A Portuguese man with chronic leg pains stands with the help of a TV Miramar anchor. Moments later, the anchor will proclaim that he is "walking for the first time." Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety. All rights reserved.

A Portuguese man with chronic leg pain stands with the help of a TV Miramar anchor. Moments later, the anchor will proclaim that he is “walking for the first time.” Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety. All rights reserved.

By Rowan Moore Gerety

A few minutes after 11 a.m., standing on a dais before a crowd of 42,000, Bishop Joao Leite delivered the line everyone had been waiting for: “It’s time for miracles. In the name of Jesus Christ! Right now—stand up, walk! The paralyzed can walk now!” With a few breathless words, Leite, spiritual leader of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) in Mozambique, unleashed a supernatural tide that brought the stadium to tears. Over the next half hour, the blind were gifted with sight, the deaf were made to hear, and the mute began to speak. Within minutes, the miracles were being transcribed, edited, and broadcast throughout the church’s formidable media empire: Mozambique’s most popular television station, a newsletter with circulation rivaling the country’s leading weeklies, and a national network of radio stations. The next day, Igreja Universal, or “Universal Church,” as the UCKG is known, ran a two-page advertorial in Noticias, Mozambique’s state-run paper of record. With nearly half a million people in attendance at 10 venues around the country, it announced that Dia de Deçisões— Decision Day, or simply Dia D, September 26, 2011—had been a resounding success.

Dia D’s main stage was set up on the track at the newly-inaugurated Estado Nacional de Zimpeto, on the outskirts of Maputo. Built with a $57 million donation from the Chinese government, the stadium had welcomed spectators for the first time only three weeks earlier, for the 2011 African Games. But turnout was much higher at Dia D. In addition to the 42,000 people who filled the stands by the time Leite took the microphone, several thousand more sat on folding chairs and mats in the stadium’s vast parking lot, assembled before a giant TV screen that showed what was going on inside. Leite, who is Brazilian, presided over the event looking up at the bleachers with the focus and exaggerated gestures of an orchestra conductor. He wore a trim white button-down and the trademark red satin tie of UCKG’s pastors and male ushers. “God is here,” Leite said, “and I’m sure he’ll perform miracles for you today.” He spoke in the Rio de Janeiro-inflected Portuguese adopted by nearly all of the church’s employees, Mozambican and Brazilian alike. Behind him, UCKG pastors in their Sunday best listened intently with raised hands and bowed heads. On one end of the stage, a keyboardist laid a cushion of synth strings beneath Leite’s prayers, alternately ominous and uplifting. “Now we’re going to pray, for the wounded, the infirm, those afflicted by jealousy and witchcraft,” Leite said.

The believers arrived earlier that morning in a procession of the hopeful that clogged the road with crowded open-back trucks and long streams of pedestrians. On the way into the stadium, church ushers passed out cut roses from giant cardboard boxes marked “Living Gold,” imported from South Africa. There were teenagers on crutches and in wheelchairs, old men hobbling on canes. The able-bodied and unemployed, young women wishing for husbands, parents with sick children. The advertisements for Dia D, which plastered the Mozambican capital and its environs for more than two months before the event, had given all of them an unambiguous example of deliverance in the figure of a young man named Armando. The posters showed photographs of Armando’s feet ‘before’ and ‘after’ his participation in a UCKG faith gathering—swollen and covered with pus-filled blisters and lesions in the first, and healed completely in the second. “My name is Armando,” the caption read. “I suffered from wounds on my feet for a long time. But on the day I made a decision to participate in a gathering of faith, I was cured, and today I am free.”

Among those who braved the heat and the serpentine traffic leading to Dia D was a university student named Amelia Pelembe, playing chaperone to her sister, Delesina, and her mother, Laudina. Chatty and thoughtful, Amelia explained to me hopefully that all three of them were praying for a miracle at their first “faith gathering.” Delesina had a cognitive disability and she had trouble walking more than a few steps at a time. She had never climbed a flight of stairs or visited Maputo, less than twenty miles from the family’s home in rural Boane. Laudina suffered from a severe speech impediment that made her hard to understand. Amelia wanted to help her mother and sister, but she had problems of her own. A young mother of two, she faced tension in her marriage and stress from providing for her family and attending school at the same time. So at the start of Dia D, Amelia and her family lined up on the astroturf in one corner of the field along with a score of sick and infirm people accompanied by relatives and friends.  There were hundreds, even thousands of others seated throughout the stadium, hoping for divine intervention. But ushers circulating in the crowd before the event had selected a small group whose transformation and subsequent testimonials would be broadcast to a wider audience. When the “time for miracles arrived,” it seemed that Leite’s prayer spoke directly to each of them, promising deliverance in the name of the Holy Spirit.

