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Adrian has kindly given over some space to Eric Murray for his first-hand account of a trip to Iglesia Universal. Note: The goal of this piece is not to discredit the Iglesia Universal or disrespect its many followers. It is just a description what goes on within the church’s walls. The reader will be the ultimate judge (guided by a little of my subjectivity, of course).
Any porteño driving down Av. Corrientes Avenue will have certainly noticed a large white building that resembles a Greek temple. The Templo de la Fe (Temple of Faith), located on Corrientes 4070, in Almagro, catches the eye of anyone who’s passing by. It is a huge structure that draws attention during the day because of its imposing façade, which is illuminated conspicuously by night.
The temple boasts over 25 “masses” every week, with a wide variety of starting times so any one can find the time to attend, on any day.
Sunday morning is a special time of the week. The 10am mass is apparently the most important one and no one wants to miss it. So we head off to the temple hoping to have our very own religious experience.
The street feels alive that morning. Vendors keep walking up and down the avenue selling roses and other flowers, Jesus-themed regalia and even facturas so anyone can have a hearty breakfast before entering the building.
Several security guards wearing black suits and black ties, along with shades and a walkie talkie, keep staring at the public going through the doors of the temple. Their purpose there isn’t really clear and they look more like bouncers at a nightclub that the typical sweet old greeter expected to be standing at the entrance of a church.
Another man in plain clothes is also looking around, staring at everyone’s faces. This man’s purpose, according to others who have tried going undercover before, is to identify first timers and find out the reason of their visit If their intentions are (deemed) legitimate(meaning, they are not after a story), he will find a way to make them join the congregation. Hard to believe that a man has the ability to remember thousands of faces, but according to several colleagues he has been able to spot in the crowd, he does.
As a fellow journalist – pretending to be my wife – and I walk by his side and enter the temple, we hear the man saying ‘hello’ from behind us, trying to catch our attention. We intentionally ignore him and keep walking straight, until we enter the grand salon where the ceremony takes place.
The view is certainly impressive.
The stage, tackily decorated with Greek architecture and religious paintings, has only a simple podium with a microphone and a couch. Behind them, there’s a swimming pool in which “baptisms” take place from time to time. Everything is under a very, very high ceiling.
The same Brazilian man from TV steps up and says hello in casual Spanish with a strong accent. Dressed in a white tuxedo, he resembles a southern preacher from the United States. The large crowd – which I estimate is close to 800 people – cheers and salutes him.
And without further ado, the ceremony begins.
“Did you remember to bring your envelope?” the preacher asks. Hundreds of people raise their arms in response, showing him in return a small, white envelope. “Well, come on over then!” he says, as people start leaving their seats and standing in line in front of him. One by one, they walk up the steps to the podium and throw their envelopes into several black, industrial-sized garbage bags. I ask an old lady standing next to me what the envelopes contain, thinking that she’ll tell me they are letters to God.
“Money,” she replies with a smile.
Or in church jargon, “donations.”
For almost 20 minutes, it’s all about the line and dropping the money in the bags. By the time it’s over, several assistants are needed to move them, since they are fat and heavy with cash.
“It’s our first time, so we didn’t know we were supposed to bring money” I tell the lovely lady. “Don’t worry,” she smiles back. “Just don’t forget the next time”.
As the bouncers carry the bags into a small door behind the stage, two sentinels with unfriendly faces take up guard duty outside.. I guess no one is going to be getting any crazy ideas about taking some envelopes for themselves.
Next on the agenda is the Iglesia Universal’s raison d’être: to preach on the benefits of worshipping the Holy Ghost. As the preacher on stage gets emotional, he asks everyone to approach him, and like bees to an empty bottle of Pepsi, they begin their procession. The pastor then starts uttering a series of sentences, which, in all honesty, allsound the same, and asks us to close our eyes and open our arms to let the Holy Ghost enter our bodies.
With his thick, raspy voice, he says we must “allow for the Holy Ghost to pierce our hearts, because if we don’t let the Holy Ghost pierce our hearts we will be sorry we didn’t let the Holy Ghost pierce our hearts and the Holy Ghost will be mad we didn’t let the Holy Ghost pierce our hearts.”
And no, I am not kidding.
For over half an hour he keeps repeating the same sentence over and over. As my back begins to hurt for standing for such a long time in the same position, people around me begin sobbing and moaning. I realize this is most important part of the two-hour ceremony, and I’m missing it because my eyes are closed.
So I decide to sneak a peek and slowly open my eyes. The view is surreal. Hundreds of people stand around me in a trance, talking to themselves, painfully crying in agony for all the current suffering in their lives while blowing their noses and drying their tears. They ask God why he has forsaken them.
If I weren’t such a cynic, I would even dare to say they seem truly possessed by the Holy Ghost, all joining hands in collective, heart-breaking sadness.
