In the predawn darkness, the floodlit cathedral looms like a snow-covered mountain over this poor neighborhood. Inside, 15,000 faithful have been waiting for two hours, but they show no sign of fatigue.
They are expecting their Moses.
Suddenly, a pudgy preacher in a brown suit strides up the marble stairs to the altar, a golden tree trunk. Thousands of worshipers break into chest-heaving sobs. Others furiously wave white handkerchiefs and cry “Glory to Christ!”
Samuel Joaquin has arrived.
“There are no words to explain what he is. It’s something divine,” said awed worshiper Vicenta Equihwa.
The 61-year-old Joaquin is perhaps Mexico’s most controversial religious leader. His fundamentalist Christian church, La Luz del Mundo (The Light of the World), is one of the country’s fastest-growing faiths. Offering a warm community atmosphere, a strict moral code and a promise of eternal salvation, the church is expanding in Latino areas of the United States, including Southern California.
But critics say Joaquin is an egomaniac who has sexually abused youngsters and created a cult that preys on the poor--charges he denies. Several of his critics claim they’ve been harassed and even beaten; one former member was stabbed 57 times last month in an attack he blames on the church.
Now the controversy is spilling across the border. La Luz del Mundo is trying to open a church in Ontario, its 39th in Southern California. But some residents, expressing fear about Joaquin and the church’s practices, are fighting its petition for a city permit.
“On the one hand, we want to maintain freedom of religion. On the other hand, we want to zero in on those destructive sects that abuse communities and individuals,” said Lourdes Arguelles, an Ontario professor leading the fight.
The Luz del Mundo controversy actually had its genesis in a Southern California event: When 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult killed themselves in Rancho Santa Fe last spring, Mexican media set their sights on religious groups at home.
Could there be a Mexican Marshall Applewhite? Yes, responded an obscure anti-cult group that pointed to Joaquin. In fact, no evidence has emerged to support such claims, and Joaquin denies any intention to order a mass suicide. But the incident focused attention on the church.
In the past year, Mexican newspapers have delved into the practices of La Luz del Mundo, producing extensive reports about alleged sexual abuse and orgies, as well as the church’s close ties to Mexico’s long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Television and radio programs have featured debates on the church, questioning whether this is an issue of religious freedom or exploitation.
La Luz del Mundo, founded in 1926 by Joaquin’s father, a peasant turned military officer called Aaron, claims to have 1.5 million members--which would make it the second-largest church in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country. It claims an additional 3.5 million members worldwide. (Experts dispute the church’s estimates of its size.)
But while proselytizing energetically, the church has kept a low profile, operating mainly in poor neighborhoods. In Guadalajara, members are known mainly by their dress. Women wear ankle-length skirts and long hair; they are forbidden to wear slacks, makeup or jewelry. Many members live in three neighborhoods dominated by the church and are active supporters of the PRI.
In the past year, the veil has been pulled back on the once-obscure church. Taking advantage of the new media interest, several former members from Guadalajara have gone public.
They have described a church that requires members to seek permission for even the most mundane activities--to go downtown, or on vacation. Joaquin is so powerful he chooses the spouses for a corps of elite church members known as “Unconditionals,” they say. And members are urged to contribute heavily to the church, whose leader lives in luxury, they say. The church replies that Joaquin has a chauffeur and cars but lives more modestly than local politicians.
But the most shocking charges allege sexual abuse of young church members.
Amparo Aguilar is a 31-year-old shopkeeper with long, brown hair and a round, gentle face. She calmly recalls the day nearly 20 years ago, when, she claims, she was invited to Joaquin’s home in Hermosa Provincia (Beautiful Province), the neighborhood where the church is based.
A female assistant of Joaquin’s took the girl to the church leader, who was in bed, Aguilar claimed.
“He asked me if I could get rid of his headache. I said, ‘How? I have no pills, no aspirin,’ ” Aguilar said.
With that, she said, Joaquin and his assistant grabbed her and stripped her. She resisted the church leader, she said. But the two pinned her to the bed, and Joaquin raped her, Aguilar said.
“They made me promise not to say anything, because if I did, God would punish me,” she said.
