Brazilian evangelist has big plans for U.S.

NEW YORK — The apostle bellowed in Portuguese to a packed crowd in a rented Astoria, Queens, church. “Get out, … Continued

NEW YORK — The apostle bellowed in Portuguese to a packed crowd in a rented Astoria, Queens, church.

“Get out, spirit of death. Now you are burnt, now you are plucked out by my God!”

A blood-curdling shriek rose from one of the front pews, but Apostle Valdemiro Santiago, founder of the Worldwide Church of God’s Power, didn’t flinch.

“Don’t be afraid, church, by these screams,” Santiago reassured the crowd. “They are the evil spirits being defeated.”

Fourteen years after he started out in the countryside outside Sao Paulo, Santiago sits at the helm of a booming Pentecostal church in Brazil, the world’s fastest-growing evangelical country. He now leads 4,000 churches, including 10 in the United States, where fiery worship and exorcisms form part of the appeal.

Like many missionary churches, the Worldwide Church plans to proselytize and attract the local Brazilian diaspora and America’s growing Hispanic population and non-immigrant whites, as well.

“These Pentecostal reverse-mission churches are going to realize, when white faces start walking in the door, that they’ve got the potential for growth but that they need to fine-tune their message,” said Nick Street, senior writer with the Center for Religion & Civic Culture at the University of Southern California who’s studied the reverse-migration trend in Nigeria, India, and Brazil.

They will also need to become more “seeker-friendly” at a time when Protestants no longer represent a majority of the population. Instead of pandering to people’s pocketbooks and egos with the same old prosperity gospel, the Worldwide Church will need its own hook.

Despite Santiago’s vast personal wealth, the movement’s relative poverty and simplicity may be its greatest asset, Street said.

“They won’t have movie nights or giant facilities with PowerPoint presentations,” he said. “The main thing they offer is this fiery worship of the Holy Spirit.”

It may be just what the spiritual doctor ordered for many of America’s newly unaffiliated and disenchanted believers.

The Worldwide Church appears on 25 million Brazilian television sets, with up to 22 hours of daily programming. But its growing network will face stiff competition from better-established Pentecostal churches catering to America’s Spanish-speaking and African-American communities, argues Baylor University religion scholar Paul Freston, who notes that most Brazilian churches’ rhetoric of inclusion rarely matches their reality.

“I find it very hard to imagine that Valdemiro is going to manage to break the mold,” Freston said.

Yet the Worldwide Church of God’s Power stands out as the only successful breakaway from the larger Universal Church of the Kingdom of God — headed by Santiago’s former mentor, Bishop Edir Macedo, who has since accused Santiago of working for the devil.

Santiago’s charisma and man-of-the-people mystique has allowed the movement to grow, said Cecilia Loreto Mariz, a researcher with the Center for the Study of Latin American Pentecostalism.

Jovial, boisterous, irreverent and ever mindful of his teenage years living on the streets as a bricklayer, Santiago likes to cast himself as a backwoodsman (with a special fondness for cowboy hats), whose church is an extension of that ruggedness. Speaking to Brazil’s largest news daily, the Folha de Sao Paulo last year, he admitted that his “people do not search for sophistication, luxury, glamour, or a church fashioned of marble or gold.”

They search for small miracles to ease their troubles, such as when the apostle relieved an Orlando, Fla., man’s rheumatic pains and alleviated another’s reliance on a walker. These healings are why people lined up an hour before the Astoria service to present themselves for an apostolic laying on of hands.

“You who were in pain,” Santiago commanded, “check again.” The crowd murmured in amazement.

The apostle waded among his massed followers, mopping his sweaty brow with handkerchiefs that he threw into the sea of straining hands. Three camera crews broadcast everything back to crowded churches in Brazil.

Despite reports in the Brazilian press of the apostle’s $3 million mansion, his private jet and helicopter, and his recent fine for illegally endorsing a political candidate, the crowds still come. An estimated 3 million showed up in Sao Paulo in January 2012 to commemorate Santiago’s newly completed 150,000-seat temple.

The largest evangelical megachurch in the United States, by comparison, is Joel Osteen’s 50,000-member Lakewood Church in Houston — situated just 12 miles from a brand-new branch of Santiago’s Worldwide Church of God’s Power.

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Religion News Service LLC.

  • SODDI

    Don’t we have enough American charlatans?

Read More Articles

Screenshot 2014-04-23 11.40.54
Atheists Bad, Christians Good: A Review of “God’s Not Dead”

A smug Christian movie about smug atheists leads to an inevitable happy ending.

shutterstock_134310734
Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

Valle Header Art
My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

shutterstock_188545496
Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

5783999789_9d06e5d7df_b
The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

concert
Why I Want to Be Culturally Evangelical

I’ve lost my faith. Do I have to lose my heritage, too?

shutterstock_37148347
What Is a Saint?

How the diversity of saintly lives reveals multiple paths toward God.

987_00
An Ayatollah’s Gift to Baha’is, Iran’s Largest Religious Minority

An ayatollah offers a beautiful symbolic gesture against a backdrop of violent persecution.

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

shutterstock_188022491
Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

Pile_of_trash_2
Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

shutterstock_178468880
Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

sunset-hair
From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

colbert
Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

emptytomb
God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.