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The elvis of evangelism

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THE GOD PARTICLE: Pastor Robin is popular. He claims his Sunday service is attended by 300 to 400 people and he has been invited to preach in America, Israel, East Africa and Malaysia

He wears velvet suits, spouts Bollywood dialogue and says that Jesus Christ was a rich man so everyone should be rich. Intrigued, smugglers and strugglers are flocking to hear him.

It was coming down like Noah's diluvial days, and I was late for a meeting with a man of god. "Should I send my car around?" he'd inquired, as I tried (and failed) to flag a rickshaw in the flow. He sent up a prayer instead, and honest to god, I found a ride. At the end of it I was greeted - in the meretricious lobby of a hotel called Kohinoor - by a sixfooter tricked out in steel-rimmed shades, acid-wash denims, sports shoes the size of trucks and a cling-wrap shirt that clung to a well-tended chest.

Pastor Robin Almeida - the honorific is self-endowed - is a 31-year-old evangelist on the rise from Mumbai, whose distinct style of proselytism has been drawing in a growing parish of believers and non-believers;the latter are gobsmacked by his gimmicks if not his gospel. Unlike most Indian evangelists who preach fire and brimstone to the heathen in discreet community bunkers, Pastor Robin takes his sermons to the mount or that public bullhorn - cable TV. He has been spotted on several regional channels like Campus TV and Sai Regional in Mumbai, Big J and U Channel in Mangalore and Rophe and Christian TV in Goa. "I'm aiming for a national channel now, " he says. No doubt he'll send TRPs soaring heavenwards. Here's why.

Pastor Robin is a singularly glamorous godman. Even Radhe Guru Maa, with her scarlet lips and beguiling look of vacancy, can't offer a viewer the sort of redemption from ennui that is Pastor Robin's specialisation. Outfitted variously in velvet or rhinestone-and sequin-encrusted suits and two-toned sunglasses, Pastor Robin is the Elvis of Evangelism. He cuts a filmi figure - and his whole package seems to be inspired by showbiz - from the titles of his homilies (Qayamat sey Qayamat Tak, Rok Sako toh Rok Loh, Kabristan Se Nayee Dastan), to his method acting (in Bachchan's baritone); even his edited sermons on TV are like films - with teasers of homilies to come, Biblical build-ups and suspenseful intermissions that promise a revelation after the break.

At one service, he brought the house down with his mimicry of Hindi film stars attending church. But don't think his 'Bollywoodazzle' is accidental. Pastor Robin has simply cracked the formula for marketing Christ in the subcontinent. "I was switching channels a couple of years ago, when it suddenly dawned on me that young people were attracted to music videos because they were high on energy and visual appeal, " he explains. "In a different context, I noticed that presenters on teleshopping networks appeared to be fully convinced about the products they were selling, no matter how inauthentic those products actually were. As for the 'God' channels, I always flipped past them because they were boring;they had preachers dressed plainly in kurtas and cassocks, sermonising from the pulpit. They didn't seem convinced about 'selling' their own god, I thought. That's when I decided to do things differently. " To bring young people into the fold, Pastor Robin decided to ditch the straight and narrow (and plain boring) for the big and bombastic. This he achieved by gaining a swagger, beefing himself up, and boning up on the Bible. He then began preaching the gospel of prosperity, not of abstention - which is what people today want to hear. "I tell people they are coming to a different resurrection tomb, " he claims - one where good times beckon. "Jesus lived a prosperous life. He was not the poor, helpless man he has been portrayed to be. In fact, many key figures in the Bible, like David, Joseph and Moses were governors and kings, " argues Robin, from his contestable reading of Scripture. Even though he's no Royal, he reasoned he could still wear the robes. "Would you be convinced by a man who claimed he was the CEO of Reliance if he dressed in shabby clothes and rode a bicycle?" he asks. "I work for the king of kings (Jesus Christ) - must not I too look the part? Don't expect me to ride a battered cycle. " A white SUV is his chariot of choice and his wardrobe bulges with suits. "If the body is the temple of the Holy Ghost, why not decorate it?" he counters. For the purpose, he employs a designer in Andheri to tailor his suits. "I have close to 70 suits. I once cancelled a Sunday service because a newly tailored suit didn't fit well. I won't have compromises. " But Robin's no prehensile padre. He's familiar with Luke 12: 15-21 (And he said to them, "Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness ). This is why what he gets in one hand, he gives via the other - after it has done its duty by the body. "I give my old clothes to my sons, " he explains, referring to his male parishioners. "Not too long ago I gave away 150 shirts. There was a mad scramble for them. I sow clothes in people's lives. " He says his 'daughters' feel deprived, but that may change soon when he takes a wife.

Robin says his finery and travels are paid for by the 'love offerings' of his followers. "This is separate from what they donate to the running of my church, " he maintains. His people must love him dearly for he claims to own, among other things, a room full of watches, shoes and sunglasses. "Why, in America, every preacher owns his own aircraft, " he compares.

Whatever his detractors may say about him, and they mouth off a lot, Pastor Robin Almeida is a force unto himself. "There may be lots of self-appointed pastors, but if you really want to know a true man of god, take him to your Red Sea and see if he can part it (your problems), " he says metaphorically, drawing upon the classic Old Testament miracle of Moses parting the sea and leading the Israelites out of Pharoh's clutches.

He claims his Sunday service is attended to by 300 to 400 people, and he has even been invited to preach in America, Israel, the Philippines, East Africa and Malaysia. "If there's a fire, you don't have to invite the fire brigade to the site;a real fire will advertise itself, " he says, comparing his church to a blaze (that seeks to be put out?).

"I didn't even have a passport until recently, " he marvels. He also didn't have direction or purpose. "When as a child, people asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I'd say I wanted to become a gangster, " he claims. Robin says was raised a good old Roman Catholic (his mother was unable to raise him and left him in the care of an aunt). Despite his callow fascination for crime, he served as an altar boy in a church in Andheri. It was his teen years that did him in, causing him to drop out of school and church. Then it came. "On March 4, 2000, when I was 19 years old, I was travelling on a local train and I suddenly heard a voice saying to me, 'What will it profit you even if you gain the whole world but lose your soul?'" It was only after looking up the Bible did Robin locate the line in the Gospel of Mark (Ch 8: 36).

The voice then issued instructions. He was to start an Evangelical ministry (generally unaffiliated with any of the established churches). "I had the vision, but I lacked the provision, " he says.

He claims it took him several hand-made miracles, and subsequent sponsorship by believers to own a self-titled evangelical enterprise called Robin Almeida Ministries: The Master;s Touch Healing Centre. "My ministry is attended by the smuggler and the struggler, " he rhymes. By these he means the working class to whom he preaches for five whole hours, in Hindi, Marathi, English or Konkani, depending on the demographic. Perhaps to them he's the mortal embodiment of water turned to wine - with or without the grace of god.

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