Don't believe for a minute that the UCKG Stop Suffering Center, the storefront church tucked along Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta, is just a little place for the downtrodden to worship during the day, said Hector Avalos. "It's not a little church," said Avalos, a former fundamentalist preacher who is now an Iowa State University religion professor. "But a storefront is not a big surprise."
For the past eight months, the Brazilian-based Universal Church of the Kingdom of God has quietly operated the Stop Suffering Center --- the church's first appearance in Georgia --- in the midst of the hustle and bustle of one of Atlanta's most famous arteries. To a block that includes the Wachovia Bank building and the swanky Ritz-Carlton, with Macy's and the Westin-Peachtree Plaza across the street, the church on some days adds to what looks like a mini-religious swap meet. Behind sunglasses, a man in a lime-green suit and a straw hat sat on a recent day in a folding chair a few feet down from the center handing out business cards that promoted a prayer service.
"It's prayer time; tell a friend," he bellowed melodically to passers-by. On the opposite corner another man in a gray business suit passed out cards, letting people know how spirituality can heal relationships. So far things have been mostly quiet, said Art Gildred, manager of the Florsheim Shoe Store next door. "But when they moved in, I thought it was a bit odd," he said. "But people will put anything anywhere."
Church officials say people come to the center for spiritual counseling for everyday problems like finances, career and family issues. But there are also Tuesday sessions when ailments are treated with anointing oil. And the Friday meetings for ridding the body of demons, witchcraft and curses. "From homeless people to people in suits," a whole spectrum of people walk through the doors for the three daily services, said the center's pastor, Sergio Medina.
Not everyone is pleased with the UCKG's presence. Jonah Goldberg, a sales consultant for upscale men's clothier H. Stockton-Atlanta, which is across the street, said the church isn't what Peachtree needs. "It sets a bad tone for tourism," he grumbled. The center's windows are plastered with three large black and white posters featuring black men and women testifying how the church's teachings eased their ills. Inside, a small desk and chair sit near the front of the room. The brightly lighted room is fully carpeted, with 12 neat rows of four brown chairs. The walls are blank, except for the words, "Jesus Christ Is The Lord," in gold-lettering next to a brown cross on the back wall. Soft music, mostly strings, floats elegantly across the room.
Medina, who moved to Atlanta from a Los Angeles UCKG center, is like most of the church's other workers --- male, young [...] and clean-cut, most wearing shirts and ties each day. With the exception of a polite, quick sentence or two, Medina refused to be interviewed --- at the behest of the church's local bishop, he said. Church attendees also declined repeated interview requests. "This isn't the right time," Medina said politely. "We have other things that we're focusing on right now."
A reason they may be leery is the church's own past. Its roots go back 27 years to a Brazilian radio program in which disgruntled Catholic Edir Macedo, a former lottery official in Brazil, began a group that's blossomed into an international movement of an estimated 10 million followers in 85 countries, according to the UCKG's newspaper, City News. The church spread into the United States in 1994 with an outlet in New York. UCKG churches have since sprung up in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, California, Illinois, Florida, Texas and Washington.
Based in Pentecostal beliefs, the church stresses moral and economic prosperity as part of its 16 keys to a sound life. Services, while often sparsely attended now, are lively, full of music and singing, include folks speaking in tongues and sometimes will have a few exorcisms. Actually, the UCKG isn't so out of place in a town of Cable News Network, banks and music.
Worldwide, the UCKG owns television and radio stations, banks, a recording studio, newspapers, a professional soccer team and other businesses, according to published reports. But at times, it has been a source of controversy. A UCKG pastor in predominantly Catholic Brazil was sentenced to two years in prison after he smacked a likeness of Brazil's patron saint, Our Lady of Aparecida, on national television in 1995.
In 1997, the Brazilian government found the church guilty of tax evasion. A group of former members in Houston tried to sue the church, believing they were bilked out of money. Texas officials found nothing illegal but said the church has raised eyebrows. "There were lots of complaints and people affected by the church in Houston," said Tom Kelley of the Texas attorney general's office. The church's thorniest issue is the way people are asked to give money.
"This is a church based on need and greed," said Avalos. "It functions as a spiritual version of Wall Street." He explains that by saying the church operates much like the work of Jim Bakker or Atlanta's Creflo Dollar, by preaching prosperity theology, "which is based on the idea that if you give money to the church, God will repay you in some way."
"(Members) actually make the check out to the pastor, but God is supposed to send them back the money," Avalos said. "It's a scheme in such a way. It will benefit the top of the church, but not the needs of the members." Local UCKG officials repeatedly refused to answer questions about the church. Church officials in New York didn't respond to questions faxed to them. But Bishop Marcelo Crivella, who leads a UCKG church in Brazil, told the Chicago Tribune that they are doing God's will.
"We will continually grow because we have the right message," he said. "We tell (our followers) to give their best. "It is just as God has given," Crivella said. "It is a sacrifice when you love someone to give the best you can." So far, local services at the Stop Suffering Center have been quiet and most daytime services are empty, except for a few people trickling in off the street.
Nine people --- two men and seven women --- attended a recent Sunday service. A young pastor sang and preached while some assistants --- even one who silently mouthed in unison the pastor's same words --- stood nearby. "Evil spirit, get out!" he shouted as he admonished satanic spirits representing everything from addictions to court cases to marital problems. Officials have set their sights on the folks who historically make up the church's core group --- poor people and people of color.
They've been out in various Atlanta public housing areas talking to people, and they're looking for a way to get Atlanta's Afro-Caribbean populace into their services. "There were a lot of (Afro-Caribbeans) in our churches in other places that have family here," Medina said.
One clear afternoon recently, center assistant Chris Moscos stood, as usual, just outside the church's doors. Avalos' view didn't faze him. "Some people will say good things. Some people will say bad things. I have no problem with that," he said with a shrug. "It might just help us by pointing out what we're doing wrong. That way we can make it better."