Pentecostal Church Lures Latin Americans Away From Catholicism

Sao Paulo, Brazil - Pentecostal ministers in Latin America are luring increasing numbers of Roman Catholics away from their faith with modern marketing tactics, including caps and logo T-shirts. The range of religious "services" on offer even extends to exorcisms.

It's Sunday night in Perdizes, a well-heeled section of São Paulo. Hundreds of teenagers are flocking to a service in a former movie theater. The boys are decked out in surfer gear; the girls wear heavy makeup and have squeezed into skimpy crop tops and skintight jeans. Most have a Bible in tow.

A singer in body-hugging black leather pants pumps up the audience with reggae rhythms. The young people tap their feet to the beat. Then the house lights dim, creating the perfect ambiance for a makeout session. Suddenly, the spotlights blaze on. The audience applauds and whistles, as if revving up for a rock concert. Beams of light converge on a short man in jeans: Pastor Rinaldo Pereira.

The 34-year-old preacher throws his arms in the air as he welcomes his congregation and steps behind his altar, a surfboard on trestles. Behind his back, a laptop projects saccharine images of mountain landscapes and sunsets onto the wall. "God wants to see you smile!" the minister bellows into the jammed hall. The towering loudspeakers next to the altar throb. "Jesus! Jesus!" the audience chants.

Welcome to Church Bola de Neve: the "Snowball Church" is one of hundreds of Protestant Pentecostal communities in São Paulo. Some 5,000 faithful attend the service their Pastor "Rina" presides over every Sunday. Most of his congregants are under 30. While their peers are hanging out in shopping malls or pizzerias, the teenagers of Perdizes are in church. "Pastor Rina is hip!" shouts a girl at the entrance.

A former Baptist preacher, Rina took over the hall in Perdizes three years ago, wooing teens with marketing methods he copied from the private sector, and selling fashionable T-shirts and caps sporting his church's logo. On the weekend, he likes to ride the surf off São Paulo. A wily angler of souls, he spent six years learning his trade -- trawling consumer waters in Nestlé's marketing department.

Rina was moved to establish a Protestant Pentecostal community by a "spiritual experience," he says. He held his first service in a surfing supply store for a group of friends. "My generation has a strong yearning for spirituality that the Catholic Church can't satisfy," he explains. "Religion was considered square. So we had to come up with something new."

The Snowball Church targets the young. There is no dress code; the atmosphere is relaxed and informal. "God doesn't care about appearances," says Rina, who sees himself as an entertainer in the service of the Lord. His sermons are punctuated by jokes, and he often hauls believers onstage for impromptu performances. First-rate rock musicians provide the accompaniment. So far the concept has paid off: Rina's church chain now operates 26 branches around the country, including some near Brazil's most beautiful beaches.

The surfing pastor represents a new generation of Protestant preachers. Unlike traditional Pentecostal communities, the focus isn't on the collection plate. Rina raises money selling surf wear -- as well as CDs and DVDs featuring the services' music programs. The Snowball Church is both a religious wellness center and a multimedia temple, catering not to the poor, but to middle-class kids with deep pockets. Sales of Pastor Rina's CDs typically skyrocket to several hundred thousand.

New churches hoping to ride Rina's wave of success are now mushrooming across Brazil; in São Paulo alone, statistics show that new evangelical churches are founded at the rate of one a day. Churches cater to all tastes and budgets: Some offer miracle healings and exorcisms; some woo followers with pop music; others specialize in telemarketing. Like at a salad bar, believers can sample morsels from the spiritual smorgasbord. If they don't like one product, they simply try another.

The Catholic Church has been hit hardest. Hordes of believers from the world's largest Catholic country are defecting to the evangelicals. The archbishop of São Paulo, Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, estimates that the Catholic churches have lost one-third of their members over the past 40 years. Seven out of 10 former Catholics are seeking salvation in a Protestant community.