 

Believers hoping for "faith healing" enter the stadium for Dia D. Image by Rowan Moore Gerety. All rights reserved.

Believers hoping for “faith healing” enter the stadium for Dia D. Image by Rowan Moore Gerety. All rights reserved.

***

In less than forty years, the United Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) has grown from a weekly Pentecostal radio show in Rio De Janeiro to become one of the largest—and fastest-growing—churches in the developing world: the UCKG now claims 12 million followers in more than 150 countries. Nowhere has the church found more success than in Portuguese-speaking Africa. Much of the church’s popularity in Mozambique and Angola can be traced to their shared language, Portuguese, which has made Brazilian missionaries far more effective there than they would be in English or French-speaking parts of Africa. But the UCKG has also benefited from a broader cultural affinity in Mozambique, one that extends to the church’s use of media, and even its positioning relative to traditional religions.

Amelia said that her sister had been reluctant to come to the event at all. Delesina hardly ever left the house, and any outing caused her severe anxiety. But she was an avid viewer of shows on TV Miramar, Universal’s Mozambican network, and if she had come as far as the stadium, Amelia thought, it was because she had faith in stories like Armando’s, faith in the possibility of a true miracle. Delesina had seen the sermons and healing testimonials that sometimes aired on TV Miramar. Yet she had been drawn to the station by something entirely different: locally-produced variety shows like Belas Manhas (“Beautiful Mornings”), written for Mozambican homemakers, and Brazilian soap operas like Vidas em Jogo (“Lives in the Balance”), which commands a 49% audience share.

In its emphasis on faith healing and exorcism, the UCKG shares much of its doctrine with the other ‘charismatic’ denominations that have swept across the landscape of global Christianity in the last half-century. “Charismatics,” a term that includes Pentecostals and mainline evangelical churches who share their beliefs in the physical powers of the Holy Spirit, now account for more than a quarter of the world’s Christians, up from just 6% in 1980. What sets the UCKG apart is its aggressive use of mass media, and its extreme interpretation of “prosperity theology,” usually understood as the idea that God intends Christians to be rich. At the UCKG, prosperity theology extends to the idea that God rewards financial sacrifice as a measure of faith: the more money you give up, the more faith you have; the more faith you have, the more blessings you will receive. Donate to Igreja Universal, the church’s pastors preach, and anything is possible: wealth, happiness, and freedom from disease.

Few countries offer more fertile ground for a gospel of health and wealth than Mozambique, where nearly half of children are chronically malnourished, life expectancy hovers below 50, and more than 80% of the population gets by on less than $2 a day. The Ministry of Health reported in 2011 that over 70% of Mozambicans resort to traditional medicine before seeking care in hospitals, indicating the low levels of access and adoption of modern healthcare there. It’s an environment where the UCKG’s promises of health and wealth—often supplemented with holy oils, amulets, and other mementos reminiscent of Mozambican healers’—have flourished.  But in Mozambique as elsewhere, Universal’s creed has nearly bankrupted some of the church’s followers. The faithful have left car keys, property titles, and whole paychecks at the altar in hopes of achieving a promised miracle, only to leave the church months or years later feeling they’ve been duped. Igreja Universal’s relentless pursuit of donations has created so many discontents that churches like the Igreja Mundial—made up almost entirely of former members at Universal—have become major religious movements in their own right. Universal Church founder Edir Macedo has been jailed on charges of charlatanism in his native Brazil and investigated for tax evasion in the US; a parliamentary report in Belgium labeled the UCKG a cult. In Mozambique, people commonly refer to UCKG as the “church of thieves.”

