February 18, 2007
Surrounded by a mob of news cameras, a group of smiling, well-dressed church members crowded into a South Beach storefront parlor on a recent muggy evening and got matching tattoos of their prophet’s symbol: 666.
Members of Growing in Grace, a contro-
versial religious sect headquartered in Doral, said they were following the example of their leader, José Luis De Jesús Miranda, who has claimed to be Jesus and recently declared himself the Antichrist.
Critics have called De Jesús a cult leader who manipulates followers. Church members say he has brought them happiness and spiritual fulfillment.
“This is backing up what I truly believe,” said Alvaro Albarracin, 38, who heads a film production company and joined the church more than a decade ago. He showed a bandage that covered the freshly tattooed “666” on his forearm. “It’s like a brand. It’s like a sign.”
Uh, yeah, the sign of the devil. But things are different in Doral:
[F]or the 30 or so church members who branded themselves with 666 and SSS—the initials of De Jesús’ motto, “salvo siempre salvo,” or “saved always saved”—it’s a mark of their absolute faith in De Jesús. Church members say the symbol doesn’t connect them to Satan but rather to De Jesús’ claim that he has replaced Christ’s teachings with a new gospel.
Scholars and critics of the movement say the tattoos offer frightening evidence of the influence De Jesús commands over his followers.
“What is he going to do next to call attention to himself?” asked Daniel Alvarez, an instructor in the department of religious studies at Florida International University who has studied the movement. “This means that his control over people is so great that no matter what he says to them, they’ll follow him.”
… At the tattoo parlor, one woman wore a T-shirt with De Jesús’ picture and the phrase “The Lord Arrived” in Spanish. Others wore shirts and baseball caps marked with 666. Spanish rap music blared from a stereo in the back. News cameras circled the tattoo chair as artist Jessica Segatto, wearing pink rubber gloves and a huge silver cross, carefully inked 666 on church members’ ankles, forearms, backs and one member’s neck. Some members said they decided to attend Tuesday night’s tattooing session—which was prompted by a church announcement the previous week—to prove their commitment to De Jesús’ vision. Others said they hoped the symbol would provoke questions about the movement.
“I figured if I have it on my leg, people are going to notice it, 666, and they’re going to ask,” said church member and spokeswoman Axel Poessy.
They sure are. Although maybe not the questions Poessy is expecting.
“Antichrist” is the latest in a string of titles De Jesús has bestowed on himself.
In 1988, De Jesús announced he was the reincarnation of the Apostle Paul. In 1999, he dubbed himself “the Other,” a spiritual superbeing who would pave the way for Christ’s second coming. In 2004, he proclaimed himself to be Jesus Christ. That claim caused some prominent members to defect from the movement—including De Jesús’ first wife, Nydia, and his son Jose Luis Jr., who started his own church in Puerto Rico.
Last month, during a packed worship service at the church, De Jesús took off his coat and revealed the numbers 666 on his forearm.
“This is a congregation of Antichrists,” De Jesús said, drawing whistles and cheers.
… Scholars who are concerned about the movement’s growth say they hope De Jesús’ latest claim will insert doubt into the mind of some members.
“The symbol of the Antichrist is so negative, the only good thing that will come out of this is that people will say, `Hold on, this man is going off the deep end,’” FIU’s Alvarez said.
Then they’ll probably go get a tatoo.
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