Fraud allegations rock Brazil church

Times Staff Writer

It was Saturday night and the cool crowd in the upscale Moema neighborhood was stepping out -- to church.

“We are not square,” a self-proclaimed reformed addict and former biker turned preacher said amid a blur of strobe and laser lights, “because Jesus is not square!”

Welcome to the Reborn in Christ Church, the hippest of Brazil’s booming “neo-Pentecostal” denominations, which fuse faith and sales in a high-pressure pitch at churches, over the airwaves and on the Internet.


Renascer, as the church is known in Portuguese, was a pioneer, introducing services in roller skates and Christian mega-concerts and wooing celebrities in a slick and successful campaign aimed largely at middle- class youths.

But a funny thing happened along the sect’s rock-and-rolling journey toward salvation.

Brazilian authorities have accused Renascer of massive fraud, calling the church a personal enrichment scheme for its leaders and their cronies.

The sensational case has focused attention on the church and its financial empire at a time when an evangelical boom has altered the cultural, social and political landscape of Latin America’s largest nation. Protestant denominations introduced by U.S. missionaries more than a century ago have cut into the Vatican’s traditional primacy and now account for 15% of the population.

The fastest-growing are the so-called neo-Pentecostal sects that practice a singular mix of old-time religion and contemporary marketing. These include Renascer and its more established competition, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which also has faced accusations of funding irregularities.

In January, Renascer’s husband-and-wife founders -- “Apostle” Estevam Hernandes, 52, an ex-marketing executive who blasted saxophone riffs from the pulpit, and “Bishopess” Sonia Haddad Moraes Hernandes, 48, a homemaker-turned-theologian -- were arrested on cash-smuggling charges as they arrived in Miami.

U.S. customs authorities said the couple were carrying $56,467, including $9,088 stuffed into a Bible, $9,700 in a CD case, and $10,000 in their son’s backpack.

The pair, later freed on bail, had been flagged on a U.S. watch list “for suspicion of money laundering and fraud related to Brazilian organized crime,” a U.S. affidavit said.

Brazilian authorities call the church a “criminal enterprise” and are trying to extradite the couple. They accuse them of siphoning off millions of dollars in followers’ funds for personal enrichment. Prosecutors say the couple used donations to buy homes, horse farms and other luxuries, as well as to set up shell companies and laundering schemes to conceal their “great riches.”

Allegations denied

“They created a product, which is faith, and they sell it the same way a criminal organization sells” its wares, said Marcelo Mendroni, a Sao Paulo state prosecutor. “They contract debts that they cannot and are not willing to pay. They promise philanthropic activities that are not fulfilled. They are contemptuous swindlers.”

The church calls the allegations “slanders and lies.” The Hernandeses, who entered pleas of not guilty in U.S. District Court in Miami last month, are being persecuted for a paperwork mistake, said the couple’s lawyer, Luiz Flavio D’Urso, president of the Sao Paulo Bar Assn.

Prosecutors and experts cite a lack of oversight as evangelical churches rake in millions, often making their cases on Christian radio stations and television.

“Their discourse is: The more you believe, the more generous you are,” said Ricardo Mariano, a sociologist specializing in the study of Brazil’s evangelical movement.

Renascer said its number of places to worship in the country had surged to 1,200 from 400 in the last five years. Followers reportedly top 1 million. The church, which owns a TV network and more than a dozen radio stations, built a signature transmission tower in downtown Sao Paulo and organizes the annual “March for Jesus,” drawing millions.

The Hernandes couple founded Renascer in 1986, initially preaching in the apartment of a fellow believer. Church lore recounts how the couple took a dozen addicts into their home and helped reform them.

Today, “Apostle” Estevam sports pricey watches, drives imported cars and dons Gucci loafers and Ermenegildo Zegna suits, according to Brazilian media reports. “Bishopess” Sonia is a client of Daslu, the posh shop for rich women here. They fly first class.

While other sects evangelized among the poor, Renascer went where more money was -- and crafted a sound and creed attractive to their targeted clientele. The church sponsored hugely successful “SOS of Life” concerts and imported the music of U.S. pop evangelical singers and Christian metal bands.

Bringing well-heeled youths into the church also has had a financial benefit -- attracting their inquiring elders, who may have more disposable income than the children.

“Converted young people led to their parents, who were curious to know what in the church was changing their children’s lives,” said Marcio Foffu, a Renascer preacher, spokesman and composer who says the church is more heterogenous than generally portrayed. “We have worshipers from many social and cultural classes, all of whom have had their lives improved with the teachings of Jesus.”

From the outset, observers say, Hernandes sought to incorporate modern sales techniques and business practices into his mission. He stressed the need to cover costs for expenses such as philanthropic activities, preachers’ salaries and costly electronic evangelization.

“The plea for contributions is justified from a practical and theological point of view,” said Mariano, the sociologist. “The generous donation is seen as the practical proof of a believer’s faith.”

Church leaders emphasize that donations are not mandatory. But others say extreme pressure is put on worshipers to give at least 10% of their earnings to the church. Contributions are accepted in cash, credit card, check -- even postdated checks, prosecutors say.

Big givers are extolled in sermons as destined to be blessed by providence.

Faithful followers

Members approached at a Renascer bookstore here were hesitant to be quoted. They expressed misgivings about the media, which they regard as extremely hostile, even diabolical.

“If this is a ‘criminal organization,’ I’m proud to be part of it,” said Pedro, 25, who declined to give his last name. “They helped me through the worst part of my life. This ‘criminal organization’ brings a cure to many families.”

The difficulties facing Renascer’s founding couple were hardly evident during the recent event in the Moema neighborhood, one of a number of gigs on the balmy Saturday evening. Fans in jeans and T-shirts blaring surfing and rock motifs elevated their arms as they absorbed the words of the preacher. Only soft drinks and water were served.

The biker-turned-holy man made an oblique reference to “lies,” his only allusion to the scandal, and invited a young woman celebrating a birthday to approach the stage.

“Renascer until I die!” she shouted defiantly into the microphone. “Sword for the Lord! Sword for the apostle!”

The preacher yielded to a band with a Portuguese-Hebrew handle roughly translated as God’s Roots -- two guitars, a bass, a pair of percussionists, three men on brass and a blond chanteuse baring lots of midriff.

The band opened with a reggae tune, and a night of worship, Renascer-style, was on.

Special correspondent Marcelo Soares in Sao Paulo and Andres D’Alessandro of The Times’ Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.