Wednesday, March 25, 2009

New Latino Church Taking Over the Heights?

July 2007

“Salvo siempre salvo,” [saved always saved] shouts Moises Martinez, 34, as he stands on the corner of 207th and Broadway holding up a poster with a white poster with a logo in the center similar to that of a government seal.

In a community such as Inwood it’s quite common to encounter members of Catholic churches handing out prayers as people walk by. Martinez however, hands out pamphlets with a picture of a man wearing a suit. As he extends his arm to hand out the information he bears the number 666, considered by many the mark of the devil, on his right arm. The man on the cover of the pamphlet is Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda; he is Martinez’s leader and is praised for being both Christ and the anti-Christ.

“We’re not pastors or a religion, we collaborate directly with Jesus, we’re a way of life,” said Martinez. “Religion confuses people and churches tell lies; that’s why Catholics and all the other religions are heading in the wrong path.”

In communities mostly populated by Dominican Catholics, such as Washington Heights and Inwood, members of Growing In Grace face a lot of rejection. For example, Miranda was recently banned from speaking in Dominican Republic and still these members, who are mostly former Catholics, proclaim that they are thriving as people continue to convert. They remain positive about their membership increasing and seem nonchalant about negative responses from Catholics.

Catholics disagree with Growing In Grace’s idea of expansion and conquering. Some referred to the organization as a cult and say that it poses no threat to the Catholic faith.

It was in Florida that the movement began in 1991. Miranda proclaimed that he represents the second coming of Jesus. That year Martinez visited Miami, where he decided that after 18 years of being a Baptist it was time for a change. Today, Growing In Grace has spread to other countries and cities, including the establishment of an education center in Inwood where they practice what they say is a science. It was founded in 2004 by Martinez who is a Coca-Cola truck driver. “We started with only six members and now have 40 just from Manhattan; we also have a lot of members from Queens and we often meet in Corona,” said Martinez.

Each Wednesday members watch a live broadcast from Miami. They have the option of gathering at their local education center where a projector displays the live web cast service, including a weekly message from Miranda, or they can watch it form their homes.

Martinez says that people, especially Catholics, have reformed because they’ve had an awakening and decided to make the right change in their lives. “We believe that there is no sin; sin was eliminated at Jesus’ crucifixion and we were reminded of this in 1973 when the Apostle [Miranda] received a revelation from God instructing him to tell the world that there is no sin and that people have been deceived.”

And some members seem to have a sense of relief after their conversion to Growing in Grace. Alonzo Castillo of Corona, 55 said, “Catholics pass on their beliefs from generation to generation and it’s turned into something hereditary, not real.” His point of view of the Catholic Church began to change after listening to Miranda. He began to research several pieces of literature that questioned Catholicism. He then concluded there was no point in following the sacraments embedded in Catholicism because there is no sin; therefore there is no need for Baptism or Communion.

Miranda’s followers say that they are blessed and saved, unlike those who refuse to listen and reject their beliefs. They refer to those people as “Satan’s children.” Members say they expect adversity especially amongst Latin communities. And even as some members have lost their jobs after employers became terrified when seeing “666” tattoos, their loyalty is placed first.

“Our spirit tells us that this is what we should follow, when I first heard him [Miranda] I new instantly that he is the Lord; the Lord needed a body and flesh to carry his word,” said Gladys Alvarez of Corona, 53. Most of Alvarez’s family has decided to convert, although several still remain part of the Catholic faith. “They don’t agree now, but soon they will, for those who haven’t it’s just too bad for them, they’ll never be saved.”

Catholic residents of Washington Heights on the other hand say that Growing In Grace poses no threat to their community. “It’s a venue, an easy way out of the Catholic Church’s persecutions. This notion of no sin is ideal to them because they don’t have to repent for anything,” said Maria Minaya, 45, director of religion education at Incarnation School in Washington Heights. Minaya says that those who converted were never truly educated in Catholic doctrines. “Some people send their kids to perform sacraments but don’t understand why, they simply want to be part of a culture and that is not what being Catholic is about.”

Minaya said that members of Growing In Grace contradict themselves when claiming that Catholicism is incorrect and deceptive because they don’t question their own leader’s actions. “He [Miranda] came out of left field and is shown on the news traveling on a private jet, how much credibility can he honestly have?”

Former professor of theology and philosophy Menejildo Candelario of Washington Heights, 58, said he believes that it’s easy for members of Growing In Grace to accept the teachings because they can actually see a being rather than believing in an image. Candelario, who taught at Pontificia Universidad Catolica Madre Y Maestra (PUCMM), in Santiago, DR, also said that rejection makes them feel competitive. “Competition is something humans need and sometimes we like feeling adversity because it represents a challenge and makes us feel alive; those who have converted were unnoticed at work, home or within society as a whole, now they feel they’re getting attention.”

Some Catholics feel that the representation of both Christ and an anti-Christ in a single being is irrational.

“It’s silly because for someone to say they represent both Christ and the anti-Christ is insane; there’s just no logic in that and the bible makes no indication of such a being,” said Reverend Daniel Kearny of the Church of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, in Washington Heights. In his 95 percent Latino parish, mostly consisting of Dominicans there has been no interest in Growing In Grace, nor have questions been posed regarding them.

Candelario said he believes there will never be a significant increase in their numbers because Miranda continues to confuse people. “Presenting himself as both Christ and the anti-Christ is unstable, plus most people in the community are naturally scared of the devil’s images so they’ll never feel fully comfortable,” he said.

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