It was in the year 1978 and he had just got 38 years old, when Mariano Zuniega Velarde - a qualified land surveyor and later real estate agent - felt heart-troubles. In a heart centre, an enlargement of heart and vasoconstrictions were diagnosed. An operation seemed to be risky. In this time an angel - "disguised as a nurse" (1) - appeared to him at night and advised him to read and to study a passage in the Corinthian letter. Velarde did so and from now on he felt that his vitality came again. The announced operation was unnecessary.
He follows now a Catholic oriented "Born again”-Congregation and is organizing the first faith gatherings in public. However, it still takes time until the fisherman of pesos and dollars became a fisherman of religious followers. At first Velarde is still doing his job as buyer and seller of real estates. In 1981 he was offered for two million pesos a property area nearby the Ninoy Aquino airport. A radio station belonged to the property. Velarde bought it and ran into debt. He waited for a financial miracle. It happened promptly after a "faith seed donation" of 50,000 Pesos. Now he was able to sell the property for 60 million Pesos to wealthy investors.
The radio station becomes the germ cell of the charismatic religious movement, he was starting now. In his radio programs the religious Roman Catholic calls for confession of sins and religious revival. He - the former gambler - refers to his own life and conjures the positive, wondrous, healing effects of a religiously inspired life. His broadcastings find a strong resonance particularly under an audience with a more distant relationship to the established Roman Catholic Church. Soon Velarde organizes and conducts religious rallies in the open air and has always to look for bigger arenas. He is full-time missionary now. Under the roof of the Roman Catholic Church the charitable foundation and layman organization “El Shaddai DWXI Prayer Partners Foundation International (DWXI-PPFI) is founded. The foundation has several hierarchy levels. Velarde, also called "Brother Mike", is as a "serving manager" at the head of the newly founded institution. He rather plays down his leading role: "I am not the one, who leads this people; it is the Lord who leads us. He is a True Shepherd and I am only one of his flocks (1).” Now his institution is receiving a lot of donations. There are no clues that Velarde did line his own pockets. It is only known that he is owner of a middle class villa.
The growing popularity of the movement
The number of his audience has increased from some few thousands to hundred thousand by now. In 1992 an audience of round about 1.5 million was counted at a prayer and healing rally in Manila. In another mass rally in the province (San Dionnisio, Paranaque) more than half million listeners and followers gathered. Today the worldwide number of followers is estimated at 11 millions (2). The numbers differ - depending on reference to audience, regular visitors, followers or members of the movements. El Shaddai claimed in 1999 to have worldwide five million "regular" visitors of prayer rallies. We don't know, how "regularly" is defined and how exact quoting could be at a mass meeting. The number of the registered members is considerably lower. Following information of El Shaddai the number of members was in the year 2000 round about 220,000 (1). The followers are predominantly belonging to the poorer classes of society.
Meanwhile the transmitting power of radio DVXI has been increased to 30 kilowatts. The radio station has approximately half a million listener weekly in the area of Manila and is belonging to the three most popular radio stations in Manila. As of 1992 religious television programs are broadcasted on channel IBC TV-13 twice in the week. By now 62 chapters have been founded in abroad. Followers can be found in Arabian and Asian countries with a high share of Philippine contract workers, in the United States, Canada, Australia and in Western Europe.
The theological approach
The name "El Shaddai" is derived from the Hebrew; "El" stands for God and "Shaddai" for omnipotence. So the word combination has the meaning of “God, the Almighty”.
Before charismatic movements were only known within Protestant denominations. The believers refer particularly to the Holy Spirit. In more emotional ceremonies they seek for a personal interaction with the Holy Spirit, to get after creed and confessions his offerings and wonders .The rites and the ceremonies are normally more lively and to a certain degree more dramatically than the conventional rite of the official churches. For charismatic believer the weekday is determined by the presence of God. But there are also manifestations of the Satan and the demons especially in the form of vices. The conviction can result in a more black and white picture of the world without shades.
El Shaddai sees itself as a charismatic movement within the Roman Catholic Church. Velarde has never let any doubt about his Roman Catholic confession: "By religious affinity, I am a Catholic. Very clearly, I intend to stay are Catholic”(1). But sometimes there are reproaches, that his movement represents a kind of side church next to the Roman Catholic church ("Para-Church").
