Edir Macedo Bezerra of Brazil rose from a simple civil service worker to being both an evangelical leader and a media mogul. Over the years, his church, the ‘Universal Church of the Kingdom of God’, has gathered more than 8 million people in Brazil and millions more across the globe.
Yet for all of his outward piety, Macedo’s many evangelical crusades on behalf of the downtrodden have amounted to little more than a crude cascade of corruption and an abuse of trust, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the days of Pope Alexander VI…
Raised in the Faith
Edir Macedo was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1945. One of seven children, Edir was raised Catholic but by the time he was 25 had become so disillusioned with the church that he decided to convert to Pentecostalism. However, his journey to find his own form of faith would not end there.
In the early 1960s, Macedo began a career as a civil servant. At first, he worked for the state-run lottery of Rio de Janeiro but eventually found his way to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, where he worked as a researcher in the economic census of 1970. After 16 years of this, he became disillusioned with civil service as well. He wanted to create something of his own…
He started his own television network on Brazil called Central Record de Comunicação. It became the second largest television network in the country and would provide the soon-to-be billionaire with just the outlet he needed to spread his greatest innovation: a new derivation of the church.
Founding His Church
Macedo founded the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in Rio de Janeiro state, in 1977. It was to be his greatest invention and his greatest failure. Born of a desire to break away from the corruption of the Catholic Church, Macedo’s Church of the Kingdom of God would both define his legacy and seal his fate…
The stated aim of the UCKG was to help the poor and needy, those whom Macedo portrayed as excluded from other such religious movements. Macedo’s sermons focused on freeing his followers from unclean spirits that oppress them, those which can manifest in them and which must be cast out in the name of Jesus.
These dark, unclean spirits, were attributed to demons, just as they were in Catholicism. As such, exorcisms became a common practice of the UCKG. This meant that the church’s officiates had great influence over their followers’ mental and spiritual well-being. It was a radical idea, but Macedo soon had thousands of followers…
Macedo’s church also liked to teach prosperity and would take tithes from its followers just as many such churches did. Using that money, the Church built a $200 million replica of the First Temple in São Paulo. In the same way, Macedo tied his own prosperity to the church’s and justified living a lavish lifestyle by saying it was for the church.
Followers of the UCKG are asked to make a financial sacrifice in addition to tithing, and those donations must be proportionate to the benefits they seek from God. Then, twice a year, the church’s pastors take those prayers with them on an all-expense paid trip to the holy land, so that their followers can have their prayers granted. As you can imagine, this garnered some controversy…
When they return from Israel, the church leaders come back with new “blessed” envelopes, bereft of their followers’ money and ready to receive further donations for the next year. The craziest bit is, even as thousands give over money with no hope of anything in return, Macedo himself lives like a king, dressing in the finest clothes and driving the finest cars.
“If I preach prosperity and my clothes are ragged, who will follow me?” said Macedo of his new, rich lifestyle. His movement grew by leaps and bounds and with it, so did the controversy surrounding not only the church and its practices but Macedo himself: particularly when it came to his opinions on other religions, like Catholicism…
Caught Up to Him
Finally, in 1992, all of Macedo’s spending caught up to him. He spent only eleven days in jail on accusations of charlatanism before he was released. Meanwhile, members of the UCKG protested outside the police precinct by camping there and demanding his release. Despite everything, they believed him to be innocent.
It beggared belief. It was clear that Macedo and everyone working for him were frauds and yet, his thousands of followers believed them to truly be doing God’s work. Adding to the scandals were the accusations by Forbes that all the billions the church had collected over the years for charity causes overseas, had been funnelled back to Brazil by the UCKG…
Abuse of his Position
Macedo used the donations received, many of which were from his poorest followers, to buy jewelry, TV stations, and other businesses for himself. The scheme had gone on for over 10 years and Macedo and his associates had apparently misappropriated more than $2 billion in donations from 2003 to 2008 alone.
By 2007, Macedo’s acquisitions “for the church” included: twenty-three TV stations, forty radio stations, two major daily newspapers, a real state agency, a health insurance company, and an airline. Needless to say, the authorities became suspicious of these particular purchases…
This allegation was later proven when the São Paulo Public Ministry said in a statement “it was proved that the money from donations, instead of being used for the maintenance of services, was diverted to serve the private interests of the accused”. In no time at all, Edir Macedo had become everything he hated about the Catholic church.
Kicking the Saint
Macedo had also been criticized not only for the thievery which he and his priests were complicit in, but for showing disrespect to other religions. In the early 2000s, UCKG bishop Sérgio Von Helder, who later left the Church, kicked a Catholic icon in a TV program, for which he was later imprisoned for two years. The event was called the “kicking of the saint” incident…
More and More Charges
Though none of the charges of fraud of money laundering have been applied to his case, Macedo has still been under prosecution by US and Venezuelan authorities. Luckily for Macedo, the red tape of being an independent, religious entity, has kept him out of jail since proceedings began in 2013.
Billions in the Bank
Indeed from March 2013 to 2015, Macedo has been on the Forbes billionaires list with a reported $1.1 billion. This means that Macedo is the richest pastor not only in Brazil, but in the entire world. Still, it seems his days at the top of the heap may at last be numbered…
Books and Degrees
Over the years, Macedo has written several religious books including the polemical best-seller Orixás, Caboclos e Guias, Deuses ou Demônios. He claims to have a doctorate in both Theology and Christian Philosophy but that may be simply another outlandish claim by an accomplished charlatan.
Macedo didn’t appear on the 2016 Forbes Billionaires list and it seems like only a matter of time before all he’s done catches up to him. It’s a sad state of affairs though, because all the good his church did do over the years will ultimately be marred by the corruption.