Boston, US

For the past 35 years, Roberto Miranda has been fighting Boston’s demons.

Miranda, a Phillips Academy grad with a doctorate from Harvard, is the long-time pastor of Congregación León de Judá, Boston’s largest Spanish-speaking Protestant congregation, which draws 1,000 worshippers on a Sunday.

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Senior Pastor Roberto Miranda speaks during the youth ministry service at Congregación León de Judá, on 22nd March in Boston. PICTURE: RNS/Christine Hochkeppel

The church runs a host of social programs to assist immigrants, to battle poverty and ignorance and to help individuals overcome “anything that prevents people from becoming what God intended them to be".

That can include exorcising demons from a couch in the pastor’s office.

“He wasn’t roaring, wasn’t angry. I knew in the dream, as he looked down on that scene, he was exercising authority - ultimate authority - over what was happening down there. I said three times in Spanish, ‘You are the Lord,’ pointing through the tarantulas to the lion.”

- Roberto Miranda, sepaking of the dream he had which inspired the congregation's ministries.

Miranda sees all the church’s ministries as spiritual warfare. Yet he manages to do battle in a way that somehow holds together a high-energy, impactful congregation where undocumented immigrants and Trump supporters praise the Lord side-by-side even in these polarising times.

The congregation’s ministries were inspired by a dream he had in the 1990s a few years after Miranda, who had planned to become a professor of Romance languages and literature, took a job as pastor of a fledgling Hispanic congregation of about 60 people.

“I saw this swarm of giant tarantulas settle over the entire skyline of Boston,” Miranda, the 63-year-old senior pastor, told RNS in an interview. “I could see their eyes. They were intelligent. They were evil. Their skin was taut, tight with venom. They just stood there over the city. I knew they were exercising demonic influence. A lot of it was over the financial district.”

Then a lion’s face appeared above all the spiders.

“He wasn’t roaring, wasn’t angry,” Miranda said. “I knew in the dream, as he looked down on that scene, he was exercising authority - ultimate authority - over what was happening down there. I said three times in Spanish, ‘You are the Lord,’ pointing through the tarantulas to the lion.”

Inspired by that vision, he gave his church a new name (Lion of Judah in English) and moved it from Cambridge to a Boston neighbourhood blighted by poverty and crime.

Today, Lion of Judah has become one of Boston’s most influential and enigmatic churches.

Known both for helping undocumented immigrants and for conservative moral teachings on sexuality, Lion of Judah doesn’t fit neatly into any political camp. Instead, it reflects the uniqueness of its Harvard-trained pastor, who emphasises the importance of humility and routinely confesses to feeling fearful in the ministry trenches.

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 Miranda, left, talks with parishioners Jayron Garcia, Maribel Garcia and Javier Garcia, 14, far right, at Congregación León de Judá, on 22nd March. PICTURE: RNS/Christine Hochkeppel

Ministering in one of America’s least religious cities “excites me, intimidates me, intrigues me,” he told RNS.

He preached “with huge trepidation” last year, he says, on controversial issues from modern American culture’s sexual fluidity to the need for immigration limits and tight border control.

His “painfully clear” stances made some liberals in the congregation uncomfortable, he said.

“People felt that I had a kind of suicide complex,” he said. “To undertake these issues from the pulpit was kind of dangerous, inflammatory and provoking...But I felt in my heart that I needed for people to know how I thought and how I felt about certain issues.”

But he’s determined not to let his fears stop him, or to keep his congregation from doing great things.

At a Friday night worship event where he exhorted more than 100 teenagers to “never say you’re too young to undertake a great mission in your life, to take yourself seriously or start studying long hours".

“I’m so honoured, blessed and actually a little bit afraid to be here tonight before you,” Miranda said in the introduction to his sermon on Jeremiah’s call. “I know you are a demanding audience. I fear more addressing you than 1,000 adults.”

Miranda describes his church, located in Boston’s Roxbury neighbourhood, as Pentecostal, evangelical and American Baptist (a mainline Protestant denomination).

The congregation draws people from more than 30 countries and offers ministries in English and Spanish. Each year, professionally staffed outreach programs help more than 1,000 immigrants resolve problems related to legal status and equip more than 500 high schoolers to become successful first-generation college students.

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Senior Pastor Roberto Miranda, right, holds hands and prays with the youth ministry at Congregación León de Judá, on March 22, 2019. RNS photo by Christine Hochkeppel

These emphases on immigration and education reflect Miranda’s own background.

Born in the Dominican Republic, he came to the US as a child to join his factory-worker father in New York City. He rode scholarships to Phillips Academy - the same prep school that former President George HW Bush and George W Bush attended - and Princeton University before taking on graduate work at Harvard.

“He is out of the demographic of most Pentecostal pastors,” said Arlene Sanchez-Walsh, an expert on Latino Pentecostalism at Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles, in an email. “The majority are either self-taught or come from Bible colleges and evangelical seminaries.”

For Miranda, living with complexity is nothing new.

He leads a church that, from the outside, looks nothing like a typical church. It’s a dense, three-building campus resembling a concrete office complex. He leans toward a Republican worldview, he said, yet his church thrives on the edge of Boston’s famously liberal South End. He holds a PhD from a world-renowned university that rejects supernatural explanations, yet he feels called to practice spiritual warfare.

“I have delivered people from demonic powers right where you are sitting,” he tells a reporter seated on a couch in his office. “I have engaged in exorcisms over the years many, many times.