The Universal Church paid $2.1 million for the former Tusculum Church of Christ at 4916 Nolensville Road
NashvillePost.com has received a response to this story sent on behalf of the Universal Church by a spokesperson based in Southampton, England. It reads as follows:
Our client, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in the UK, would like to respond to your article in today’s Nashville Post. Firstly thank you for accurately reporting two comments by Bishop Renato Cardoso, who heads the church here in the UK and Europe; however we are concerned about other aspects of the content.
We appreciate that there are inaccurate reports about UCKG in circulation on the internet, as, indeed, there are of other sincere and committed Christian denominations.
I would therefore ask if you would be willing to run a further story on the good work that the church does here and correct the errors about Victoria Climbié. Briefly, the church did not accept her aunt’s view that the little girl was possessed, and was the only organisation to have helped by getting her to hospital. It was formally exonerated in a report by the Charity Commission, the body that regulates charities in the UK.
UCKG is a proactive church that goes out into the world to help people overcome problems and bad lifestyles. For instance one pastor currently working in London was a gang member in New York before discovering a better way of life through Christianity. He now has a key role in UCKG’s work helping young people to escape from the gang and guns culture that some of the most disadvantaged youths turn to.
UCKG also offers a range of activities supporting the family — from weekly seminars and pastoral support for parents to after school clubs, Sunday Schools and Youth Groups. These are open to church members and the general public and run by pastors who have all undergone five years training and meet the requirements of UCKG’s child protection policy.
The investigative report of the UK's Charity Commission, confirming that the church lacked a child protection policy at the time Victoria Climbié was brought to its services and that "the seriousness of her condition was not fully realized or reported to the relevant authorities."
As originally posted:
New churches sprout up all the time here in the buckle of the Bible Belt. But one congregation about to arrive in Nashville may bring a hefty load of baggage from around the globe.
In Houston, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God has faced lawsuits from disillusioned former members who claimed it defrauded poor immigrants out of large amounts of money by convincing them that their donations would bring them salvation.
In Brazil, its home country, authorities detained a top official of this Pentecostal denomination in 2005 as he landed in a private jet toting seven suitcases that held the equivalent of $4.7 million in cash. The church's founder has been accused in Brazil of embezzlement and tax evasion, but he has never been convicted.
In London, the Universal Church is best known for its connection to the Victoria Climbié case. The guardians of eight-year-old Victoria, a refugee from the Ivory Coast, took her to a UCKG church three times during the period in early 2000 when they were inflicting some 128 separate injuries on her body, as they tortured her in order to break Satan's hold over her soul. The pastor prayed for her health. Only on the last visit, when she was semi-conscious, did he suggest they see a doctor. At the enquiry after her death, he said he too had considered her possessed.
And now the Universal Church is coming to Nashville.
The church, which typically sets up amid immigrant populations, is planting itself in the middle of the largest concentration of Latino immigrants in Nashville. It recently bought the Tusculum Church of Christ's old location at 4916 Nolensville Road for $2.1 million.
Tusculum moved into a new church on Nolensville Road in December and had been trying to sell the old property for nearly three years. Alliant Commercial Realty Services had carried the listing since 2005.
The Universal Church has yet to open in the new location, and an official with its U.S. headquarters in New York hasn't responded to calls from NashvillePost.com in the past week. This church would be the first one for the UCKG in Tennessee. There are indications that leaders for this congregation may be coming up from Universal churches in North Georgia, where carpet manufacturing capital Dalton and other communities have seen massive increases in Hispanic populations over the past decade.
The church is believed to have some 10 million parishioners in 90 or more countries. Edir Macedo Bezerra, who has been described as a Brazilian business tycoon, founded the church in the late 1970s. Since then, in addition to expanding the church, Macedo has expanded its holdings to include newspapers and television and radio stations in Brazil as well as other parts of the world.
Critics of the church consider it as a cult or sect, with internet sites devoted to describing the church's alleged misdeeds. Many criticisms center on the church's interpretation of the Christian concept of tithing — claiming specifically that the church practices "prosperity theology," charging parishioners and non-parishioners for the service of dislodging demons from their souls. The targets are usually desperate people of poor or working-class backgrounds, according to critics.
Mario Ramos, an immigration attorney and a leader in Nashville's Hispanic community, said he has never heard of the Universal Church. Ramos said, though, that it doesn't surprise him a church would target the Latino community. "A lot of churches look at the Hispanic community for opportunities for growth," he said.
But Nashville's fast-growing Spanish-speaking population also has been a target for charlatans, too, many them Hispanic. There have been tales of rogue real estate agents calling themselves Realtors yet never getting the license. Ramos said the environment is ripe because Nashville's Hispanic community is so new, with roughly 65 percent of the population not being born in the U.S. "It is easy to put out a title and claim to be an expert," he said. "Predators are out there and there's no enforcement."
With the Universal Church, there are many media accounts of controversies surrounding the church and its practices, a collection of which can be viewed at [the Ross Institute database...] a critic of the church. One example from federal Bankruptcy Court records gives a sense of the commitment that church members feel to the UCKG.
After a Brooklyn parishioner of the Universal Church filed for bankruptcy in 2000, declaring total earnings of $199,557 from 1997 through 1999, it emerged that she had donated $78,977 — just under 40 percent of her income — to the church during those three years. The woman testified that after she joined the church in 1997, it had helped her overcome personal problems, and that "she felt good about the money she gave because it went to help others improve their lives," according to a judge's account in an appeals-court decision.
In January, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal arising from that bankruptcy case (Universal Church v. Geltzer) in which the church argued that forcing it to return the contributions was an infringement of its First Amendment rights.
A 2005 Reuters dispatch from Mexico City described the UCKG's rapid growth in Mexico — from zero to 48 churches — since 2001. "Whereas most religions collect coins for church upkeep," the news service reported, "the UCKG tells people desperate to save a dying loved-one, find a job or restore a broken marriage that a large donation could move God to help them."
Officials of the church have generally had little to say publicly when facing criticism of its operations in recent years within Europe and the Americas. But Universal Church Bishop Renato Cardoso did respond to an article in an Irish newspaper last year that was critical of the church. Cardoso denied that members are required to give any particular amount of money to the UCKG: "While tithing, the gift of ten per cent of earnings, is encouraged, it is not obligatory," he said.
As to the practice of casting out "demons" from parishioners — which some critics call "exorcism" — Cardoso wrote: "It is our experience that prayer can be used very effectively to break cycles of disadvantage, if you do not like the word 'curse.' Once the cycle is broken, people experience a new freedom to live their lives more fully and often more successfully."