But church donations fuel the programming that brings more people to the flock, and today, Macedo has become the sole proprietor of one of Brazil’s largest media conglomerates, Rede Record, which has affiliates around the world. Among Macedo’s assets in Brazil alone are 23 television networks, 71 radio stations, a weekly paper with a circulation of 2.5 million, a major TV production company, and Brazil’s leading gospel record label. The New York Times estimates Macedo’s worth at close to a billion dollars.

The former Brazilian president, Lula de Silva, and the Rede Record owner, Edir Macedo, at the opening ceremony of the Record News, on the São Paulo city. Image courtesy of Palácio do Planalto, via Wikimedia Commons

The former Brazilian president, Lula de Silva, and the Rede Record owner, Edir Macedo, at the opening ceremony of the Record News, on the São Paulo city. Image courtesy of Palácio do Planalto, via Wikimedia Commons

***

Prosperity theology came to prominence in the US during the 1950s, through the work of Pentecostal ministers like Oral Roberts, a pioneering radio preacher and televangelist from Oklahoma. Roberts traced his abrupt turn towards a gospel of health and wealth to an afternoon in 1947 when his Bible fell open to the second verse of John’s third epistle: “I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth,” he read.  Like Macedo today, Roberts encouraged members of his church to think of their donations as a seed, an investment that would bring divine returns. At its peak in the early 1980s, the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association brought in $120 million annually through royalties, mail campaigns, book sales, and donations at massive faith healing gatherings he conducted from Oklahoma to South Africa and the Philippines. Prosperity theology has since become a popular feature of evangelical churches throughout the US, particularly among the poor, but it also has adherents in South Korea, Australia, and throughout Latin America.

The man credited with bringing the doctrine to Brazil was a Canadian missionary named Walter Robert McAlister, who began preaching on the radio in Rio de Janeiro in the late 1950s. The church he founded there in 1960, Igreja Cristâ da Nova Vida, would eventually spawn some of the most important Pentecostal movements in contemporary Brazil: Internacional da Graça de Deus, Comunidade Evangélica Sara Nossa Terra, Renascer em Cristo, and, of course, Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus, the UCKG. In fishing for converts, McAlister explicitly targeted umbanda, candomblé, and other Afro-Brazilian religions, claiming that the deities and ancestral spirits they revered were actually demons working in the service of Satan. In 1968, he published a popular tract call Mãe de Santo, describing the life story and Pentecostal conversion of a Candomblé priestess (known, in Brazil, as a “Mãe de Santo”) who was “liberated” by the Holy Spirit. It was through McAlister’s teachings, in the flesh and on the radio, that Edir Macedo was introduced to some of the ideas that later became hallmarks of the UCKG.

Macedo was born in 1945 to a working class Catholic family in Rio das Flores, a small city in the interior of Southern Brazil, and in his youth, he attended umbanda ceremonies called terreiros. Like Vodou in Haiti, umbanda is a syncretist faith that has elements in common with Catholicism, but Macedo did not consider himself a devout Catholic. As he reveals in a later manifesto on Afro-Brazilian religion —Orixás, Caboclos e Guias: Deuses ou Demônios? (Spirits, Deities, and Guides: Gods or Demons?)—Macedo became disillusioned with umbanda as a teenager after his family moved to Rio de Janeiro.  There, he began attending the Christian Church of New Life. McAlister’s sermons drew heavily on the Pentecostal belief in demon possession and, as a remedy, exorcism by the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, as Macedo abandoned the umbanda tradition, he came to embrace the notion that it was umbanda spirits who were responsible for so much of human suffering and misdirection. Spirits caused disease and addiction, poverty, homosexuality, and adultery.

Macedo was involved with the New Life Church for a decade. During that time, he worked for Brazil’s state lottery administration and trained as a statistician, eventually becoming a researcher with the census bureau. But in 1970, he left his career as a civil servant to devote himself full-time to evangelism. Soon, amid tensions with McAlister, Macedo and his two brothers-in-law left New Life to found their own group. Macedo began preaching from a wooden gazebo in Jardim Meier, a public park near his family’s home. By 1977, Macedo’s sermons had attracted a significant following, and he decided to found his own church, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. He moved his sermons to a defunct funeral parlor in Rio’s Zona Norte, and following in the footsteps of his mentor, Macedo began a weekly radio sermon.