Roughly 18 percent of Brazilians belong to Protestant churches, and half of all believers in many major cities are now Protestants. "A holy war for people's souls is raging in Brazil," says Regina Novaes, an anthropologist and religious expert. "The Catholic Church has lost touch with the masses."

Whereas the Pentecostal churches -- "a tree with many branches" (Novaes) -- cultivate a direct relationship with God, the Catholics go through an intermediary, the priest. "The Catholics don't provide quick answers to people's needs. The Protestants are more dynamic," Novaes says.

The trend is running rife throughout Latin America, once a Third World bulwark of Roman Catholicism. From Mexico to Argentina, the Church is in retreat. In just a few years, over half the populations of Guatemala and El Salvador are expected to be Protestant.

Rap-metal rhythms resound from a church hall with a corrugated iron roof in the barrio Villa Reconciliación, an impoverished district in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua. A young man is standing at the keyboards, rapping staccato about his brother's death. A long-sleeved shirt hides his tattoos.

Geovany Rodríguez's body is a mass of martial tattoos and scars from knife wounds. The head of a drooling dog on the 29-year-old's bicep testifies to his membership in Los Perros. "The Dogs" -- some 60 teens and young men -- have established a reign of terror in the slums of the Nicaraguan capital. Until six years ago, Geovany was one of the gang's leaders.

He smoked marijuana and snorted cocaine, financing his drug habit and weapons arsenal by robbing buses and stores. He was arrested four times and spent several years in prison. His brother was shot dead by a rival gang, allegedly to avenge the murder of one of its members.

Geovany says he has never killed anyone, but he avoids eye contact as he says it. He's uncomfortable talking about his past. "My life was at a dead end," he says. "I felt empty inside." A preacher from the Pentecostal community Luz del Mundo ("Light of the World") approached the young gangster on the street, took him to a church service and let him sing at the keyboards. Geovany says he sensed a "supernatural power" at that moment.

Now he is a church regular. The preachers have taken him under their wing, employing him to do odd jobs and helping him to develop his musical ability. He has kicked drugs and booze.

During the service, he plays religious rap music. The lyrics describe his conversion to a creyente, as the born-again Christians are called. One day he hopes to become a professional musician.

Like all Pentecostal communities, Luz del Mundo exercises strict control over its members. Six times a week, Pastor Wilmer Espinosa calls the youths to church for services. Whoever doesn't show up gets hunted down at home. "The community exerts more pressure on the individual than the Catholic Church does," says Novaes. People going through personal crises can count on the support system in their congregations.

Luz del Mundo is one of Latin America's largest Pentecostal communities. It is headquartered in Venezuela, but has branches across the entire region. Its leader, Jaime Banks Puertas, a former officer in Venezuela's armed forces, operates radio stations and produces TV shows. He also deploys the Internet as a missionizing tool.

The days of US-led Latin American Pentecostal churches are gone; the influence of fundamentalist born-again Christians has waned. Today's missionaries hail from Brazil, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.

The Brazilians, in particular, currently dominate the Pentecostal market. The Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus ("Universal Church of the Kingdom of God") under the controversial "Bishop" Edir Macedo, and the evangelical poor people's church Assembléia de Deus ("Community of God") maintain branches in Lisbon, London, Berlin and Moscow. In Latin America, Africa and eastern Europe, tens of thousands flock to church services held by Brazilian preachers. Edir Macedo effortlessly filled the Maracanã soccer stadium in Rio de Janeiro with 200,000 followers.

Macedo is locked in a bitter struggle with his arch-rival, Assembléia de Deus, Brazil's largest Pentecostal community. Both churches live off the dízimo, or tithe system, in which pastors twist arms after each culto, pressuring parishioners to cough up cash.

The pastor of Assembléia de Deus brandishes the collection plate during the service in Botafogo, a district of Rio: "If you're able, give 50 reals (€19)!" Helpers rove through the pews, gathering donations. "If you don't have 50 reals, give 20 or 30, or 10 or five!" Nobody wants to look stingy; even the most destitute chip in a real or two.

