Garay is like a father figure to his parishioners; I met a few who had named their children after him or his wife. Parishioners told me stories about his coming with them to their court hearings, showing them how to buy a phone card or find a good school for their children or, for the more entrepreneurial, invest in a small business. Oral Roberts’s seed-faith concept is the source of much suspicion about prosperity churches; pastors, including Garay, ask their parishioners to give 10 percent of their income to the church. But to Garay, seed faith is the church’s central tenet. The tithe, he says, is tangible proof that a believer has taken the first step toward God. It is the spiritual equivalent of spending three years selling flowers door-to-door. He often tells what’s known as Jesus’ parable of the three servants, from Matthew. A lord gives three of his servants money. Two invest the money and double their profit, and a third hides his in the ground. When the master returns, he declares the third “wicked and lazy” and a “worthless slave,” and casts him into the “outer darkness.” “To receive God’s bounty, you cannot hide your head in the sand,” Garay preaches. “You have to take a leap of faith.”
I asked Garay why his parishioner Billy Gonzales, who earns barely $25,000 and has no money to fix his car, should donate 10 percent of his income. “Because it gives him a new mentality. It teaches him that money can breed more money, that you can have money in your pocket on Saturday morning even though you got paid Friday night. People who support the church week after week have a dedication. Those who just give $5 or $10 here and there, you’ll hear them have the same problems week after week.” Jackson Lears would add another explanation: tithing is like the moment the gambler lays his money down on the table—it “promises at least a fleeting opportunity to contact a realm where hope is alive,” he writes. Without it, there’s only the dull regularity of $2,000 a month and a dead car.
During the boom years, Apostle Garay, as he is known in church, was brasher than he is now. He spoke in very specific terms during church services, promising that a $100 offering would yield a $10,000 return: “This is not my promise. It is God’s promise, and he will make it happen!” he would say.
While it sounds absurd, this kind of message can have a positive influence, according to Tony Tian-Ren Lin, a researcher at the University of Virginia who has made a close study of Latino prosperity gospel congregations over the years. These churches typically take in people who had “been basically dropped into the world from pretty primitive settings”—small towns in Latin America with no electricity or running water and very little educational opportunity. In their new congregation, their pastor slowly walks them through life in the U.S., both inside and outside of church, until they become more confident. “In Mexico, nobody ever told them they could do anything,” says Lin, who was himself raised in Argentina. He finds the message at prosperity churches to be quintessentially American. “They are taught they can do absolutely anything, and it’s God’s will. They become part of the elect, the chosen. They get swept up in the manifest destiny, this idea that God has lifted Americans above everyone else.”
At Casa del Padre, the celebration of consumer culture is quite visible, along with a sense of boundless opportunity. The people in the church, for instance, tend to have very expensive cell phones—never the free ones that come with a calling plan, nor the sort that can be bought cheaply at a convenience store. “They start wanting what’s considered the best and the most technologically advanced in this country,” Lin says. Garay’s church, it seems to me, teaches them that they deserve these things, so they go about getting them, with few resources and infinite adaptability. Before the crash, one group of young men got a $12,000 loan to start a landscaping company; another man bought a $270,000 house. One of the church’s Bible-study leaders, who’d grown up in a remote village in Mexico with an abusive, alcoholic father, had become a very successful contractor by the height of the boom, managing 30 men on multiple jobs and winning contracts to paint luxury subdivisions in the exurbs.