Aguilar recently reported the alleged rape to the Religious Affairs Department of Mexico’s Interior Ministry, which has passed it along to a state prosecutor, said her lawyer, Jose Raymundo Meza. Three other former church members complaining of sexual abuse or rape have done the same, he said.
The prosecutor’s office in Guadalajara confirmed it had received the four accusations of sexual abuse. But because the alleged crimes occurred so long ago, it’s unlikely any trial will take place, officials say.
La Luz del Mundo denies the charges, and Joaquin has declined to discuss the accusations with the media.
“Not one of the alleged abuses disseminated by the media has been proven true by the authorities,” said a church spokesman, Joel Silva. He added that it was strange that none of the victims had complained about the alleged abuses until recently.
Word of La Luz Reaches Ontario
Word of the controversy eventually reached Ontario, where La Luz del Mundo wants to open a church on Mountain Avenue. Arguelles, a professor at Claremont College who is active in immigrant issues, says she began to investigate the church after hearing disturbing reports from Mexican colleagues and students.
What she discovered in the Mexican press frightened her. Her objections, she insists, do not stem from religious intolerance.
“We’re not talking here about theology . . . or [whether you] believe in Jesus Christ,” she said. “What we’re talking about is purported criminal activity.”
In addition to the sex abuse charges, Arguelles said she fears the church’s “totalitarian control of powerless people.” She said she is especially concerned about vulnerable recent immigrants.
Ontario officials have been meeting with residents and researching La Luz del Mundo while considering the permit necessary to operate a church in a commercial zone. Local police have checked with other cities that have La Luz del Mundo churches, city spokesman George Urch said.
“We couldn’t find any problems at all,” he said.
He said the city will make its decision based on zoning questions such as traffic and noise, not the nature of La Luz del Mundo. Residents, he noted, have the right to practice any faith. “This could be a Lutheran church, a Baptist church--from the city standpoint it could be anything,” he said.
Some of the Ontario residents’ fears may be unfounded. Renee de la Torre, a Mexican academic, noted that the sexual abuse allegations focus on Joaquin and the Guadalajara church--not congregations in other areas.
“One thing is the church . . . another thing is the Hermosa Provincia, the center of power,” said De la Torre, who has written a book about La Luz del Mundo.
She noted that even church dissidents in Los Angeles, who have accused Joaquin of creating a cult of personality, do not allege sexual abuse.
As for church control of members, De la Torre said that La Luz del Mundo closely supervises the community in Hermosa Provincia, requiring individuals to seek permission from church members known as “guardians” to travel or study outside the area. The guardians monitor attendance at daily religious services and contributions by members, who are required to donate at least 10% of their salaries.
But La Luz del Mundo churches outside Guadalajara are not as strict, De la Torre said.
A Counterattack Against Church’s Foes
Stung by the attacks, La Luz del Mundo is fighting back. In a rare appearance recently at the church’s modernistic temple in Guadalajara--a building as tall as the planned Catholic cathedral in Los Angeles--Joaquin lashed out at his enemies.
“What do they want? To turn this temple we built into a dance hall, a home of prostitution!” he thundered. When he asked if the church would be destabilized by the accusations, the congregation cried, “No!”
Church members have published a book and made up posters attacking Joaquin’s accusers. La Luz del Mundo representatives say critics are intolerant of their faith, which is based on a strict interpretation of the Bible and frequent attendance at religious services marked by singing, weeping and, sometimes, speaking in tongues.
“We think there’s an effort to stop the growth of religious groups like ours,” said Silva, the church spokesman.
It’s hardly surprising that La Luz del Mundo would suspect it’s being persecuted. Mexico’s Catholic Church, which counts about 85% of the population as members, has reacted with hostility to the rapid growth in recent years of evangelical churches, which it calls “sects.” Membership in the small churches grew more than 50%, to 3.5 million, from 1980 to 1990, according to the latest available official figures.
“Sects, like flies, need to be gotten rid of,” was the analysis of Girolamo Prigione, the Vatican’s former envoy to Mexico.
