La Luz Del Mundo's 'Apostle' Faces Sexual Abuse Charges. Here's Why That Has Rattled Many In LA
Naason Joaquin Garcia, the leader of the Mexico-based church La Luz Del Mundo, is scheduled to be arraigned in Los Angeles on June 21. The list of charges is long and disturbing. Among them: rape of a minor, extortion and human traficking.
But what exactly is La Luz Del Mundo? And what role does Joaquin Garcia have among his followers?
WHO IS JOAQUIN GARCIA AND WHY WAS HE ARRESTED?
Joaquin Garcia isn't just the leader of La Luz Del Mundo. Adherents of the fundamentalist Christian group consider the man now being held on $50 million bail a living apostle of Jesus Christ, like his father and grandfather before him.
Joaquin Garcia was arrested at LAX last Monday on charges including child rape and human trafficking, after four church members from L.A. County filed reports using the California Attorney General's clergy abuse tip line. The alleged crimes occurred in L.A. County between 2015 and 2018.
Prosecutors say Joaquin Garcia and three female co-defendants coerced underage victims into performing sex acts by telling them that if they defied Garcia's desires as "the Apostle," they were defying God.
In a news conference Thursday, Attorney General Xavier Becerra said his heart goes out to the many Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles who depend on La Luz Del Mundo, or The Light of The World church, for support.
"I understand many are probably very frightened and confused," Becerra said. "Many of these folks are not well-versed in American society, are not totally fluent, and depended quite a bit on what this organization provided to them."
Still, he urged local members to step forward with any additional evidence of abuse against their spiritual leader.
"I would simply say to them that no law of California, no law of humankind, and certainly no law of God would permit what Naason Joaquin Garcia is alleged to have committed against these young women," Becerra said.
HOW HAVE LA LUZ MEMBERS REACTED?
Since Joaquin Garcia's arrest, some members have held prayer services for their embattled leader and church leaders have issued statements of support.
"The church categorically rejects the false accusations against Joaquin Garcia," La Luz spokesman Nicolas Menchaca told LAist, adding that "the Apostle" has always acted according to the law.
During a service this week at La Luz Del Mundo's East L.A. church, a crowd of about 100 people gathered — the focus was largely on Joaquin Garcia himself.
"Our reaction has been to come to church and to pray, and to put everything in God's hands, because we trust that God will answer our prayers," said Priscilla Granados, 25, standing outside after the service.
The Greek-style, gold-columned temple is the group's largest in Southern California, with more than 1,200 members. Joaquin Garcia once served as pastor at the East L.A. church. In 2014, he became the international leader of La Luz Del Mundo, based in Guadalajara.
Granados, who joined the church with her family at age 12, said she believes Joaquin Garcia is innocent of the charges against him.
"I only speak of what I know, and what I know of him, for the years that I've been part of the church, I've never seen anything, witnessed anything, or heard anything relatively close to what's being spread right now," Granados said.
Some former members of La Luz Del Mundo have spoken critically about Joaquin Garcia. One online forum is aimed at "exit support" and discussion.
WHAT IS LA LUZ DEL MUNDO?
La Luz is the largest evangelical church in Mexico and the second largest religious body there after the Roman Catholic Church. It's also a transnational movement with between 1 and 5 million members worldwide and dozens of churches in Southern California. That includes the East L.A. location and a church in Pasadena.
The religious group was founded in Guadalajara in 1926 by Joaquin Garcia's grandfather, Eusebio Joaquin Gonzalez, still venerated by adherents as the "first Apostle."
After the Great Depression, Joaquin Gonzalez recruited migrants returning to Mexico from the U.S. In the 1950s, he began to evangelize in Los Angeles.
"This is a migrant church that was born in the most historically and traditionally migrant place in all of Mexico," said Patricia Fortuny, a cultural anthropologist based in Mexico City, that's researched the group since 1989. "It has the highest rate of migration to the United States historically, since the 19th century."
For that reason, Fortuny said California, with its large population of Mexican immigrants, has the largest concentration of La Luz adherents in the U.S.
Joaquin Garcia's father, Samuel Joaquin Flores, led the church from 1964 until 2014. He was the subject of sexual abuse allegations in 1997, but never faced criminal charges.
WHAT IS THE BELIEF SYSTEM OF LA LUZ MEMBERS?
The La Luz belief system is a mash-up of Pentecostal theology and regional Catholic culture, Fortuny said.
La Luz followers identify as Christians who follow the Bible and believe that Jesus Christ is humanity's savior. But they're taught salvation can only be achieved by following the international leaders of their church, past and present.
This belief system fostered an intense connection and trust among many members who view Joaquin Garcia as the key to their religious movement.
La Luz traditions are unfamiliar to many in the U.S. Churches offer three prayer services each day. Male and female worshippers sit on opposite sides of churches. Women wear long skirts and cover their heads with lace veils. Church members aren't supposed to drink, smoke or gamble. The church does not celebrate Christmas or Easter.
While Fortuny said the religious group is too large and well-organized to be considered a cult, La Luz Del Mundo's focus on its "apostles" does set the church apart from other Latin American evangelical Pentecostal movements.
"Most Pentecostal churches don't worship their pastors," Fortuny said. "Having this 'living apostle' is the strongest feature of the church, because it's fantastic for the people. They feel unique, like they are chosen to be part of the restored primitive Christian Church. But it's also the weakest feature of the church, because of that coercive power the leader, in this case Naason Joaquin Garcia, has."
As a minority religion in heavily Catholic Mexico, La Luz Del Mundo members have faced some marginalization and persecution. Fortuny said Joaquin Garcia's arrest will only worsen relations between Catholics and non-Catholics in Mexico.
"There's already violent discourse against La Luz Del Mundo in Guadalajara," Fortuny said. "Now, this is probably going to extend into many other evangelical groups who are not La Luz, and who are not as fundamentalist. Other churches will be painted with the same brush."
Fortuny also worries about millions of La Luz faithful, whose lives are now thrown into disarray.
HOW WILL THE ALLEGATIONS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT AFFECT THE CHURCH AND ITS FOLLOWERS?
While a faction of believers are defending Joaquin Garcia, Fortuney said there's likely another faction that believes he's guilty and will fight to keep the church going without him.
"The church could be divided and weakened, but it could also become stronger," Fortuny said. "Naason can be perceived as an innocent man wrongly persecuted by the state. This persecution can become symbolic social capital for the Church to use."
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Joaquin Garcia's $50 million bail set a new record in Los Angeles County, because of concerns his followers might be able to raise enough funds to help him flee prosecution.
Last Friday, La Luz Del Mundo officials held a press conference in Los Angeles, introducing the legal team that will defend Garcia against 26 felony charges.
Wednesday, June 12, 11:52 a.m.: This article was updated with the new arraignment date and details from members.
This article was originally published on Monday, June 10 at 7 a.m.
Aaron Schrank covers religion, international affairs and the Southern California diaspora under a grant from the Luce Foundation.