Within a few years, Macedo’s Igreja Universal had surpassed the New Life Church both in membership and national prominence, and Macedo turned the substantial donations received through his services into investments in the church’s growing media network. By the end of the 1980s, the church owned several newspapers and more than a dozen radio stations, and it had created its own political party. Then, in 1989, Macedo purchased a small television network called Rede Record, and the church attained a new level of national exposure. The use of mass media has been the linchpin of the UCKG’s strategy for growth around the world. Alongside ‘faith healing’ testimonials like those gleaned from the miracles at Dia de Deçisões, or Dia D, church affiliates now produce news and reality TV, variety shows and soap operas, novels and self-help books, as well as a raft of advertisements which run in competing outlets.

 

Imitating the laying-on-hands position that UCKG's pastors often use to perform exorcisms, church members pray during the "time for miracles." Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety. All rights reserved.

Imitating the laying-on-hands position that UCKG’s pastors often use to perform exorcisms, church members pray during the “time for miracles.” Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety. All rights reserved.

***

Before Leite took to the podium to signal the ‘time for miracles,’ Dia D was all pageantry. When the event started at nine, flares were lit and two skydivers parachuted onto the field. A South African choir performed gospel in rainbow-colored robes. It felt like an extended half-time show for an African Superbowl, performed live but tailored for a TV audience. A police band played the national anthem—all buzz and crash in the stadium’s jaws of concrete—and dignitaries gave speeches from a small stage opposite Leite’s.

The church’s president and founder in Mozambique, a stern professor of engineering named José Guerra, gave a long paean to Mozambique’s ruling party, FRELIMO, before recounting UCKG’s first years in the country. “God has done a lot for the Igreja Universal in Mozambique,” he began, “but we cannot deny the support of our government.” Mozambique’s Prime Minister, Aires Ali, the Minister of Justice (“Because God is just!” the emcee said), and the Minister of Sports and Culture all sat on leather chairs behind him, half hidden by potted palms.

Guerra attended his first service at the Igreja Universal in 1992, while visiting a cousin in Johannesburg. At the time, Guerra said, he had no faith and little use for religion. He’d spent the first forty years of his life as a “non-practicing” Catholic. But something changed at the Igreja Universal. “I felt the presence of a living God,” he said, his voice echoing over the loudspeaker. After that service, Guerra told the pastor that he’d like to bring the UCKG to Mozambique. The response he got was not encouraging. Less than three years earlier, the Mozambican government had prohibited the UCKG from entering the country at all. Nevertheless, a Portuguese minister, Ennio Correia, was assigned to help Guerra found the congregation, and he arrived in Mozambique on October 4th, 1992, the day of the armistice that ended Mozambique’s 16-year civil war.

People who joined the church in this era remember the UCKG as the first arrival in a wave of evangelical missions to Mozambique—God is Love, the Church of Maná. Catholicism had been the state religion of Mozambique’s colonial government, and FRELIMO was openly hostile to all organized religion in the early years after independence, incarcerating Jehovah’s Witnesses in “re-education” camps and nationalizing the assets of the Catholic Church. But in the wreckage of the civil war, FRELIMO was operating for the first time in a multi-part democracy, highly dependent on foreign aid and anxious to move past its reputation for hardline Marxism. Already, FRELIMO had embraced structural adjustment and economic reforms proposed by the International Monetary Fund. Establishing a more constructive relationship with organized religion offered an opportunity to project a new image of the FRELIMO government, and provide a counterweight to the political power of the Catholic Church.

The UCKG began holding prayer meetings in private homes around Maputo, and working out of an office in Guerrra’s apartment. Within a month of Correia’s arrival, the church signed a contract with a movie theater, Cine Africa, where they held their first faith gathering. “Three thousand people attended,” Guerra said proudly, “and most of them manifested with demons.” The church’s expansion followed UCKG’s usual pattern of renting out movie theaters—Cine Olympia, Cine Gil Vicente, Cine Moçambique—large, public landmarks that are easily converted for worship. Within five years, the UCKG had churches in eight of Mozambique’s 11 provinces.  The church also moved aggressively to expand into religious broadcasting, so much so that some scholars suspect church leaders of striking a deal with FRELIMO in the run-up to the first multi-party elections, enabling the UCKG to rent offices in the party headquarters and gain television and radio licenses well before it established a large constituency in Mozambique. By 1995, there were only three radio stations up and running in Mozambique—one belonging to a high-ranking FRELIMO official, one run by Mozambique’s leading opposition party, RENAMO, and Radio Miramar, the bully pulpit of the Igreja Universal.

