By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Roberto Gomez needed a fix. He had loaded up a speedball, two parts heroin and one part cocaine, a ritual he repeated religiously three times daily. In this instance, he had cut the timing a little too close. "My hands were shaking so bad I couldn't control the needle at all," Gomez says. He jabbed again and again, but the wizened veins of a junkie aren't easy targets. Desperate, Gomez wrapped a towel around his arm and dashed for the car, keys in one hand and the precious, bloody syringe in the other. His wife always refused to inject him, so he knew that he'd have to go find a fellow addict at the park, preferably one whose nerves were already calmed by heroin.
It's not a story that very many televangelists would share, but Gomez recounts that day nearly 20 years ago in a soft, even voice, his round, olive-skinned face betraying little emotion. He is a man clearly at peace with his past, and understandably so; from the depths of addiction Gomez has risen to build a nascent evangelical empire, Iglesia Jesucristo es mi Refugio.
When Gomez took over the Pentecostal congregation in 1993, he was still serving probation from a 1988 drug bust. The membership plummeted from around 90 to just seven. Now it boasts 2,500 members, a rehabilitation center and an in-house television studio. Gomez hopes that JEMIR will soon be a bona fide megachurch, a Spanish-language equivalent of T.D. Jakes' Potter's House or Joel Osteen's Lakewood Baptist in Houston. And in pursuit of that goal, Gomez is a startlingly aggressive fund-raiser. He constantly turns his sermons to the benefits of "el diezmo," the 10 percent tithe, while his message, aimed at his socially conservative Latino base, is long on faith but perhaps a bit short on tolerance.
The tithing that Gomez pushes from the pulpit is an odd mixture of ancient bureaucracy and modern theology. The 10 percent tax is often mentioned in the Old Testament as a normal feature of Jewish life. The practice originally didn't make the transition to Christianity, but after it was reinstituted by the medieval Catholic Church it became an inextricable part of the feudal economy. Tithing is an important feature of the "prosperity gospel," the post-World War II belief popularized by evangelist Oral Roberts and others. The idea is that pledging money is like sowing financial seed in the hopes of harvesting a much greater crop down the road. The leading prosperity preachers, such as Creflo Dollar and Fort Worth-based Kenneth Copeland, go a step further, suggesting that a tithe is a contract in which God is virtually obligated to provide financial blessings.
Even with that tantalizing prospect, giving away one dollar in 10 is a tough sell for Gomez's largely working-class congregation. "It's really difficult with Latinos unless they are taught how to give," Gomez says. "They had to learn that with their tithes they are making a pact with God." In his sermons, Gomez spells out the terms of the pact, promising bigger houses and better cars. "The money that you make, it's dirty money," Gomez thunders from the pulpit. "When God asks for his tithe, he's only taking a tenth. The 90 that's left is blessed."
One effect of the prosperity gospel is that pastors are expected to embody the rewards of the arrangement. Records show Gomez owns several lots in DeSoto. Anyone passing his primary address will behold a gleaming SUV in front of a large, modern stone house with a soaring entryway, while in the back tall fences conceal what could be a pool or a tennis court. "I've got a ranch with six acres," Gomez says. "I've got absolutely nothing to hide."
The church building on South Westmoreland Road in Oak Cliff seems to back Gomez up. From outside, the sprawling structure surrounded by a vast parking lot still looks a lot like the flea market it once was, right down to the towering, garish sign by the road. Inside, however, the building, purchased by the church for $1.8 million in 2000, has been transformed into a media conglomerate. One set of offices puts out La Zarza, the church's 7-year-old magazine. Another houses a radio studio with a separate booth for guest interviews. In the rear, occupying the space rented for church services in Gomez's first years as pastor, is a large TV studio. From here, JEMIR sends programs to 12 broadcast channels from California to Florida, including programs hosted by Gomez, wife Elva and their 19-year-old son Daniel. The sanctuary itself suffers from its low ceiling but can hold upward of 3,000 worshipers who watch sermons, concerts and plays on the velvet-draped stage. A large kitchen sells meals after services, and a separate meeting hall is rented out for weddings and meetings. The church also runs three religious bookstores scattered around Dallas as well as a 30-bed rehabilitation center, the Casa de Rescate (Rescue House).
In short, it's clear that Gomez isn't hoarding the tithe money. "People aren't stupid," says Jesus Saldana, a stocky, curly-haired church employee. "They can see they're doing something good, that there are lives being changed." Among those changed is Saldana's. Like Gomez, he was a drug addict and street brawler before he discovered his faith and checked into the Casa de Rescate eight years ago. Saldana is now married and has three children, a miraculous turnaround. He says JEMIR also produces more sudden miracles. "People have been cured of cancer, people have been cured of AIDS," Saldana says. "We have recorded testimonials of people who came to the church with AIDS and the power of God cured them."
Gilberto Lopez was among the first clients of the rehab center 11 years ago. He now directs the center and says it has treated more than 3,000 patients. "Of those 3,000 people, we can honestly say that we've restored around 2,800 of them," Lopez says. The center takes on alcoholism, drug addiction and gangs. But it also battles witchcraft and demons, Lopez says. Another malady as defined by the church: homosexuality. "We have had cases where homosexuals say that they're happy, but once we treat them they say that really there is emptiness inside them," Lopez says. "It's like a drug addict may appear to be happy but inside there is an emptiness."
Emptiness also describes the center's original West Dallas home. Two years ago, the building was heavily damaged by a fire and still hasn't been repaired. The center now occupies a cramped rental building in Pleasant Grove. Apparently Gomez's drive to expand the reach of his media empire leaves little left over for his rehab center, and Lopez doesn't have the credit rating to take out a personal loan. Most of the bills, up to $3,000 a week, are paid for with the labor of its residents, who are hired out to install drywall, fix plumbing and trim trees. "The church also has a lot of expenses," Lopez argues. "I prefer to pray to God and ask him to help me somehow."