In traditionally Catholic Colombia, Protestant preachers have learned to effectively combine marketing and religion to make themselves enormously wealthy. And thanks to political lobbying and religious freedom, they are exempt from the law and taxes.
CARTAGENA — Outside the La Unción Christian Community Church, in this coastal city in Colombia, hundreds of believers gather to tour the city and bring their “message of salvation” to others. On a white crane, there are six speakers, microphones, recording equipment and about ten people identified as "STAFF".
A drone flies over and records the scene. When everything is ready, Pastor Esteban Acosta goes up to the platform and leads the chants.
The followers, of different ages and economic backgrounds, look animated, holding posters and colored balloons. They are spread out between the current location of the church and its new location, being built across the street. In the old structure, the prized Cartagena land, which cost "a million dollars in credit" according to the pastor, there is room for 2,000 people.
In the new temple, with tinted windows and a marble floor, another 2,000 people will fit. Everything is financed by the "generous contributions" of the parishioners.
Esteban Acosta, a self-proclaimed apostle, and his wife, pastor Lisbeth Bello, convince their followers to make donations in exchange for religious favors, while they amass fortunes to afford a life of luxury. They use marketing strategies and a repetitive message with a simple promise: the more money they give to God through them, the more progress they will have on earth as a reward. They call it the "prosperity gospel."
Price of faith
This doctrine, which was born in the United States in the 1980s, offers hope in exchange for banknotes. The Pentecostal writer Daniel McConell elaborates further: "The doctrine of prosperity is an example of the cultural accommodation of the church to the mundane values of North American materialism."
In the late 1990s, the concept spread easily to Protestants in traditionally Roman Catholic Latin America because the promise of a miracle, health and abundance has greater penetration in unequal contexts.
The promised abundance doesn’t arrive.
“A pastor taught me that you must bring two things to church: the Bible and the checkbook. The Bible so you can learn what God is going to tell you, and a checkbook so you can worship him,” Cash Luna, from the Casa de Dios church in Guatemala, said in a viral video.
Juan G* grew up in a home with beliefs related to Protestantism, but he does not agree with this philosophy "that fills the pockets of the leaders of some congregations." For years, he has watched his mother, 52, and stepfather, 51, comply with their financial contributions: they send 10% of their income to La Unción church, and also make other contributions from time to time.
Meanwhile, the promised abundance doesn’t arrive. “I respect their beliefs, but I am outraged that they are so naive, just like thousands of people who give part of their money to pastors so they can live a fancy life when it should be used to help the poor,” he says.
Juan's parents live in a house that they inherited, in a modest area of Cartagena, in a neighborhood that started with a subsidized housing project. The parents get contributions from their four children. They don't have a car, but they believe what their pastors say: "That the Bible is a contract between God and humans, and God has appointed them to charge his money in exchange for spiritual favors," says Juan.
He remembers that his parents started going in 2004 to the La Unción church, which operated in a small room, where about 100 people could fit. Back then they held four weekly services, but now they offer five services every Sunday and another four from Wednesday to Saturday: 36 opportunities to receive donations each month.
Crowd acclaiming Esteban Acosta's speech at La Unción Christian Community Church, in Cartagena, Colombia.
Real estate and Mercedes
The tiny character who preaches from the crane is wearing jeans and a T-shirt today. But Acosta often wears expensive clothes, watches and shoes. He also goes out with bodyguards and in armored cars because in 2012, supposedly, someone tried to kidnap him.
Acosta and his family move around the city in two cars, a 2019 Ford Edge van and a Mercedes Benz, both purchased in the name of the religious entity and worth more than USD$30,000. In the name of the pastors, there are two apartments in the Manga area, in Cartagena. Both are located in exclusive buildings and cost $86,200 and $146,800. The monthly minimum wage in Colombia is $265.
At the beginning of 2020, the Acosta Bello family bought a house in Naples, Florida, in the United States, a summer resort for millionaires. The have registered it as headquarters of the International Ministry of La Unción INC. The house cost $295,000, according to Zillow. Today the property is valued at $481,000.
In their persuasive speeches, prosperity theology speakers combine self-help phrases with references to biblical passages. In the Sunday afternoon service, Acosta says: “Brothers, do not settle for what you are and what you have, trust the power of affirmation to achieve wealth. We have to be willing to give money in exchange for favors.”
The Ríos de Vida Church
Before the service begins at nine in the morning on Sunday, outside the temple of the Ríos de Vida Church, located in Villagrande de Indias, Turbaco, near Cartagena, some 300 people wait for the previous service to end to enter the temple. Inside there are another 900 people. At the scheduled time, the service begins. The show displays professional sound, five giant screens, colorful lighting, singers, recording equipment and online streaming.