The layman preacher Velarde, who mainly preaches in Tagalog language, offers no ingenious theology. Primarily he wants to inspire trust in the Holy Spirit and his gifts. His message is: Help yourself by prayers and the Holy Spirit will help you. And this help can also be very materialistic. "Do you want to have a refrigerator?” he shouted once to an enthusiastic crowd, “if you believe, you will also have a refrigerator” (3). Some observers believe that these material success promises are also substantial for the popularity of the El Shaddai movement. Other promises can be: the curing of a sick person, the elimination of an addiction, the mastering of a marital crisis, the successful passing of an examination or getting a job.
To a great extend Velarde is blending out the social causes of injustices (e.g. structural poverty); in this respect his teachings are conservative. His religious preaches are mingled with moral appeals. He opposes corruption, graft, electoral fraud and vote buying. He emphasises the value of work. There is a phrase from him: "Don’t just pray - work!"(3)- Isn’t this appeal strongly suggestive to Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic of capitalism? In his addresses he demands furthermore for more discipline, more national solidarity and a stronger support of families.
Undoubtedly the El Shaddai movement finds the support of the Roman Catholic Church of the Philippines. Perhaps the church must even be grateful to El Shaddai, because it prevents further exoduses from the Roman Catholic Church to other religious communities. It is known, that in the Philippines within the last decades the percentage of the Catholic Church members has fallen from 86 % to 82 %. The narrow relationship between the two institutions is also underlined by the fact that a bishop as "spiritual adviser" is sitting in the executive level of El Shaddai. Whether Bishop Teodore Bacani was and still is the right man at this position is a controversial issue. In 1992 his former secretary accused him of sexually harassing her. But El Shaddai still supported his adviser and conceded Bacani "unconditional" support (4). Under the public pressure the bishop resigned in 1993 from his office, but kept his title.
The question how much the traditional Roman Catholic rite can be variable in adaptation to local conditions isn't fully clarified. There are within the Catholic Church of the Philippines conservative and liberal voices. Some are arguing that the relation to the Holy Spirit cannot be a simple relationship of the kind “I give you – You give me”. They can recognize in the religious noisiness, mass amusement, gimmickry and showbiz antics “á la Hollywood” no spirituality, only emotionality (5). Critical observers – referring to the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount - also disapprove a certain transfiguration of wealth and capitalism. Some are missing the adoration of Saint Mary. There is a remark of Velarde, that the direct way to God is the shorter one. William M. Esposo(6) reports that some conservative priests are seeing the illusionist Velarde already on the edge of heresy because of his "stupid" practices not known in the traditional Catholic rites. Velarde also declines the admiration of pictures of Saints and the use of rosaries. Another critical point is that his teaching suggests the feasibility of miracles. Velarde wrote:
"Do you need a miracle? Would you want me to pray with you? Wherever you may be, this Newsletter can serve as a contact point of our faith for God's miracle power to operate – if you only believe and accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour!" (10)
Other more liberal voices (7) approve alternative faith entrances in the context of the Roman Catholic faith principles and they speak up for more variability in the Roman Catholic rite. They point out that for many believers the traditional liturgy is too less interactive in the sense of active participation and they still see barriers of understanding with regard to the old rites. Further on the social work of the Roman Catholic seems to them underdeveloped.
The strong ties of El Shaddai to the Roman Catholic church has for El Shaddai followers the psychological advantage that they - unlike the Protestant "Iglesia ni Cristo" (INC) - don't have to give up their traditional faith relationship. They are not pushed into "strange water" and must not be afraid but to be treated as a religious minority.
Elements of religious dramaturgy
We leave the theology of El Shaddai and turn our attention to the rituals, which find its culmination perhaps in the so-called "Baptism of Spirit" (8). Of course there is not always the same broad mix of actions.
To the simple, not less effective means of production clothes are belonging. Velarde for example comes across with fly and loud coloured – sometimes yellow or violet - suits, so that he could be seen well in public. In the context of the “Baptism of Spirit” the "mediators" are wearing orange coloured jackets, the “healers” green ones. The variable use of the light is another instrument, for example the focusing of the cone of light or the glooming of light. Indispensable elements are also musical interludes. This could be a singer, a choir or a band. El Shaddai has a relatively wide repertoire of religious songs ("Lord forgive me "- "This is how we overcome"). The songs are also offered as CD.
