Brazilian Preachers Amass Their
Wealth & Followers by the Millions
They hold court to thousands every week, performing original songs in elaborated sets, just like any pop star. They routinely land on Forbes’s wealthiest lists, while their core audience is part of Brazil’s lowest income bracket. They were never known for civil liberties, though.
But despite protests, an evangelical preacher became the head of a rights commission at Brazil’s lower house. Since the 1970s, so-called messianic cults have thrived in the country. But no one expected these new multimillionaires to get so much political power so fast.
The issue has a particular tenor to it, since the rise of charismatic religions coincided with a decline of Catholicism in Brazil, and even a modest increase in the number of those who do not identify with any denomination. Specially now that a Brazilian bishop is considered a pope contender.
He’s a long shot, of course, even if Brazil has the biggest number of Catholics in the world. The problem is, Dom Odilio Scherer may be in tune with the Vatican, but is out of step with the majority, the only segment of the church capable of competing with the rise of the evangelicals.
Rome apparently turns its nose at Padre Marcelo Rossi, for example, a former personal trainer who became one of the wealthiest and most popular Catholic priests in Brazil, and who regularly sings and performs dance routines in front of 25,000 worshipers at his megachurch in São Paulo.
Like him, there are few others who also belt out songs, while ‘donning cowboy hats and crooning country tunes at Mass,’ and even publish best-selling advice books ‘emblazoned with heartthrob photographs on the cover,’ according to Simon Romero, who recently wrote about it for NYTimes.
But in the case of Pentecostal Bishop Edir Macedo, the phenomenon is not restricted to Brazil. Last month, some 200 people camped outside a trendy bookstore in Soho, New York, for a chance to buy his autobiography. They were part of the over 60,000 of his estimated five million followers worldwide.
BLESS YOU & YOUR PIN #
The influence and power evangelicals enjoy in Brazil has been helped by their ownership of several media vehicles and political careers. That’s the case of Assembly of God priest Marco Feliciano, for example, who’s been elected the lower house’s Human Rights and Minorities Commission president.
The closed-door vote caused a widespread uproar and rallies by activists for sex rights for minorities, because he’s an avowed anti-homosexual rights, and in many of his preachings he lashes out against LGBT groups. He also regularly posts racist-tinged diatribes on Twitter for his many followers.
What tickles many Brazilians, though, is that Feliciano openly solicits donations from his followers, who’re mostly poor and illiterate. In a widely publicized video, he’s seen demanding donations, from a thousand-real checks to motorcycles. At one point, he even asks a bank card-donor to disclose the pin number, or ‘god won’t give you what you want.’
Again, such peddling of the poor is not exclusive of messianic cults, since the practice has been honed by the Catholic church throughout most of its existence, and Rossi and others are master at it. But perhaps it’s the way it’s done and to whom what really revolt those with a minimal conscience.
THE POOR & THE FORBES LIST
The average annual income in Brazil is around $29,000, according to government data. But after a succession of years of increased growth, which led it to become the world’s sixth largest economy, GDP has slowed down dramatically last year, according to the central bank, forcing analysts to revised down their 2013 forecasts to 3.09 percent.
That’s enough to keep a huge percentage of Brazilians living well under that average salary level. They are likely to be followers of Brazil’s five wealthiest priests, in a list compiled by Forbes. These rich preachers may have come from the same class as the worshipers, but are evidently much smarter than them.
Macedo, the founder of Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, leads the list with an estimated personal wealth of $950 million. He’s published 10 best-sellers, but his biggest asset is Rede Record, Brazil’s second biggest TV network. He also controls radio stations and newspapers, music businesses, and a variety of other assets, including U.S.-based temples.
What is a disgruntled priest to do, when he finds himself fired from the church he belonged? Founds his own cult, of course. That’s what Valdemiro Santiago did, after being kicked out by Macedo. He hit the jackpot when he founded the World Church of the Power of God, which has some 900 thousand followers and 4,000 temples: his fortune is estimated at $220 million.
Silas Malafaia, an ally of Feliciano at Assembly of God, has about $150 million in the bank. He’s also a star of viral videos, where he can be seen peddling the faithful to donate ‘one thousand reais’ minimum for the ‘Club of a Million Souls’ scheme, so to raise enough to create a TV network. Premium for generous donors: ‘a book.’
Singer RR Soares learned from the best in the business: a familiar face on Brazilian TV, he too founded his own International Church of the Grace of God. At last count, that has gotten him some $125 million. And Apostolic Church Reborn in Christ’s founders, Estevam Hernandes Filho e wife Sonia, sit atop $65 million, which comes from over a thousand temples in Brazil and Florida.
THE TENTH & THE 65-ROOM MANSION
Most of the growth of Messianism in Brazil can be attributed to similar reasons behind the rise of ultra-fundamentalism among the U.S.’s own faithful: poverty, illiteracy, social isolation, and plain manipulation by megachurches offering a brand of inflamed religiosity suitable to those left out of the American dream.
But apart from busy Catholic officials, and concerned anthropologists, the matter is mainly restricted to those who either follow those cults, or couldn’t care less about them. That still leaves a small percentage of those who, halfway through their spiritual experience, begin to realize that they’ve been taken.
To prove that such rare cases do exist, the Brazilian paper Extra reported the case of an unidentified woman who won a lawsuit against the Universal Church for the return of what’s called the dizimo, a mandate of sorts that pressures worshipers to donate a tenth of everything they earn.
According to her claim, she was paid the equivalent to $38,000 for a job in 2003, and was somehow ‘convinced’ by a priest to give it to the church. When the man skipped town with her money, she found herself out in the cold, fighting the institution’s professional and highly skilled team of legal advisers, to get it back.
Against all odds, she won. A judge in Brasilia finally determined, almost seven years later, that she was owed the amount, plus penalty fees of 1% for each month that accrued since her loss. The church appealed but lost again, in a nice coda for a post that makes us all incredibly depressed.
That’s because only the imported marble, used in one of Macedo’s mansions, a 35-room, four-store, 18-suite sprawling estate in Campos do Jordão, São Paulo, cost over three times as much. The lucky bishop already had another house in that city, which at four thousand square meters, is no bungalow. Or Jesus’s lowly manger, if you want to get specific.