KENDALL, Fla. — Pastor Guillermo Maldonado invited his worshipers to come forward Sunday as he concluded a stirring sermon and affirmation. With a 30-piece choir and band playing behind him, he encouraged the crowd to “align yourself with the Lord.” Several people wept and shook their hands in the air as the music grew louder.
As they walked back to their seats, Maldonado asked that they make a donation.
“Lift your envelopes please to the Lord!” Maldonado said. “Can we thank God for these provisions? … You have given your finances to Him…so do you believe he’s responsible to find you a job? Yes!”
Ushers in pressed suits, many of them wearing earpieces, walked the aisles with deep baskets to collect donations. Among those giving money was Joe Garcia, a Democratic candidate for Congress, who showed up during the English-language service and planned to stay to hear Maldonado deliver the same message in Spanish.
The reason? Maldonado draws nearly 20,000 each week to his church, Ministerio Internacional el Rey Jesus, or “King Jesus International Ministry,” which is believed to be the nation’s largest Hispanic church.
Coming here is a requirement if you want to run for Congress in South Florida, specifically the 26th Congressional District. Congressional candidates here also must greet voters in English and Spanish, pay special attention to wild sea turtles and even pose for pictures with roasted pigs.
On Saturday, incumbent Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.) raced from Key West, where he helped scientists release a 200-pound sea turtle named “Fiesta,” to the grand opening of La Capital de Los Jugos (“The Juice Capital”), a new Cuban restaurant in the heart of Miami’s Kendall neighborhood.
After shaking nearly 100 hands and posing for photos with two roasted pigs, Rivera spoke to the crowd in Spanish: “This is precisely what we need to celebrate — all of you who are going to be here day after day eating food and drinking their juices and helping our economy. And the heroes, the heroes of this economy. You are the heroes. Because we politicians talk all the time about creating jobs — but the government doesn’t do it. The government needs to get out of the way so that you can create these opportunities and create these jobs.”
Afterward, Rivera said campaigning in multiple languages and cultures should be second-nature for any native of South Florida.
“You grow up speaking Spanish and English, so you speak both and it’s not hard at all,” he said.
On Sunday, Garcia and Jaime C. Zapata, a candidate for the Miami-Dade Commission, sat dispassionately through Maldonado’s hours-long service, while worshipers raised their hands, took notes on iPads and responded whenever he asked, “Can I get an Amen, people?”
Aides to Maldonado said he was unavailable for an interview Sunday and asked that reporters only interview worshipers off church grounds. The church and school are located in a warehouse district near a private airport in Kendall. In previous years, Rivera and Gov. Rick Scott (R), have attended services to pay their respects to Maldonado and his thousands of followers — who also happen to be voters.
Toward the end of the service, Maldonado said he was launching a two-week fast to pray for political candidates in the upcoming elections. He encouraged his followers to join him, starting with a prayer service at 5 a.m. Monday.
Then he called Garcia and Zapata forward.
“As a 501 (c) 3 we cannot endorse anyone,” Maldonado said. “But they wanted to come and I wanted you to see them.”
Maldonado introduced Zapata first and then turned to Garcia, who he had never met: “He’s running for um, um, congressman. For, in, um, remind me guys?” he said turning to the candidates. “Oh right, Washington.”
Neither Garcia nor Zapata were invited to speak to the crowd.
“What is my responsibility?” Maldonado asked as the candidates sat down. “To pray for them. And to vote. Anybody can come here to the church, they asked, and I said okay.”
In between the English and Spanish services, the 30-piece band played several salsa-infused Christian songs. Outside, Garcia said coming to the church and embracing Maldonado is a part of doing political business here.
“It’s Miami, this is almost like living in the United States,” he said, facetiously. “If you pull a farmer off a tractor in Iowa and you ask him about a far-off place that is beautiful, somewhere far off, he’ll probably think New York or Paris. But if I pull a guy out of a coconut tree in Rio or off a farm in Medellin and I ask them about a beautiful place, they’re thinking of Miami. As tough as things are, people are looking forward to the next thing. And Miami is the next thing right now, it’s the defining city of our time.”