 

Parachutists flying the UCKG's signature colors land at midfield to kick off the event. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety. All rights reserved.

Parachutists flying the UCKG’s signature colors land at midfield to kick off the event. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety. All rights reserved.

***

After Guerra spoke, Prime Minister Aires Ali praised the UCKG’s “role in giving Mozambican citizens the means to live full and productive lives.” But the speeches did not interrupt the spectacle for long. When the Prime Minister finished speaking, 25 white doves flew up from the center of the field before landing again a few seconds later, apparently unaware of the symbolism they carried for the audience. Hordes of children in color-coded costumes performed a choreographed routine that culminated with the release of several hundred red and white helium balloons.

Paul Fauvet, one of the UCKG’s most outspoken critics in Mozambique, credits just this sort of high-value production for the UCKG’s success: “They are popular,” he told me in his Maputo office, “because they speak Portuguese, and because they are entertaining.” Over 20 years spent observing the church’s ascent in Mozambique, Fauvet, a British expat who directs English-language content for a government wire service there, has also followed the steady softening of skepticism and opposition to the church’s more controversial practices. “Exorcism, speaking in tongues, miracles…they claim to cure ghastly diseases, and they would, or could, induce people to believe in the power of the church instead of modern medicine,” he said. “Mozambique’s ruling party, FRELIMO, “used to call this obscurantismo”—obfuscation, or deceit. “But unfortunately,” Fauvet added, “FRELIMO doesn’t fight against obscurantismo anymore.”

When I went to see him in his Maputo office, a few weeks before Dia D, Fauvet laid a newspaper out on the table before us. It was a spread from Jornal Público, one of a handful of weekly newspapers with national circulation in Mozambique, with the headline “Praying for Peace.” In a photograph covering two pages, a group of twenty-odd UCKG members held up portraits of President Guebuza during a prayer to commemorate the armistice that ended the Mozambican civil war, in 1992. Fauvet viewed the ad as a sign of UCKG’s symbiosis with the Mozambican government, in which longstanding disputes over the church’s expansion have given way to Universal’s tacit support of the ruling party. Prominent judges, a former attorney general, and several members of parliament, are now members of the church. Edir Macedo has visited Mozambique twice, and met with the sitting president on both occasions. But Fauvet sees Universal’s wooing of the Mozambican press as an even more worrisome development.

In the climax of the show, before the "time for miracles," members of UCKG's youth group release hundreds of helium balloons for the finale of their dance routine. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety. All rights reserved.

In the climax of the show, before the “time for miracles,” members of UCKG’s youth group release hundreds of helium balloons for the finale of their dance routine. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety. All rights reserved.

***

In the late 1990s, Carlos Cardoso, then Mozambique’s best-known journalist, published a series of editorials in which he argued that Universal’s financial practices made it more of a business than a church, and that, as such, it ought to be taxed. Over the years, TIM and STV, two private television networks, have each run exposés of the church’s expropriation of houses from its followers. Scathing coverage by Savana, a Mozambican weekly, once prompted UCKG leaders to call for prayers against its publisher, Mediacoop. But TIM, STV, Savana, and most Mozambican newspapers now earn important revenue from UCKG advertising, including faith healing testimonials that are often presented as news articles. “It’s a terrible shame,” Fauvet said,  “that there are independent media that take adverts from these people.” Yes, we run Universal’s ads, Savana’s news editor told me a few weeks later, “but we won’t publish any miracles.”

Several studies in Brazil have demonstrated the importance of media to the UCKG’s growing membership there, including one finding, in 2003, that more that 80% of UCKG’s members attended their first church service after watching Universal’s programming on TV. But Guerra, the church’s president in Mozambique, disputes the contention that UCKG devotes unusual energy to its media footprint. “How else are you going to reach the population?” he asked me. “We don’t pay attention to what other churches do; we do what the Holy Spirit inspires us to do.”