And I realize these people aren’t here because they are devout Christians or avid church goers. No, the truth is these people are desperate. They need someone to tell them that everything is going to be ok. And to have someone who claims to represent that which you believe in is a palliative enough to make you hopeful, at least until next Sunday.
As I’m still observing the people around me, my fakewife begins squeezing my shoulder.
Something is wrong.
As I look up, I realize two of the pseudo-bouncers are staring at us,making some unfriendly gestures. In our effort to observe as much as we could, we hadn’t realized that we were the only two in a group of 800 people whose eyes were wide open.
As the preacher ends his speech and we all return to our seats, I feel like a big red bull’s-eye is now on my forehead.
“I have to go to the restroom, do you know where it is?” my (fake) wife asks. I don’t.
But just like that, the nice lady who was sitting next to us enters the conversation and kindly offers to chaperone her to the ladies room. We exchange looks, unable to discuss the possible dangers of such a bold proposal, but in the end stay in character. “Thank you very much,” I reply, and I offer a nod to my wife, hoping she will be careful.
As she leaves, the Brazilian preacher announces the time to celebrate in Holy Communion, for which ushers start handing out small bread buns and plastic cups containing something that I hope is wine, since I’m sure a little alcohol is going to help release the tension mounting up inside me.
Unfortunately, it’s only grape juice.
Worse, grape juice from concentrate and extremely disgusting.
We eat, we drink, we pray, we sing.
And as the Communion ends, I realize it’s been fifteen minutes since my wife left for the restroom.
As I begin to fear for the worst, I decide it’s too late for her and start eyeing for the closest emergency exit.But before I canbolt, she returns, still with the nice lady by her side.
“Everything ok, love?” I ask.
“Hmm-hmm,” she replies without even looking at me.
I notice the old lady has a small notepad in her hand with information on my wife written all over it. And that’s the reason why this silver haired Mata Hari was so friendly: she wanted information.
“Your wife has told me all about you,” she says, menacingly. “And before you leave, I’d like you two to meet the preacher.”
I swallow hard, since we’ve just been told we’re going to meet the (local branch) puppet master.
“It’s time for me to bless your families!” the preacher says, and asks everyone to raise the photos of their children, their parents, grandparents and friends in general. Of course, for those people to be really blessed, their photos must be nicely framed in the Iglesia Universal’s Photo Album™, like something out of Disneyland.
No photo album, no blessing. Simple as that.
So we finally get to the last part, in which the preacher, as he “always does,” tells the story of the Good Samaritan. “Always remember to help others,” he says. “And what better way to help those in need than telling them to come here?” he asks, as assistants hand out the “Good Samaritan flyer”, which urges those in need who still have not joined the Iglesia Universal to do so immediately.
People begin to leave and my (fake) wife and I head towards the door, in an effort to get out of there as soon as possible. But the persistent lady reminds us that before leaving we must meet the preacher.
we exchange glances and realize it may be best not to stand out from the crowd and we agree to a short conversation with him.
As we walk down the aisle towards the stage, the lady asks me why it is we waited for so long to join the church. I try to come up with the best possible answer and blame my catholic parents, “who are against it.”
“Well I’m sorry to be the one that tells you this,” she says, “but I’m afraid your parents have been possessed by the devil and that’s the reason why they are trying to keep you away from us.”
And just like that, without any preambles, she has just told me my mom is Satan (I had somewhat suspected it all my life but never thought I would find out about it here).
As we approach the main stage, I feel as if we’re entering the lion’s den.
The old lady tells us to wait in line to meet the Preacher, and as we do so, we notice several assistants greeting other parishioners as well. Some people are crying, others just look desolate, their gaze lost in a sea of sadness.The helpers are telling them that, if they keep coming every week, eventually they will find salvation.
It’s our turn and the Preacher greets us with a smile. “It’s a pleasure to have you both here for the first time,” he says. “As you can see, this is a great place for the whole family,” he adds, although I’m having trouble paying attention to him since only two meters away from us an assistant is performing an exorcism on a woman. Her demonic voice sendsshivers down my spine.
“All done!” the assistant says, as the woman grabs her purse and leaves.
After he blesses us and lets us know of the entire weekly Schedule, he lets us go. We begin walking down the aisle, looking miserable on our way out. We reach the sunlight. We’re free.
However, the people coming here more than two or three times a week are not.
After experiencing two intense hours in front of a Brazilian charlatan who promised desperate people that the only possible road to salvation is through him, it’s very hard for me to find any positive aspects in the Iglesia Universal, although I’m sure many of its parishioners beg to differ.
So if you ever walk by the attractive façade of the Iglesia Universal and decide to venture in because you’re either religious or insane, make sure you at least keep these helpful tidbits in mind.
God only knows when you might need them.