The qualified religious leader knows his rhetorical and gesticulatory means: for example raising and lowering of the voice, breaks, the repetition of important messages, opening of hands, stretching out of arms, and the request of repeating a sentence or closing of the eyes.
And what is doing the audience? No, they are not sitting dumb and devoted like classical church-goers sitting in dark church chairs for a longer time. It is greeting, shaking und clapping with hands, waving handkerchiefs; it is singing, dancing and crying. We hear shouting like: “Praise the Lord” - “I see the Lord! I have seen the King!” Confirmation comes with a loud “Amen”. Other believers – especially in the ceremony of “baptism of spirit” - are practising curious sound exercises and some are speaking with a strange tongue. That is also the hour to reconciliate under tears with the partner or neighbour or to go to the stage, to give evidence of a “wonder of faith”. These witness appearances are particularly attractive. They follow the model: "I had financial problems and couldn't afford any meal. I prayed and a friend brought me food” – “I was a roughneck, drinker and philanderer, my marriage was at a critical point. Then I called the Holy Spirit and he helped me "-- "I had high blood pressure… “. One rainy day Velarde asked his audience to hold its umbrellas reversed against the sky to "catch" the blessings. These activities, which are planned and spontaneous, can be declined. They correspond, however, on a large scale the demand for an active participation of the believers in the service.
Relatively strict requirements on members and representatives
To become a registered member of the El Shaddai it is necessary to prove the successful passing of a "Catholic Life-in-the-Spirit Seminar”. After submission and positive check of the application form the member expects a variety of duties. Here an abbreviated excerpt of duties (1):
To pray the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 91, Psalm 23 every 6:00 a.m., 12 noon and 6:00 p.m.
To be a “living witness of Christ”, which leads seven persons to accept Jesus Christ and encourage them to attend the fellowships of the Foundation
“To give regularly the tithes, miracle-seed-of-faith-offerings, or love offerings to the vineyard of God through the Foundation”
Furthermore it is expected to attend the fellowships or prayer-meetings of the foundation at least once a week
Besides the membership the function of a servant-volunteer worker is also offered. Here the religious and moral requirements (1) are stricter:
An attendant must be a baptized Catholic and has to be born again or renewed in the spirit through the foundation.
He must be of good moral character and standing in the community. He has to be submissive to the authorities of El Shaddai and the Catholic Church.
The servant-volunteer must have a good record of service in the Foundation and compliance with guidelines for at least three years.
He must be "completely" delivered from any kind of vices. As vices are listed for example: gambling, smoking, drinking liquor and illicit or extra-marital relationships.
The applicant must have no pending case in court with regard to “moral turpitude”, adultery, divorce, malversation of funds and swindling.
And they have to be at least three years member of the foundation.
We should add, that at El Shaddai women are also allowed to conduct prayers.
Are there any return favours of the foundation to these strict requirements? It’s clear – that officials will first refer to the mediated well-being and salvation of spirit. Besides this, there are also concrete help promises which, however, are not formulated precisely and came relatively late. "Particularly poor" members and "supporters" are for example offered the following social contributions:
free medical consultations; laboratory examinations and optical and dental services for a reduced fee; medicines at factory prices
Burial assistance and disaster and relief assistance
Free legal consultation or advice by voluntary advocates
The El Shaddai foundation has also a charity clinic which is conducted by the oldest son of Velarde. Katherine Wiegele comes in her book "Investing in Miracles" to the conclusion, that in 1995 the medical institutions are hardly designed for a large number of members and supporters and that only few made use of it. (10)
No published balance sheet
There are a lot of rumours about the suspected fortune of the El Shaddai foundation. Eyewitnesses claim to have seen that after the end of rallies innumerable bags filled with donation monies are brought into the headquarters. The counting of money would need more than a week. And these collections are quickly inflated to billion fortunes. The rumours find food by the fact that El Shaddai does not publish a sheet of balance. Only now and then vague scarce information is brought to the public.
The main sources of income are known: the “tithes” (ten percent of income) from members and various donations. There is an information von Velarde from the year 2001 declaring that the collections would reach a sum of $ 380,000 to 400,000 monthly (3). The expense items are also known, in principle. It is told, that round about forty per cent of the offerings and donations are placed for the support of the local cell groups in the Philippines and abroad. In another interview Velarde told that half of the revenues go to the Catholic Church because El Shaddai is often using the facilities of the Church (3).