In Brazil, less than a third of Rede Record’s programming has explicitly religious content, a balance that appears to hold in Mozambique as well. But shows like Vidas em Jogo, popular with the Pelembes, do convey UCKG’s worldview indirectly, highlighting characters’ sumptuous lifestyles alongside the role of the supernatural in everyday life. Eduardo Refkalefsky, a Brazilian media scholar who has written widely about the UCKG, notes that virtually all of Rede Record’s soap operas show their protagonists reckoning with some metaphysical phenomenon: “spirit mediums, communication with the dead, premonitions, past life regression, oracles, sister souls, reincarnation, the real existence of angels, deities and supernatural beings, spells and curses of all kinds.” These narratives resonate not only with traditional religion—Umbanda and Candomblé in Brazil, and animist belief in Mozambique—but also (by no coincidence) with the UCKG’s particular style of prayer, characterized by near-constant “spiritual warfare” against the demons responsible for worldly ills.

***

 Amelia Pelembe described herself as a “sometimes” member of the church who began attending services when she and her husband split in 2009. Juggling school, transport, rent, and childcare, she found it hard to make tithes or fulfill the daily donations a UCKG pastor prescribed to combat the “demon” that caused her husband to be unfaithful. At Universal, prayer and donations alike are organized thematically according to the days of the week—Monday is for financial problems, Tuesday for health, Wednesday for malevolent spirits, and so on. Romantic problems like Amelia’s are addressed on Thursdays. Offering a spiritual treatment for her marital issues, Amelia’s pastor had given her an envelope in which she was to deposit $3 a day—more than the average income of most Mozambicans—as a testament to her faith. Amelia said she avoided attending church on days when she had no money, but she used a “sacred oil” the pastor gave her to anoint her wrists before bed each night. “God exists,” Amelia concluded, looking back, “because there was a reconciliation” with her husband.

Amelia wasn’t sure what to expect from Dia D, but she thought it was worth a try. It was a national holiday in Mozambique: she didn’t have classes to attend, and her mother, who made a meager living growing vegetables, could take a day off from work in the fields. Before Dia D, Amelia’s sister Delesina had said that if she was cured, if after the event she felt “healthy and free,” she would come and stay at Amelia’s house in Maputo for five days. Delesina would try to adapt to life outside her parents’ courtyard. As Leite called the stadium to prayer, Amelia was imagining what her family might be like after the event.

“Repeat!” Leite prompted the crowd. “My Father. I don’t want. I don’t accept. Jealousy. Fetiçaria [sorcery]. Paralysis. Blindness. Sickness.” The pastors and ushers standing near Amelia and her family sprung into action, coaxing people to stand, see, speak, with their hands on the heads of the infirm directing the spirits to “Get out, get out!”

A television crew and several reporters from Folha Universal and Radio Miramar were on hand to interview those who overcame their sickness. An elderly Portuguese man was the first to stir. He stood, walked slowly, then jogged at the urging of an anchor from Rede Record. “He’s walking! He’s walking!” the anchor exclaimed, incredulous. Others tried in vain. A man in his thirties, with a faint moustache and a white baseball cap, rose from his chair, wincing, and took several tentative steps before sitting again in pain.

At the pulpit, the prayers continued feverishly as the microphone was passed around among Leite and several other senior UCKG pastors. Then the testimonials began. A woman in pink crossed the stage, walking, she said, “for the first time,” tearfully inaudible in her euphoria. “She’s walking. She’s walking. It’s a miracle!” Leite proclaimed. Amelia’s mother scarcely needed any encouragement: she walked onto the stage grinning widely, tears streaming down her cheeks, and gave her testimony in her native ronga, relayed over the loudspeaker in Portuguese. According to the translator, Laudina had lost the ability to speak years and years before, only to regain it instantaneously. Leite led the stadium in a synth pop hymn. More testimony followed. I trailed one of the miraculously-cured women out of the stadium and caught up with her in the parking lot. Her name was Alicina Poesia. She was in her 70s, with bare feet and a headwrap in the manner of women in the Mozambican countryside, her lined faced framed by the bright peach, pink and green of her wrap skirt and blouse. Alicina was from the far northern province of Cabo Delgado, and it was her first time in Zimpeto, she said. “Which way was the street?” she asked.  She suffered from pains in her legs. She was not a member of the church. “I’m a Muslim!” she told me. One of her Christian nieces had brought her to Dia D, and she said she was ready to “leave this illness behind. Some days, I’m able to go to the market, work in the kitchen, clean the house, go everywhere. Some days, I just sit in the house.” I asked whether she’d experienced a miracle.  “Hoje e um pouco normal,” she said—Today, it’s just OK.”

