The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God has no visible doctrine or moral message and is almost silent on the Bible, but it believes passionately in generous “sacrifices” to the sect by its followers.
And in daily advertisements on television, it offers neither spiritual enlightenment nor salvation. The central message — achieving financial success and freedom from debt — is reinforced with testimonials from the churchâ€™s allegedly satisfied customers.
It is a formula which has turned the organisation into a highly efficient money-making machine. With 200 branches already in South Africa, it builds at least one new church a week.
But the movement, launched in Brazil in 1977 and established in at least 80 countries, has been embroiled in controversy.
Quoting Brazilian magazine Isto E, Mozambican online news agency Afrol News reports Brazilâ€™s Attorney General as saying there is evidence of the sectâ€™s involvement in money-laundering — a triangular operation “between Brazilian dollar-changers, offshore companies of the Cayman Islands and investment banks in Uruguay”.
A small part of the operation, the report says, were loans of $6,3-million, without terms of repayment, to “bishops, reverends and an exquisite group of church sympathisers”.
The report also lists among the Brazilian sectâ€™s “sins” illicit enrichment, purchase of a television station through “stooges”, fraud and charlatanism.
The unsavoury publicity may explain why it is media-shy to the point of paranoia. When the Mail & Guardian tried to photograph a new church under construction in the Johannesburg city centre, a crowd of church officials confronted the photographer and tried to confiscate his camera.
The director of the Evangelical Alliance of South Africa, Moss Nthla, told the M&G that the church had interdicted him from publishing the findings of research he had conducted into it.
Efforts to secure an interview with the churchâ€™s came to naught. The churchâ€™s “media liaison officer”, Nametso Mathope, failed to respond to faxed questions despite numerous follow-up inquiries. However, she did conduct an obscure fishing expedition on the M&Gâ€™s reporters by phoning the newspaper and claiming — falsely — that they had written a story criticising the churchâ€™s dress code.
The Brazilian connection remains strong in the churchâ€™s local offshoot — its top officials and most pastors appear to come from the South American country. They include Bishop Bira Fonseca, who the M&G has seen addressing packed church rallies in rudimentary English several times this year. Lesser positions, such as ushers — who appear to be making a handsome living — have gone to locals. (See story above.)
When the M&G attended the sectâ€™s four-part “Sunday of Rescuing” mass services at Johannesburgâ€™s Standard Bank Arena last month, we found Fonseca, resplendent in West African garb and leather sandals, exhorting a capacity crowd: “These blessings will come if we have faith and if we give tithes and offerings to the church.”
He called on those who had R100, and then R50, and then R20, and then the rest to come forward and give. As the denominations fell in size, a growing number of worshippers — who were overwhelmingly black and mainly female — came forward. This was a working-class crowd, including many young mothers with babies.
A moment later, there was another call for tithes, followed by the distribution of the church newsletter, at which point Fonseca asked for yet another offering “to pay for the printing”.
“Services” are marked by an absence of doctrine and moral exhortation and the use of the Bible only to encourage donations. In his “sermon”, Fonseca claimed that the foolish virgins of St Matthewâ€™s Gospel were church members who failed to contribute.
Reinforcing these bland ingredients were raucous Pentecostal-style singing and frenzied praying, climaxing in exorcisms by regimented ushers.
On another visit, M&G reporters entered the arena to Fonsecaâ€™s triumphant declaration of the opening of new churches across South Africa. “Two this week and five next week,” he bellowed to a chorus of approving grunts.
The South African Council of Churchesâ€™s deputy secretary general, Eddie Makue, noted the shadowy nature of the sectâ€™s hierarchy and the extreme youth of its leaders. Most pastors are in their early 20s. “There is no visible sign of cross-generational leadership evident in the church, the life-blood of any church structure,” said Makue. “Rarely do you find young people at the reins of a church.”
A researcher for the Commission on Culture, Religion and Language, Mogomme Masoga, called for the churchâ€™s economic impact on poor communities to be assessed.
“They situate themselves where there are a lot of poor black people, for example in Marabastad [in Tshwane] and near Johannesburgâ€™s Noord Street taxi rank. That illustrates their target.”
‘God is not like that …â€™
SABC employee Mmabatho Mathenjwa (not her real name) went to the Universal Church after being told by a friend, one of the churchâ€™s ushers, to expect “miracles”.
“But she said I had to sacrifice to receive. She gave me an example of a girl who sacrificed her car against her husbandâ€™s wishes and who got a house and a new job after that.”
During an event called “Sacrifice Week”, when followers were asked to sacrifice what they valued most to the church “to see that God works”, she had handed over her entire salary.
Mathenjwa said she was looking for a church “with a vibe — you know, lots of worship. My friend said I would find what I was looking for.”
At that point, she began to have serious doubts. “I felt a bit weird. I thought: ‘God is not like that. He doesnâ€™t want whatâ€™s most important to you [in financial terms].â€™”
Her discomfort had been sparked by an earlier service, when the pastor had reinforced his call for donations by citing Godâ€™s biblical instruction to Abraham to sacrifice his son.
“I thought: ‘These people are up to something,â€™ and I stopped going for a while. But Iâ€™d sit at home, hear the voices singing, and Iâ€™d miss it.”
She claimed that at one service, the church officials had offered to record blacklistings for debt on a computer. “They said: ‘Weâ€™ll fool the system so that when you go the store and ask, theyâ€™ll say your account is paid up.â€™
“I got tempted, because I was blacklisted, but didnâ€™t go through with it.” She added that the church officials sometimes asked indebted followers to enter their names, identity numbers “and whatever you want” in a book. “They have connections with people who can pull strings to get you out of debt.”
Mathenjwa painted a rosy picture of ushersâ€™ earnings, suggesting that the job carried generous perks in addition to the salary. “My friend earns about R8Â 000 a month, but she has a paid-up Jeep.
“She called me one day to show me her car and said: ‘I told you. If you stick to that church and become a member — everything will go well.â€™ She was removed from the credit bureau and can buy anything she wants.” — M&G reporters