At first glance, the congregation gathered in a warehouse in Doral, Fla., seems like a typical Hispanic evangelical group. There's the 10-piece band, the singing and swaying, the whooping and hollering. But look a little more closely. There's not a cross in sight. The lectern is emblazoned with a near replica of the U.S. presidential seal, except that it reads in Spanish, government of god on earth. Off to the side stand three burly guys in dark suits with Secret Service-style earpieces. When a door by the stage opens, the guards leap into action. They surround the man with slicked-back hair who emerges and escort him to his seat. When the crowd spots him, it goes wild. People chant, "Lord! Lord! Lord!" It quickly becomes clear that they're referring to him. "It's Jesus Christ himself!" a preacher onstage announces. "Let's welcome Jesus Christ Man!"
In the rapturous eyes of his flock, Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda is, in fact, the second coming of Christ. As the head of the Growing in Grace International Ministry, he presides over a sprawling organization that includes more than 300 congregations in two dozen countries, from Argentina to Australia. He counts more than 100,000 followers and claims to reach millions more through a 24-hour TV channel, a radio show and several Web sites. He is supported by the generosity of his devotees, who have launched some 450 businesses to pour cash into Growing in Grace's coffers. Though de Jesus' followers worship him, others denounce him as a charlatan. Everyone, however, agrees on one thing: his teachings are incendiary.
A native of Puerto Rico, de Jesus, 60, spent his youth drifting from the Roman Catholics to the Pentecostals to the Baptists. Then one night in 1973, he says, he awoke to a vision of two hulking men at his bedside who announced the arrival of the Lord, who, says de Jesus, "came to me and integrated with me." In the early years after founding Growing in Grace in Miami in 1986, de Jesus didn't claim to be Christ. Instead, he worked as a pastor spreading his doctrine: that under a new covenant with God, there is no sin and no Satan, and people are predestined to be saved. But as his following expanded, his claims did, too. In 1998, de Jesus avowed that he was the reincarnation of the Apostle Paul. Two years ago at Growing in Grace's world convention in Venezuela, he declared himself Christ. And just last week, he called himself the Antichrist and revealed a "666" tattooed on his forearm. His explanation: that, as the second coming of Christ, he rejects the continued worship of Jesus of Nazareth.
All members of Growing in Grace are expected to tithe--which, along with offerings, yielded $1.4 million for headquarters last year. One of the first orders of business at every service is the collection of money (credit cards accepted). Those who have pledged their businesses to de Jesus donate much more. Alvaro Albarracín, a savvy, successful businessman given the title Entrepreneur of Entrepreneurs by de Jesus, is an example. Over the course of Albarracín's 14 years in the church, he estimates that he's given roughly $2.5 million. Such funds help underwrite a lavish lifestyle for de Jesus, including diamond-encrusted gold rings and fancy cars. But most of the money goes to his broadcast operation.
Some observers call Growing in Grace a cult. De Jesus exerts total authority over the ministry. As a result, many have defected over the years, including Albarracín's mother, Regina, who initially turned her son on to the church. "They brainwash you," she says. Because of their disagreement, Regina and her son haven't spoken in years (she now attends an evangelical church). "This is my only family," Alvaro says of Growing in Grace. Such submission concerns Daniel Alvarez, a religious-studies instructor at Florida International University. "I hope [de Jesus] doesn't metamorphose into Jim Jones," he says, referring to the cult leader who led his followers to mass suicide in Guyana. "He has that kind of control over people." (De Jesus responds that congregants are free to come and go as they please.)
Over the past year, de Jesus has encouraged his followers to protest the alleged lies of other churches. In response, supporters have picketed Catholic congregations and burned religious materials, including crucifixes. "Our purpose is to open up people's minds," says de Jesus' right-hand man, Carlos Cestero, who says that the group rejects violence. Jesus wouldn't have it any other way--the question is whether de Jesus feels the same.