The Catholic Church has engaged in a battle of words with La Luz del Mundo, accusing it of seeking political power, especially through its close relationship with the PRI. That relationship has resulted in La Luz del Mundo neighborhoods getting preferential treatment in receiving such services as running water and electricity, De la Torre said. Luz members in Guadalajara have solidly voted for the PRI, at the urging of church leaders, members say.
However, the critic most despised by La Luz del Mundo is an evangelical Protestant. He is Jorge Erdely, the former pastor of a small church and head of an anti-cult group that has single-mindedly attacked La Luz del Mundo. Luz officials accuse Erdely, who wrote a popular book about abusive ministers, of trying to make money by attacking small churches. He denies the charge.
Erdely and another little-known group are asking the government to strip La Luz del Mundo of its legal recognition, which would bar it from owning land or operating schools or hospitals. They cite Mexican laws barring religious groups from harming members or supporting political parties.
The Interior Ministry, which is studying the case, did not respond to several requests for information.
The controversy appears to be causing a quiet exodus of La Luz del Mundo members, according to Catholic Church officials, academics and former members.
But in Hermosa Provincia, it’s difficult to detect any flagging of the deep reverence for Joaquin. In the central plaza, hawkers do a brisk business in posters of the beaming, dark-haired leader.
Members’ homes are decorated with photos of Joaquin wearing a flowing white overcoat or sitting in a gilt-trimmed chair. The hymnal in the cathedral features 19 songs about Joaquin.
For the leader’s 61st birthday last month, thousands flocked to a party in a hangar in Guadalajara. Singers and folk dancers performed for Joaquin and his family. Church members were clearly thrilled at seeing the leader, who reportedly spends much of his time visiting his far-flung congregations.
“There’s a need [of church members] to be seen by Samuel. It’s like his gaze gives them ecstasy,” De la Torre said.
Alba Lopez, 50, a cleaning woman who lives in Hermosa Provincia, agreed. “It’s something supernatural. You feel great happiness seeing him,” she said.
But some say the reverence has produced intolerance. Former members say that after criticizing the church, they have been taunted, followed by Luz members and even beaten.
The most serious attacks have been against Moises Padilla, 33, a former member who has accused Joaquin of forcing him to have sex when he was a teenager.
Last month, gunmen kidnapped Padilla from outside his home in a working-class neighborhood of Guadalajara--an abduction corroborated by a neighbor who said he saw the attack.
The gunmen handcuffed Padilla and drove him to the deserted outskirts of the city, Padilla said. There, they tore off his clothes and attacked him with a dagger, he said.
“Now you’re not going to talk, idiot!” one yelled, according to Padilla. After the gunmen left, Padilla recalled, he stumbled to a nearby road for help. He filed a criminal complaint to the state prosecutor’s office a few days later.
57 Slashes From a Dagger
In his hospital bed, Padilla showed a reporter 57 matchstick-size slashes covering his neck and back. The doctor who treated Padilla said he could have died from loss of blood.
Padilla blames Joaquin for the stabbing and for a previous attack in which he says he was beaten by men warning him against criticizing the “servant of God.”
“He [Joaquin] wants to shut us up,” Padilla declared. Because of the accusations of abuse, “he’s having trouble with his business, the sect, which has given him millions of dollars.”
Silva, the Luz spokesman, denied that Joaquin or the church had anything to do with the attack. He accused Padilla of orchestrating the assault to give credence to his previous charges.
Authorities are investigating the attack and several others that have been reported. But judicial authorities say the victims haven’t been fully cooperative.
For their part, the former members are suspicious of the legal system, complaining that it favors the politically influential church.
Political authorities appear reluctant to become involved. Guadalajara’s mayor, Francisco Ramirez of the pro-Catholic National Action Party, or PAN, says La Luz del Mundo hasn’t caused problems for the city.
“We need the legal truth to be established,” he said, referring to the controversy surrounding the church. “Until then, everyone is innocent until proven guilty.”
But former church members say they’re determined to seek an investigation. They recently banded together in an association that claims about 40 members. While Padilla says he might go into hiding, others say they will continue to speak out about Joaquin.
“This is our objective: that people know who he really is,” Aguilar said.
Times staff writer Tom Gorman in Riverside contributed to this report. Sheridan was recently on assignment in Guadalajara.