After the service, Macedo races to his car and on to the next branch. A pastor's job pays well: A recent want ad offered 3,500 reals (€1,300) per month, plus a "company" car. In Brazil, churches are granted special tax exemptions -- raising the incentive for prospective preachers.

Once a lottery ticket salesman in Rio, Macedo is now a multimillionaire with assets including villas in the United States, a yacht and a private plane. His gargantuan churches seat tens of thousands of believers, and their gaudy mishmash of marble and glass has come to dominate the architectural landscape of suburban Brazil.

The faithful don't object to the cupidity of their leaders: wealth in itself is not considered sinful, but rather desirable. "In the Pentecostal communities, anyone can become a pastor," says Novaes. "For most people, a nice car is a status symbol."

In the late 1980s, a highly publicized study by US anthropologist Sheldon Annis concluded that Protestant communities are commercially more successful than their Catholic counterparts. Annis had compared the productivity of the weaving operations in two Indio villages in Guatemala. His findings demonstrated that, compared to the Catholics, the Pentecostals adopted modern production techniques more quickly, were more efficient and more concerned with getting ahead.

"Despite their frequent right-wing political identification today," Annis wrote, "in at least one sense the early Protestant missionaries were grassroots revolutionaries. ... In their eyes, the Church, alcohol, and debt were the instruments of enslavement -- and they, the missionaries, were the liberators."

Pentecostal communities are therefore perceived as churches for social climbers. Instead of promising a better life in paradise, they preach about wealth in the here and now. And offer practical assistance in the battle against alcohol and drugs.

Small wonder, then, that they have been magnets for the poor. The favela Vigário Geral is one of the most dangerous slums in Rio, but boasts 14 Pentecostal communities - and only one Catholic Church. In the city's overcrowded prisons, which are largely controlled by the drug rings, Protestant preachers have turned thousands of criminals into born-again Christians. Numerous gangster bosses and hit men have become men of God. In Rio's favelas, Pentecostal churches and the cocaine mafia co-exist in a state of cozy symbiosis.

It's Friday evening in São João de Meriti, a poor suburb of Rio. A few hundred faithful, among them former drug lords, murderers and thieves, have gathered in the Pentecostal church, Assembléia de Deus dos Últimos Dias. The men are wearing suits and ties; all the women have donned skirts; Pastor Marcos Pereira does not allow them to wear slacks to the service.

Pereira, a beefy man in his mid-40s with a penetrating gaze, is the best-known and most controversial soul-saver in Rio. And he is considered a legend in the favelas: "I have rescued hundreds of boys from torture and death," he boasts. Residents often call him to mediate in disputes between rival drug gangs. Even the toughest fall into line whenever the pastor shows up.

Pereira's services are true spectacles, mega-events showcasing miraculous acts of healing and exorcism. One after another, the members of his flock fall into a trance. The pastor looks his subjects briefly in the eyes, presses his hand to their forehead, and the "possessed" then sink to the floor. "Vanish, demon!" Pereira roars as he prances around the wincing, moaning victims like a whirling dervish. Snapping his fingers, he brings them out of their trance after a few minutes. Even strangers' legs turn to jelly when Pereira gives them his look. The man has hypnotic powers.

Before the pastor discovered his "spiritual vocation," he waited tables in Copacabana. "I drank and went whoring," Pereira says. "My life was a mess." His "spiritual enlightenment" occurred on a bus; shortly afterward he joined an evangelical church. Word of his talents as a hypnotist soon spread. Today his services attract even politicians and celebrities.

Pereira's efforts have earned him countless "donations," and he has amassed a huge fortune. Now the miracle minister is looking to expand abroad. He recently traveled to Europe and has also made inroads in the United States. "A lot of work awaits me in the First World," he says with a rather un-Christian wink. "After all, there are demons everywhere."