Church brands members with ’666′ tattoos
Surrounded by a mob of news cameras, a group of smiling, well-dressed church members crowded into a South Beach storefront parlor on a recent muggy evening and got matching tattoos of their prophet’s symbol: 666.
Members of Growing in Grace, a controversial religious sect headquartered in Doral, said they were following the example of their leader, Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda, who has claimed to be Jesus and recently declared himself the Antichrist.
Critics have called De Jesus a cult leader who manipulates followers. Church members say he has brought them happiness and spiritual fulfillment.
“This is backing up what I truly believe,” said Alvaro Albarracin, 38, who heads a film production company and joined the church more than a decade ago. He showed a bandage that covered the freshly tattooed “666” on his forearm. “It’s like a brand. It’s like a sign.”
It’s a sign most Christians would shun, because for centuries the numbers have been associated with Satan. But for the 30 or so church members who branded themselves with 666 and SSS — the initials of De Jesus’ motto, “salvo siempre salvo,” or “saved always saved” — it’s a mark of their absolute faith in De Jesus. Church members say the symbol doesn’t connect them to Satan but rather to De Jesus’ claim that he has replaced Christ’s teachings with a new gospel.
Scholars and critics of the movement say the tattoos offer frightening evidence of the influence De Jesus commands over his followers.
“What is he going to do next to call attention to himself?” asked Daniel Alvarez, an instructor in the department of religious studies at Florida International University who has studied the movement. “This means that his control over people is so great that no matter what he says to them, they’ll follow him.” De Jesus was was not available to comment, said a church spokeswoman.
At the tattoo parlor, one woman wore a T-shirt with De Jesus’ picture and the phrase “The Lord Arrived” in Spanish. Others wore shirts and baseball caps marked with 666. Spanish rap music blared from a stereo in the back.
News cameras circled the tattoo chair as artist Jessica Segatto, wearing pink rubber gloves and a huge silver cross, carefully inked 666 on church members’ ankles, forearms, backs and one member’s neck. Some members said they decided to attend the tattooing session — which was prompted by a church announcement the previous week — to prove their commitment to De Jesus’ vision. Others said they hoped the symbol would provoke questions about the movement.