At the time of personalized advice, several higher-ranking devotees go to the front of the auditorium, willing to listen to the concerns of the believers, who get emotional, cry and every once in a while someone falls to the ground stunned. New attendees are asked for their name, age, phone number, profession and if they are business owners. They promise they will contact them.
Pastors Miguel Arrázola and María Paula García are known in Cartagena for turning their church, Ríos de Vida, into a money-making machine. In 2016, within their religious community, they supported the campaign for the "No" in the plebiscite that would seal the peace agreement between the State and the FARC guerilla and led the protests against the sexual education booklets that promoted "gender ideology."
If you empty your pockets, God fills them up for you.
Among the Arrázola properties is an apartment in a Residential Complex, valued at $100,000, and the sale of another one for $163,000, which they left to move to a more exclusive property. His church has offices in Colombia and in Miami. The latter, registered on October 13, 2011, as Iglesia Cristiana Familiar Ríos de Vida, was valued at $494,000.
The Arrázola couple went viral on social media thanks to videos where, in the midst of a pandemic, they asked their believers not to stop contributing to the church: “The more you give, the fuller you will be. You should move and give everything you have because if you empty your pockets here, God fills them up for you,” said Miguel. His wife María Paula encouraged people to deposit their money in a heavenly account in their name in the earthly bank.
On Sunday Miguel Arrázola says from the temple. "The enemy always with his same tricks, like that of communism, which invites you to self-pity. That's not godly," he says, and comments on the possibility of the churches paying taxes: "Those expectations of Satan will not pass."
The Pastors display their possessions on social media and at public events but they have learned to cover the trail of their money. For this reason, perhaps, the lands or the contracts to build a church with a capacity for 5,000 people that costs $3,670,727 do not appear in their name, but it is verifiable that they imported materials for $516,000 in 2018.
There is also no evidence of their contributions to the campaigns of various candidates. Less is known about how many employees they have, nor how much each one earns. But in an investigation, the journalist and activist from Cartagena Edison Lucio Torres said that the donations received by Ríos de Vida is so high that an armored car must pick up the collection. Publishing this caused the journalist to be threatened and censored as a judge ruled in favor of the pastor without analyzing all the documents.
Crowd visibly moved by Esteban Acosta's speech at La Unción Christian Community Church, in Cartagena, Colombia.
Between 2013 and 2021, 4,527 religious entities have been recognized by the Colombian State. Only nine correspond to cults other than evangelical Christians: four from Islam, two from Buddhism and three from Judaism.
In the Ríos de Vida service, it is time to collect the donations. Throughout the hall, men walk with large wicker baskets. At the top they have a hole where the alms can easily enter, but it is not big enough to put your hand in and out. There are also the pacts, for which the congregants must establish a monetary value that they send the church in exchange for the fulfillment of a request. If the request doesn’t come true, they should probably up the ante or strengthen their faith.
In Colombia, the fact that churches have diversified their economic activities was recently made public: they offer training, marriage counseling, vocational talks for young people, national conferences for pastors and leadership training. They also have bookstores, cafeterias, etc.
Another income is the monetization of their activities on digital platforms. On social media, the pastors of these churches are celebrities or public figures. Miguel Arrázola has 627,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel. This has reported profits of at least $50,000. These "religious companies" have also digitalized to receive contributions.
Religious manipulation is not a crime
Prosperity gospel preachers may seem manipulative, but what they do is not a crime under Colombian law. That is why they are untouchable: any collection or activity they carry out is protected.
Since they faithfully believes in the word of the pastor, they do not consider themselves as victims.
Moisés Carreño, a criminal lawyer specializing in Sociology and Social Psychology, explains that the autonomy of the will is one of the most important things in the world of law. In the case of these pastors, the believer gives the money in their own free will in exchange for an untraceable promise: religious favors. And since the devotee faithfully believes in the word of the pastor, they do not consider themselves as victims.
Knowing this, a proposal led by representative Katherine Miranda in the Congress of the Republic was controversial. As part of the tax reform, with the support of 90,000 citizens signatures, she proposed that if the churches have such high incomes from activities that have nothing to do with worship, they should pay income tax.
The initiative passed the first debate in Congress and went on to the second debate. But since the article on the churches was part of a greater tax reform of the recently installed government of Gustavo Petro, those who opposed it demanded that transparency for religious entities be eliminated before the bill could move forward.
Meanwhile, in the Sunday services everyone leaves happy because the offer to God has been given. The pastors have their doctrine of prosperity on earth, and the parishioners have received a strong dose of empowerment and optimism.
No one seems to feel they have been scammed. That compliance makes them untouchable.
*Names have been changed to protect their identity.