Followers and non-followers can buy capital shares from the “El Shaddai Golden Rule Corp.”. The joint-stock company operates at least one supermarket ("Super Bodega"); here shareholders can buy products at a reduced price. The investment fund share is also a kind of lottery ticket. If a shareholder has the rather rare luck to be pulled, then he can purchase a cut-price house at the periphery of Manila. We want to assume in favour of El Shaddai that the earnings of this joint-stock company also are taxed. In September 2004 the Philippine Attorney General had pointed out again that all activities and fortune positions, which do not support religious activities, are subject to the taxation.
Confronted with the approach of personal enrichment Velarde once made the ironical statement: “If I am a thief, I don't steal money, but soul from of the grip of Satan!" (3).
Like his Protestant competitor Erano Manola of the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) Velarde also pokes his nose in politics and politicians are seeking his advice because they suspect a voter potential behind him. This may be wrong. Following an investigation of the Social Weather Station from the year 1998 81% of the INC (11) members followed the recommendation of their church leadership und voted for Joseph Estrada, but only 39% of the El Shaddai followers did so. The concept of block voting doesn't seem to work always (5).
In 1992 already Mariano recommended his followers to vote in favour of Fidel Ramos as president. This was a relatively courageous decision with regard to the Catholic mother church because for cardinal Sin Ramos was rather a political opponent. Sin strictly rejected Ramos views of birth contraception and population development.
Joseph Estrada was also supported by the authorities of El Shaddai when running for the office of the Philippine president. Later – when Estrada’s political offences became public - they even clutched at him when the Catholic Church already opposed Estrada. At present Velarde is trying to get reconciliation between the political camps of president Arrayo and former president Estrada.
In the public opinion about the founder and chief of El Shaddai Velarde we find two extreme views bout him. Both may be wrong. Some few see him as swindler and wrong prophet, harking together millions of Pesos from poor people with a doubtful which this one with a doubtful “born again” and prosperity theology (5). In this context he is also called a "toll boss of salvation”. But till now, a private money-making couldn't be proved. The other extreme view celebrates him as a prophet or reincarnation of Moses. Now Velarde has always declined a prophet role for himself and he declared that he as person can’t work wonders.
We come nearer to the truth, when we see him as a successful evangelist, who gives a fresh impetus and accents to the religious life in the Philippines by new forms of addresses. May be that he can stop the drift off of more catholic believers. Churches and religious groups have to practice a religious marketing if they want to follow their mission. Loud rattling can be part of it. At present it is unclear, which scope of development and room to manoeuvre Velarde will have in future. We read in an article: “The Vatican has given its approval to El Shaddai but some conservative cardinals frown on the movement, whose gatherings seem a world away from traditional Catholic services.” (9)
© Wolfgang Bethge, in 2005
(1) Welcome to El Shaddai, in: http://www.geocities.com/el shaddai_dwxi_ppfi
(2) Balia news service, El Shaddai to well-disposed, Mass, 12.11.2005
(3) Jose Manuel Tesoro, Rising prophet, 2001, in: http://www.asiaweek.com/asiaweek/.96/0920/feat11.htm
(4) Blanche S. Rivera, El Shaddai Leaders aids full support for bishop, Inquirer News Service, 10.06.03
(5) William Esposo, God + money + politics, in: inq7.net, 11-25-2005
(6) William M. Esposo, Bishop Bacani must choose better Friend, in: inq7.net, 6-23-2003
(7) Nono L. Alfonso SJ, Odd people in our midst, in: http://www.jesuits.ph/ignaciana/News/odd%20people.htm
(8) Look also the excellent report from : Christl Keßler, Reiche Jesus Deine Hände – Katholische Charismatiker in den Philippinen, in: Überblick- Zeitschrift für Ökumenische Bewegung und Internationale Zusammenarbeit, 01/2005, p. 20 ff
(9) Faith, Hip and Charity, in: The Standard-China’s Business Newspaper, 22. April, 2005
(10) Katharine L. Wiegele, Investing in Miracles – El Shaddai and the Transformation of popular Catholicism in the Philippines, 2005, p. 34 and 52
(11) Look also : Wolfgang Bethge, Iglesia ni Cristo- die familiendynastisch geführte Sekte, in: http://bethge.freepage.de/iglesia.htm