Jen Ross reports
With his two-inch-high Jerry-Lee-Lewis-style hair, flashy neon green tie and smart black jacket, Rev. Alex Osorio looks more like an enterta-iner or stand-up comic than a minister.
Coloured spotlights line the ceiling at his church. In lieu of organs, drums pound and trumpets blare Christian hymns to funky Motown rhythms. People get up, dance, yell, cry, fall to the ground. The more reserved hug the wall or sway with hands outstretched towards the ceiling.
Regulars say their fire is so powerful they take to the streets to share it.
Amidst the rumble of evening rush-hour traffic, a cacophony of Spanish and English voices recite biblical passages outside the Rideau Street entrance of the Rideau Centre. They mill about in groups of four or five, marked by the colourful tapered pillowcases draped over their jackets with such slogans as: “Jesus is King,” and “Jesus paid the price for you.”
Some rattle tambourines, dance and sing impassioned “Alleluias,” while others plant glossy flyers in the hands of passersby.
Over the last two years, the flamboyant group of street preachers has become a fixture downtown. They are members of the Fire of God Church, a budding non-denominational Christian charismatic faith founded by Rev. Osorio.
A former Pentecostal minister from Nicaragua, Osorio immigrated to Canada in 1985 to escape civil war. For nine years, he organized informal worship groups in homes on the weekends. Then one night in 1996, Osorio’s view of religion changed dramatically during a drive home from Toronto.
“I’d been looking for a relationship with God,” says the 41-year-old. “Then suddenly, this overwhelming feeling rushed over me. I felt an incredible sense of peace and love. The car got all hot and I had to pull over. It was so powerful that I cried at the roadside for 45 minutes . . . God became real for me that night.”
He says miracles then began occurring — the blind were sighted and cancers cured at his touch. Follower Teresa Duarte can attest to his healing powers. She was cured of leukemia three years ago, five months after being told she had only a year to live.
Struggling to understand the experience Osorio now calls an encounter with God, he re-read the Bible. His preaching developed new passion, which his followers say aroused “fuego en el corazón” (fire in the heart). He credits them for coming up with the name Fire of God, and says it was at their urging that he established a formal church.
After a few months of fundraising, the group bought the old Bingo Hall on 212 Murray Street and transformed it into a church. It opened February 1997.
Fire of God is not the only local charismatic church, but it’s alone in its in-your-face busker-style proselytizing.
Osorio’s followers don’t believe the church’s message should be restrained by a building’s boundaries. A throng of about 30 faithfuls head for Sparks street and Wellington streets on weekends. On weekdays, they hit bus stops around Rideau Centre from about 5 p.m. until 7 p.m., then head to church for a two- to three-hour service.
Osorio’s sermons are the antithesis of the boring Sunday morning services he says most Canadians are used to.
Sweat beading on his forehead, veins bulging from his neck, the short, spunky Osorio scampers about his basement chapel, delivering impassioned psalms to an adoring crowd six nights a week.
“Tenemos que ser de Dios,” he shouts, breathing hard into his microphone. His 17-year-old daughter translates for those listening through earphones: “We must be of God.”
On the streets, they try to make others of God too.
“Ha, ha, they caught you,” a teenager teases her friend for accepting a flyer. Eva Pecak, 19, retorts that she is just taking it to be polite, and “so they’ll go away.”
But her friend, Jen Strachan, also 19, doesn’t want to feed their fire. “They can’t change people’s minds (about religion) by jumping up and down on the street. And I don’t want to encourage them by taking their little flyers.”
Others encourage the street preachers. Tonight, a woman has stopped to tell them they’re doing a good job. Soon she is lamenting her alcoholism. The woman, Barbara, needs saving.
One man circles around the woman, hissing and ordering the devil to release her: “Diablo, suelta esta mujer!” Another man touches her forehead and shakes his arms at her.
A few minutes later, Barbara is speaking in tongues. She starts pacing and growing visibly distraught.
Their efforts intensify. A young girl clutching a battered red Bible joins the men, her voice fusing with theirs to create an eerie humming. Barbara falls to her knees, whimpering. She is shaking and there is fear in her eyes, but she doesn’t ask them to stop. She clutches the plastic cross hanging around her neck and mascara-stained tears leave black traces on her cheeks.
Meanwhile, buses screech and people tunnel by. Eyebrows rise and foreheads wrinkle as passersby catch a glimpse of the scene, but quickly divert their gaze.
The scorn and indifference were hard to deal with when the group started street preaching, says Alex Osorio Jr., the pastor’s 19-year-old son, “Of course it’s hard when people look at you all funny. At first, we were scared we weren’t making an impact. It’s easier now because we know, we see, that we’re saving people.”
Tonight, Barbara has not been saved.
“I have to go,” she says, after an intense half-hour. “I don’t think you can help me. I’ve been delivered of demons before, but I don’t know, I think they like me or something. Maybe if I wasn’t going somewhere tonight I could’ve been saved.”
Osorio Jr. is not worried: “She’ll be back to us . . . I’d say 85 per cent of the cases like her come back.” He says the group does an average of three or four intense interventions a week and most of those people visit the church at least once thereafter.
“Most people pass a woman like her crying downtown and don’t give her a second look,” says Osorio Jr. “She’s alone and we want to receive her, to help her. Souls are souls.”
The church has taken in dozens of castaways, and some members claim their efforts are helping reduce crime in the Market. Alberto Mariaca, 35, says community police have told him crime has gone down since the church arrived.
Mariaca likens their efforts to throwing clean water on dirty streets. They’ve brought runaways home, sobered the drunk and drug-addicted, and prevented suicides.
France Lefebvre, 32, lifts her sweater to reveal the scars on her forearms. Suicidal and in despair, a church member found her crying on the street four months ago. Soon, she found love, happiness and a thirst for life at the church. Lefebvre claims she has even been cured of her genetic heart defect. She attends services three or four times a week now and says Osorio is like a father to her.
“He is a pastor in the true sense of the word,” says France. “If one of his sheep goes astray, he goes to find it … I’ve never seen a minister like him. He’s amazing. He just emanates life.”
Osorio seems embarrassed by praise. In stark contrast to his on-stage presence, he is soft-spoken and modest about his role in the church.
“What you see here is not my work, it’s God’s,” he says. “The church thrives not because of me, but because of the congregation.”
But clearly there is something special about his vision and commitment to the church. In just two years, membership has grown from 100 to 350. Some days, over 1,000 one-time visitors drop-in.
Still, Osorio says his church doesn’t street-preach in order to recruit new members. “We do it because we have seen people saved. So many people are alone. We take them in. We love them. Love is the greatest healer of all . . . That is our fire.”