Convicted religious leader Naasón Joaquín García speaks to supporters from the Los Angeles prison

LOS ANGELES — Her spiritual leader is behind bars in California after pleading guilty to sexually abusing a minor.

Yet legions of supporters of Naasón Joaquín García in his home base in Mexico remain fervently loyal to him and view his imprisonment as a challenge that will strengthen rather than weaken their church, La Luz del Mundo (The Light of the World).

His enduring influence on his flock was evident recently at the main temple of the Christian Church in Guadalajara, as thousands gathered to pray for their absent leader during their Holy Communion, the holiest festival for La Luz del Mundo.

Surprised, Joaquín García spoke to the congregation by phone from his prison in Los Angeles, where he is serving a 16-year sentence.

“I don’t see the bars that separate me from you guys,” he told his followers. “I see your beautiful faces…because you are the children of God.”

Even outside the temple, the sound of his voice aroused the emotions of dozens of devotees guarding the entrances to the sanctuary. Almost everyone closed their eyes. Many raised their fists. Some knelt and wept.

Towards the end of the call, Joaquín García asked his followers to raise their hands and their voices to God and repeat after him: “I promise you, Lord, that in spite of all my sufferings, I will never leave you.”

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It seems clear that many members of the church, which was founded in Mexico in 1926 and is now active in many countries, are not prepared to give up Joaquín García as their “apostle” – as the head of the church is called. Many believe that he was sent by God to preach to them and are convinced that despite his confession of guilt he is innocent.

“The apostle always shows determination to move forward,” said Phares Ruiz, who traveled from El Salvador to partake of Holy Communion. “He’s firm in his beliefs, and the church is firm in its purpose to move forward.”

Ruiz told The Associated Press that his family has been part of La Luz del Mundo for three generations.

Joaquín García, 53, was arrested in California in 2019.

He initially faced more than 20 charges, but most were dismissed after a settlement with prosecutors. The church claimed that prosecutors withheld or tampered with evidence and said Joaquín García pleaded guilty because he didn’t think he could get a fair trial.

“The apostle of Jesus Christ had no choice but to accept with great pain that the agreement presented is the best way to protect the church and his family,” the church said.

The home base of the Church is the Guadalajara neighborhood of Hermosa Provincia, Spanish for “beautiful province.” Jericho, Bethlehem and Nazareth are among the names of the streets that converge at the White Temple, which locals call “the cake” because of its white steps that get smaller as they climb.

Parishioners in the neighborhood call each other “brother” and “sister” and take pride in helping each other. The church press office claims there is no crime in the area.

In the neighborhood there are cafeterias, clinics, a recreation center and a shop selling Bibles and religious games for children. On the walls are photos of Joaquín García, smiling and in a tuxedo. Above the main street is a sculpture that means “innocent” in Spanish.

Sara Pozos, 49, is among many in the neighborhood who believe their leader’s imprisonment has strengthened the church.

“I think it’s changed for the better, in a sense that we feel more united and stronger now,” she said.

“It was obviously a very difficult subject for him and for us,” she added. “We all suffer a bit in life, but you get to know those moments when you see that God is doing something to help you move forward, not let you down.”

Another resident of the neighborhood, Sailem Castillo, also said she was optimistic despite Joaquín García’s detention.

“Everything is very nice for us, everything continues to work,” she said. “Preachers, pastors, and deacons have their same duties. They bless the bread, the wine, and do other things as if it were here when physically it isn’t.”

The imprisoned leader is the grandson of La Luz del Mundo’s founder: Eusebio Joaquín González, a member of the military who began preaching in 1926. He is known to church members as Aaron — a result, he said, of God asking him to change his name.

Aaron’s wife was the first member of the Church. Today it claims a membership of more than 5 million in about 50 nations.

La Luz del Mundo is sometimes referred to as evangelical, but its members do not adopt that term. The doctrine of the Church is learned from the cradle. Parents give their children biblical names and take them to the temple at 40 days of age, promising that they will guide them on their path.

Most teachings are translated into something everyday. During the service, women sit on the right and men on the left. In some cities, people donate more than 10% of their monthly income to the church. Bible verses are quoted to explain the behavior.

Castillo, a recently married woman of 25, told the AP the church advises members on how to “live a decent life,” where women aren’t allowed to drink alcohol or go out on frequent dates. Like other women in Hermosa Provincia, she wears dresses and skirts that are not fitted, avoids makeup and earrings, and wears long hair.

The religion is “very demanding,” said Arlene M. Sánchez-Walsh, a professor of religious studies at Azusa Pacific University, a Christian institution near Los Angeles.

“It’s not enough to say ‘I converted’ or ‘I baptized,'” she said. “You have to follow certain steps to prove your loyalty.”

For some young people, these steps include memorizing hymns honoring the apostle, reading the Bible before bed, and not marrying anyone from outside the church.

“All of this shows that although you are part of this world, you have accepted a very special way of life because you are a Christian,” Sánchez-Walsh said.

Those born in the church are baptized at 14 because, according to the church, they can then decide whether to confirm or leave the faith. Still, there are former members who say their ceremony wasn’t optional.

Before baptism, children go through days of prayer and fasting in a temple in a ritual known as “the revivals.” Revival consists in repeating “Glory to Christ” over and over until the youth are heard speaking in tongues to testify that the Holy Spirit has entered them.

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For Raquel Haifa, 43, the fulfillment of the revivals was a traumatizing experience that she finds abusive because minors cannot opt ​​out of attending.

“I cried because I said, ‘God, release me from this, let this time go by quickly,'” said Haifa, from Texas.

At this time, journalists are not permitted to attend services or take photographs in Church temples. Since Joaquín García’s arrest, the La Luz del Mundo media team says they are unable to make any official statements about his case as a trial is pending.

On September 8, a lawsuit was filed in California against Joaquín García and four church members allegedly involved in sexual abuse. The lawsuit was filed by five women who – using the alias Jane Doe – were identified as victims in the original criminal complaints against him.

She accuses Joaquín García of conditioning the victims under the guise of religion to primarily serve him, which ultimately led to several years of sexual abuse.

The lawsuit contains detailed accounts from the five plaintiffs, who allege that they were pressured by Joaquín García and his associates to perform for pornographic photo shoots and that they were coerced into engaging in sexual activity with him.

“The church has armed the faith of its most vulnerable members,” said Jonati Joey Yedidsion, one of the attorneys handling the lawsuit. “Instead of protecting these innocent women, Naasón and the Church encouraged their blind trust and loyalty to the ‘apostle’ and then brutally exploited them.”

The case has been difficult for some former members who have distanced themselves from the church.

In a podcast titled “I Left a Sect,” Lo-ami Salazar said Hermosa Provincia used to be her “happy place.”

“To know that this abuse happened there, in my happy place, in my safe place, is horrifying,” she said.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Convicted religious leader Naasón Joaquín García speaks to supporters from the Los Angeles prison

Laura Coffey

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