it’s believed to be the largest Pentecostal congregation in the world. It’s been growing quickly as more and more Latin Americans abandon Catholicism in favor of Protestant churches.
Here in the US, there are about 100 branches, occupying everything from mini-mall storefronts to former movie palaces. Although the church is Brazilian, its theology is as American as apple pie.
“Tell yourself this, I’m going to make myself rich,” preaches the pastor, his voice steadily rising to a crescendo. “I’m not going to have the life my parents had! I won’t be poor! I reject being more. Is it a sin for me to say, God I want to have a lot?”
At the Iglesia Universal, the pastors talk about money all the time. It’s a cornerstone of a theology often called the “prosperity gospel.”
“The prosperity gospel is the belief that if you have faith in God, God will make you rich and healthy and grant you all your wishes,” says Tony Lin, a research fellow at the University of Virginia and the author of an upcoming book about the prosperity gospel in Latino communities.
Never mind the traditional Christian notion of poverty and humility. According to the prosperity gospel, God wants you to be rich. This was a controversial idea at first, but it’s become pretty mainstream today – most TV evangelists and celebrity mega-pastors preach it in some form.
The prosperity gospel may be particularly attractive to Latinos. According to a 2006 Pew Research study, almost three-quarters of all Latino Christians agreed that “God grants wealth and health to those that have faith.” Tony Tian-Ren Lin says this idea is especially appealing to newer immigrants.
“Instead of staying at the margins looking at the American Dream, the prosperity gospel gives them their own way forward. The glass ceiling that they had because of their undocumented status or lower educational attainment, they couldn’t break it on their own, so God is going to break it for them,” says Lin.
After the sermon, it’s time for the ofrenda – the offering. Church-goers line up and bring envelopes of cash to the altar for donation as a high-energy gospel song plays.
The church teaches that a donation is an investment. The idea is that the more money you give to God, the more God will give you back.
“If you want God to pay attention to what you want, you have to give to the point of sacrifice. That extra is what’s going to get God’s attention,” says Tony Tian-Ren Lin.
But that extra might be more than many in Latino communities can afford to give.
The Iglesia Universal has long attracted controversy for the way it handles its parishioners’ money. Since its founding in 1977 the church has been investigated in various countries.
In Brazil, its leaders are now facing charges of money laundering and criminal conspiracy. The prosecutor alleges that founder Edir Macedo secretly diverted hundreds of millions of dollars of donations, mostly from the poor, into private businesses for his personal gain, and illegally sent church income to foreign bank accounts. The church, meanwhile, maintains that legal actions against it are politically motivated.
Forbes estimates that Edir Macedo’s net worth is $1.1 billion dollars, making him easily one of the richest religious figures in the world. Major US celebrity pastors like TD Jakes and Joel Osteen, in comparison, are estimated to have fortunes in the tens of millions of dollars – nowhere close.
Macedo is also the majority owner of Rede Record, Brazil’s second largest television network, which he allegedly bought with interest-free “loans” from the Iglesia Universal.
In the US, the Iglesia Universal has mostly avoided legal troubles. In 2011, however, the church’s New York treasurer, Regina DaSilva, plead guilty to charges of falsifying documents in connection with $22 million in mortgage loans. She was convicted but never served time.
Some former members have spoken out about the church’s aggressive fundraising practices. Ex-pastor Victor Velasquez left the church after six years.
“You know when you’re dating that one girl and you think she’s good girl and the next thing you know, she’s actually cheating on you with your friends? It’s kind of like that disappointment,” says Velasquez.
When he first started going to the church, says Victor, he really liked how friendly everybody was. A few years later, he became a pastor.
“I was in charge of certain services and I needed to complete a goal,” says Velasquez. “I needed to bring a certain amount of money. And that’s where I began to see that it wasn’t as humbled as it appeared to be. That is was more of a business.”
