'Faithful tithers, give your heart to Jesus': Brazil's evangelical empire prospers amid financial gloom

The whole blessed thing is a sight to behold.

The exorcism. The charismatic Brazilian preacher. The sea of believers lifting up roses and speaking in tongues. There are tears, gasps, demon-induced spasms and testimonials in Portuguese about miracle cures.

And there are solicitations for money. Lots and lots of solicitations for money.

Just another Friday evening service at Sao Paulo's $275-million Temple of Solomon.

Operated by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a movement that boasts nearly nine million members across more than 100 countries, including Canada, the temple is the church's headquarters. It devours a city block and is a vastly ostentatious house of worship in Brazil's booming "prosperity theology" movement — a gospel evangelizing material wealth rewarded through faith.

"Who in this place is tired of living a limited lifestyle?" Bishop Carlos Cucato asks his followers.

As dozens of hands reach high, he beseeches them: "Faithful tithers, give your heart to Jesus."

Cash donations are welcome; debit is accepted, too. Junior pastors in crisp black suits stand at the ready with hand-held credit card machines. The faithful line up to enter their PINs, dropping receipts into large sacks.

Cucato, dark-haired with a pasty complexion and big teeth, is a compelling apostle of affluence. In the temple, where attendees are wanded by security and asked to spit out gum, nearly every one of the 9,549 red leather seats is occupied. Recording devices are banned inside.

Game of Thrones theme music

Even before Cucato faces off with Lucifer during the night's main event, the exorcism, it's a spectacular show.

Visitors enter the auditorium to the theme of HBO's Game of Thrones thundering over a sound system. Ushers in white tunics stand in the aisles, their arms outstretched like prize presenters on a game show.

The hall, flanked on each side by giant decorative menorahs, opens to a stage with a replica Ark of the Covenant. Twin LCD screens show flyover footage of cascading waterfalls and rainbows.

As Catholicism loses ground to evangelical competition in its largest country, Brazil's economic malaise has given Christians here more reason to pray. Many downtrodden have sought spiritual answers to their earthly "health and wealth" afflictions.

In 1970, nearly all Brazilians (92 per cent) identified as Roman Catholic. By the 2010 census, that number fell to 65 per cent, with many looking to Pentecostal churches like the Universal Church and Deus É Amor (God is Love).

The largest denomination, the Sao Paulo-based Assembleias de Deus (Assembly of God), boasts 22.5 million followers in Brazil. Joao Baptista Costa Lopes, a Bible salesman along the Christian shopping strip at Conde de Sarzedas Street, is among the assembly's faithful.

"I give [$20] every worship. I go three times a week," says Lopes, surrounded by colourful vials of holy oil and Bibles. "The evangelicals are saying the truth. People need a place of refuge, and that is in the word. And people can only find the true word in the evangelical church, not the Catholic Church, which adores idols and statues."

Church and politics

When the temple project was announced, the Universal Church's controversial "Brazillionaire" founder Bishop Edir Macedo made a point of saying it would be almost twice the height of Rio de Janeiro's 38-metre-tall Christ the Redeemer statue, the ultimate symbol of Catholicism's dominance here.

At 55 metres tall, the temple is symbolic of the ascendence of what Luiz Felipe Pondé calls the neo-Pentecostal movement in Brazil, a rise that's on track to eclipse Catholicism in the next 15 years.

Pondé, a University of Sao Paulo philosophy of religion professor, traces the rise of evangelical Protestantism in Brazil to the Catholic Church's cozy relationships with political parties in the '70s and sermons in Latin America that waxed too political.

Political speeches were not what churchgoers sought when they were struggling with health problems or finances at home, Pondé says, and many were enticed by the Pentecostal promise of magical healing.

"This neo-Pentecostal movement is very emotional," Pondé says. "The belief is if you do what God wants, if you take the baptism and the holy spirit, you're going to get rich."

Protection from evil

Temple of Solomon attendees select roses to represent their struggles: A red rose denotes family and love life troubles, yellow for emotional problems, white for financial woes. When Cucato takes the stage, the crowd stands. Nearly all the roses in the room are yellow or white.

"You say, 'Bishop, I am a good person. I help others. I do many good things,' " he tells his audience. "But this is not enough to protect you from evil."

Cucato asks attendees to envision a day when they won't have to choose between paying their electricity bills or their hydro bills and to dream of paying off their cars in cash. Several times, he references hardships wrought by "a crise," the economic crisis.

The tithe is nothing new. But in Brazil's Pentecostal denominations, churchgoers are expected to donate 10 per cent of their earnings — not an insignificant amount in a country where, according to the government's statistics from 2010, 16.2 million people (8.5 per cent of the population) live on less than the equivalent of about $28 Cdn a month.

The costs of faith inspired a joke about how to tithe when one belongs to the Universal Church, says Brazil evangelicals expert Andrew Chesnut.

"The joke goes that the church made an innovation in tithing, and now you tithe 30 per cent," says Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. "That's 10 per cent for the Father, 10 per cent for the Son and 10 per cent for the Holy Ghost."

The Universal Church, according to a local news website, accepts the equivalent of $566 million Cdn per year in tithes, but has been accused of misusing funds.

Macedo, the founder, was charged in 2009 with fraud and money laundering involving the siphoning off of donations through offshore accounts into his own pockets and those of other church officials. According to news reports, the case was thrown out on a technicality in 2010.

He has denied all criminal allegations against him in Brazil.

Macedo, who has a personal wealth estimated at more than $1 billion, according to the Harvard Divinity School's Religious Literacy Project, also owns Brazil's second-largest TV network, Record.

In a statement, the Universal Church says the tithe is not the creation of the church, and that doubts about miracles would be put to rest by "the thousands of people attending the services of Universal, who know the answer."

The written response adds: "No one is obliged to believe, but all must respect the right and freedom of those who believe."

It's easy to play skeptic and point to "exploitative elements" of this brand of prosperity theology, Chesnut says, but followers have credited their churchgoing for putting them on a better path. To them, that's proof of Jesus in their lives.

"If heads of household in poorer families are able to stop their hard drinking, gambling, spending on vice," he says, "then to be giving a certain percentage of their income to a church that facilitated that is understandable."

'Who feels better?'

After Cucato wraps his sermon and performs an exorcism on a woman growling and hissing that Lucifer destroyed her marriage, the house lights go up. A soothing piano soundtrack fills the room.

"Who feels better?" the bishop asks. More hands raise.

Across the street from the temple, a mother buying a snack from a street vendor says her son is enrolled in the evangelical school at the complex. The service has lightened her burdens.

"I like it very much. We feel at peace inside of there," she says, before walking off with a sprig of white roses in her hand.