“I will pray for you,” cries a pastor with a broken and broken voice, while reading the latest “apostolic letter” from Naasón Joaquín García, leader of the La Luz del Mundo church. The letter was written from a California jail. The self-proclaimed apostle of Jesus Christ has been behind bars since he was arrested at the Los Angeles airport in 2019 and was sentenced in early June to 16 years and eight months for sexual abuse of minors. The message arrives at the beginning of August, the beginning of the “spiritual new year” and a long countdown to the Lord’s Supper, the highest celebration of religious worship, which is celebrated this Sunday. “I am going to look for the most secret place in my little cell and here I will bend my knees, while you in the temple also do it in the most sincere demonstration of love and adoration to the majesty that is in heaven”, it is added in an extensive reading, which lasts for about an hour. The servant of God, as his followers know him, is in prison and even with a guilty confession, numerous explicit recordings and lapidary testimonies, control over his membership is intact.
The celebration of Holy Communion, which commemorates the death of Christ and reaffirms the commitment of unconditional loyalty of the faithful in exchange for eternal salvation, used to be a massive act. The streets of the Hermosa Provincia neighborhood in Guadalajara, the equivalent of the Vatican of this Mexican congregation, were filled with pilgrims who cried inconsolably and made endless lines, sometimes for days, to approach the apostle. This year it has been decided that the act be much more discreet. The official version of the church is that the pandemic does not allow activities to resume completely and many of its faithful have been called to celebrate in local temples or from their homes. Spokespeople have also declined media interview requests. The sentence against Joaquín García, they argue, has nothing to do with the decision.
“Today, the authority that Jesus Christ has established may not physically move in your temple,” writes Naason from jail. “Do you need to touch his mantle, dear church? Do you need me to put my hands on you? Do you need me to enter through the door of your temple? Or is faith enough for them?” paraphrases the pastor, while the congregation roars. La Luz del Mundo made the decision three years ago: to deny and never acknowledge the accusations against its leader for rape, human trafficking and possession of child pornography, crimes committed against a group of maidens, almost all minors, who attended that church. The new normality of the organization, more questioned than ever, is to lower the profile and follow the instructions that come from jail in California.
“After the case came out in the United States, they put it into our heads that everything was a test that God was putting on the church, a test of our faith,” says Julie Joaquín, great-granddaughter of the founder of the church, the grandfather of Naason Joaquin. The accusations against the leader were the breaking point and she left the church. “They told us that if Jesus died for our sins, why wouldn’t the apostle be in jail?” recalls Julie Joaquín. Similar arguments emerged during FBI investigations to justify sexual abuse, such as that a king can have multiple mistresses.
They are also used to explain the onerous offerings that are requested from the faithful in connection with Holy Communion, which takes place precisely on the founder’s birthday. For example, it is stated that King Solomon did not receive anyone who arrived empty-handed, says a former member who requests anonymity because his own wife is still within the organization. “I don’t know what to do, she’s still alienated and our relationship is getting worse and worse,” he confesses.
“Half of my family thinks I’m a traitor,” says Julie Joaquín. “Being a Joaquín and leaving La Luz del Mundo was very difficult, but I don’t regret it,” she admits. When she was sexually abused by a relative on her mother’s side, they supported her. When the accusations pointed to one of the members of the “chosen lineage”, they denied it. One of the five Naasón complainants, whose identities were withheld, was from her own family. “Naasón, or should I call you uncle?” Jane Doe 4 said through tears, at the beginning of her testimony at the sentencing hearing last June. “He is someone who knew all of us since we were little, how could he do this to us?” Julie wonders.
Francisco Espinoza, who also left the church as a result of learning about the accusations against Joaquín García, says that a few days ago he definitively cut ties with his parents and siblings, who are still members. “I decided to break up with them and leave them behind,” he says. After countless discussions about the guilt of the apostle, Espinoza decided not to speak to them again after one of his relatives insulted him for giving an interview about it.
To Ada Camarena, who hosts the podcast I came out of a sect Along with her sister Lo Ami, memories of dehydrated parishioners come to mind, without money to eat and crowded into makeshift camps without water or electricity during the Holy Communion celebrations. She has worked as a nurse and had to attend to several of them. “It’s a sect,” says Camarena. “They kept you tired, busy all day, not eating well and doing repetitive actions to put guilt and fear in you, to brainwash you,” she says. She, Espinoza and other faithful have given multiple interviews in recent days to insist on the abuses of La Luz, accusations that the organization categorically denies.
“Many people have left, many have opened their eyes,” says Camarena to explain the low profile of the church in the midst of its most important celebration. Like everyone, both those who left and those who are still inside, the Lord’s Supper has become a strange cash cut, two months after a controversial sentence. The church did not lose its leader for life and the plea agreement that Joaquín García signed with the Prosecutor’s Office avoided the risk of facing trial and being stained by weeks and weeks of testimonies and evidence.
The complainants and people who have left the church affirm that the sentence of less than 17 years is insufficient, but they assure that their battle against the self-proclaimed apostle is not over. “It has been a very complicated process,” admits Camarena. “Seeing that what you’ve believed all your life is a lie is quite sad,” she adds.
His priority is to heal. Those who have come out accuse that they received threats, were victims of violence, were marginalized from everyone they knew and had to leave their homes to be able to continue with their lives. Others, who are still inside, take pains to turn the page, to act as if nothing had happened. In finding religious explanations to justify the absence of a religious leader who did not dare face those who denounced him and clings to his church from a cell. “I must pray for you, my dear church,” Naasón Joaquín wrote from prison. “Christ and the authority that he has deposited in me will be revealed.”
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