Velasquez says the pastors all lived a little too well – they wore nice clothes and drove big cars. He says the church would buy regular supermarket oil and sell it to believers, advertised as holy oil from Israel. Once, he says, he saw the church Bishop in New York dip into the collection bag and hand out stacks of $3000 in cash to a group of pastors, with instructions to go out and enjoy the city.
But the last straw, for him, happened during a fundraiser called the “Campaign of Israel.”
“Basically, the person has to give all their money, all of their possessions. Or if you don’t have any money in the bank: sell your things, your jewelry, your clothes, your shoes. Put it in an envelope and give it to the church, and the pastors will go to Israel and, supposedly, they’ll pray for you on the mountains,” says Velasquez.
Velasquez remembers one Campaign of Israel when the Bishop fell short of his fundraising goal and directed the pastor to hold another service.
“He shut off the lights and said, ‘whatever you have left, bring it.’ I saw members opening their purses and pennies were coming out. I was so angry that day, I said, ‘I can’t do this any more. This is not right,’” says Velasquez.
Soon after, he left the church and didn’t look back.
Velasquez’ stories couldn’t be independently verified, but they are in line with what other former members have told the media.
I tried to get a response from church leaders, but it wasn’t easy. Church officials rarely make comments to the press. I made nine attempts to get an interview at several branches of the church in New York, without success. I also contacted a press officer at church headquarters in Brazil, but my request went nowhere.
But on a former website, the Iglesia Universal addressed some concerns about money on a page titled “Controversial Issues.” It wrote: “Members and visitors who contribute are moved to do so because of God’s promises to those who give…if this promise of God was proven fruitless, all givers would have then discontinued and the Church wouldn’t exist today.”
In other words, if it didn’t work, why would people keep giving?
I put that question to several current members. Candida Vargas, a Queens parishioner originally from the Dominican Republic, says she doesn’t mind the way the church asks for money.
“No, I feel good about it,” says Vargas. “Because when I give something to God… I might have nothing, and after I give my offering, a week later, I have double that amount. I don’t know how it happens.”
Another member, Kris De Jesus, has been attending the Iglesia Universal for one year. He says the church cured his insomnia, as well as his mother’s Alzheimer’s.
“My economic situation hasn’t changed yet, but I know God is working on it little by little,” days De Jesus.
Of the dozen members I spoke to, nearly every person told me their wallets were happier since they joined the church. But few were able to offer specific examples of financial miracles. Ex-pastor Victor Velasquez thinks people are deceiving themselves.
“Nobody in this church’s life changes. It doesn’t. It’s a lie. People don’t understand that to have success, you have to work hard. You have to get an education. You have to save money. You have to invest. But the church doesn’t teach those things. They teach that giving your money to them is what brings blessings,” says Velasquez.
There are some documented cases in the US of church members going broke from making outsize donations.
In 2000, a woman in Brooklyn filed for bankruptcy after giving almost $80,000 to the church over three years. In one year alone, she donated almost three-quarters of her income.
One couple in Houston reportedly lost everything: $60,000 in savings, their cleaning business, their home and car. They spoke about it to the media and filed a complaint with the Texas Attorney General in 1999.
The church responded by suing the couple for slander for a million dollars. In the end, Texas decided there were no legal grounds to go after the church, since the donations were voluntary. The church eventually dropped its charges against the couple.
Still, researcher Tony Lin says most prosperity gospel church-goers don’t fall into such extremes.
“They know that they’re not going to magically receive money,” says Lin. “But they’re in pursuit of the hope. The hope that their children will do better than they did. They want the hope, that’s all they want. And in these churches, they are told they can have that hope.”
Everyone wants hope. The question is, at prosperity churches like the Iglesia Universal, can everyone afford it?
Marlon Bishop is a radio producer, writer, and reporter based in New York. His work is focused on music, Latin America, New York City and the arts, and has appeared in several public radio outlets such as WNYC News,Studio 360, The World and NPR News. He is an Associate Producer at Afropop Worldwide and a staff writer forMTV Iggy.