After hearing some of the testimonials, Amelia’s sister, Delesina, got up with the help of two Universal ushers. Overweight and unused to walking, Delesina appeared to be making a Herculean effort, pausing for seconds at a time to rest. She sat against the stadium wall again for a minute, and then, trailed by a reporter from Radio Miramar, she crossed the field to the dais.

A UCKG usher urges Delesina to cross the field and "testify" on-stage alongside Bishop Leite. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety. All rights reserved.

A UCKG usher urges Delesina to cross the field and “testify” on-stage alongside Bishop Leite. Photo by Rowan Moore Gerety. All rights reserved.

***

Ten minutes later, Dia D was coming to a close, less than three hours after it had begun. Bishop Leite asked us all to raise our roses above our heads, and 40,000 cut roses stood upright in the hands of the faithful as he said a brief prayer. Next Sunday, we were to bring them all back to any Igreja Universal, where they would be burned. “Don’t leave them at home now; over the next week, these roses will attract everything that is bad, all the evil in your homes,” Leite cautioned. No collection plate was passed; and thus, the UCKG avoided its biggest liability on its most public day—if they did not ask newcomers for money, how then, could it be considered a church of thieves?

In the parking lot, I found Amelia sipping an orange soda as she waited for a cousin to pick her up. Her sister stood by, impassive, quiet, leaning on a nearby pillar as we spoke. She was wearing the plaid socks in which she had crossed the field, and her legs still looked swollen and misshapen. Amelia said once more that the church demonstrated that “God exists,” but she seemed disappointed by the message of unequivocal salvation that the church broadcast on TV. “When he said ‘paralyzed people can now walk,’ I looked around for handicapped people standing up and starting to walk, but it didn’t happen like that. They asked my sister to stand up, but she resisted. She said she didn’t feel well. But the ushers, they insist.  They pull people up out of their seats. ‘Stand up, stand up,’ they say, and people send a signal that they’re in severe pain. So, what they say ends up being different from reality.”

Amelia was perplexed, even a little bit angry, that her mother had testified onstage. “She said that she had spoken for the first time here in church, when in fact, no!” Amelia said. “She had begun to speak at home!” The family had worked with physical therapists who massaged her mother’s jaw and doctors who prescribed her medication. Gradually, Laudina had made strides in her pronunciation. Amelia didn’t understand why her mother went along with the church in offering such a miraculous story— “I think she was very moved,” Amelia shrugged. But her mother, now sipping a Fanta on the pavement before us, hadn’t uttered another word since her testimonial.

Amelia said she hadn’t wanted to make her sister testify either, “but they came after me, so we decided she would go and testify.”  When they got to the foot of the stairs by the stage, a pastor charged with vetting those who would give testimonials had asked about Delesina’s miracle. Amelia tried to frame the “miracle” in relative terms—after all, she thought, miracles happen over time, not instanteously. Was it the first time she’d ever walked? the pastor asked. No. Delesina had to walk to use the bathroom at home, Amelia explained, and she had walked in the family’s small yard, but she never left it. “We’ve never been in the habit of forcing her to walk,” Amelia reflected. Still, it was a good thing that Delesina had walked as far as she had today—she had walked to the stadium from the parking lot, and later on, she had walked to the stage. “But the pastor gave a different version,” Amelia said. “He told the bishop that she had never walked before.” Ultimately, Delesina had refused to climb the stairs; she just didn’t feel up to it. But the other testimonials continued all the same, framed and moderated by UCKG’s production team and broadcast throughout Mozambique. To tens of thousands sitting at home, Dia D brought a message not of Delesina’s pain and anxiety or Amelia Pelembe’s ambivalence, but of miracles on demand—immediate, enduring, and uncompromised.

Rowan Moore Gerety is a freelance print and radio reporter based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in the CSMonitor, Killing the Buddha, the Huffington Post, Marketplace, and PRI’s Living on Earth. This story was made possible by a 2011 Fulbright scholarship to Mozambique. Read more of his work at www.rowanmg.com.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.