For its faithful, the leader of La Luz del Mundo is “the apostle” of Jesus Christ. God made it so.
Hundreds of thousands of parishioners gathered in Guadalajara last month to celebrate their leader’s 50th birthday. They filled the streets around the organization’s towering, wedding cake-like temple — headquarters to the largest evangelical church in Mexico, with a strong religious presence in parts of Southern California.
When the apostle, Naason Joaquin Garcia, was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport this month on multiple counts of sexual abuse, including forcible rape of a minor, many of his disciples held firm.
They rushed to church — including those in East and West L.A. — to pray and proclaim his innocence.
“When David was going to fight Goliath, it looked like he was going to lose,” said Robert Pelegreen, a parishioner and retired military officer. “This is just another challenge. God has his plan.”
Since charges were filed by California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, church officials have mounted an aggressive and public defense of their leader — calling the allegations falsehoods.
They’ve held news conferences, opened their churches to reporters and worked hard to present their community as a place that is welcoming to all.
Where other religious organizations, including the Catholic Church, have been increasingly careful to balance defending themselves with not appearing to minimize accusations, La Luz del Mundo has gone all-in to back its apostle.
Spokesman and minister Jack Freeman, who has been with La Luz del Mundo for 27 years, views the allegations — and previous ones against Garcia’s father — as part of a smear campaign.
“I believe in all my heart we’ll find out he’s innocent,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are people who don’t understand this church, who don’t comprehend why we would say he’s an apostle.
“This is not the first time that this has happened and it’s not going to be the last time it has happened. It’s a common tactic to bring somebody down that’s doing good.”
The decision to support the apostle is not altogether surprising for a church built on the foundation of Garcia’s family. The leader’s grandfather founded La Luz del Mundo — the Light of the World — in 1926. Since then, a charismatic aura has grown around the family.
The belief in Garcia’s innocence is vital to parishioners, said Patricia Fortuny, a Mexican anthropologist who has studied La Luz del Mundo for decades.
It’s also risky.
“They are in a very vulnerable position at this moment,” she said. “Unlike other Pentecostal churches, the apostle is the center of the doctrine, of everything, and he’s in danger now, so the whole church is in danger. What will happen if he’s guilty?”
It’s a question that hangs in the air, and one that church officials have said they can’t answer.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Freeman said. “I’m very firm in my faith, even though I’m not a prophet, that we’re not going to be alone. Whatever that means, you’ll see.”
Garcia and co-defendants Alondra Ocampo, Azalea Rangel Melendez and Susana Medina Oaxaca — all of whom are affiliated with La Luz del Mundo — are accused of committing 26 felonies, including human trafficking and production of child pornography, in Los Angeles County between 2015 and 2018.
With the exception of Melendez, who is still at large, the defendants are detained and intend to plead not guilty. Prosecutors say Garcia’s $50-million bail is to their knowledge the highest for any individual in L.A. County.
La Luz del Mundo claims more than 5 million followers worldwide, though some experts say those numbers might be too high.
Early on, the organization recruited from the jobless Mexicans returning from the U.S. around the time of the Great Depression. They were searching for a message and found it in Garcia’s grandfather, the organization’s first apostle.
The church has Pentecostal features, including the speaking in tongues, and is based on a strict interpretation of the Bible. Congregants pray on their knees and religious services are marked by singing and weeping. An annual gathering of hundreds of thousands, called the Holy Supper, commemorates the death and sacrifice of Christ.
“You feel at peace, knowing that all your brothers are around,” said Torrian Tatum, a medic in the U.S. Air Force who joined the church in 2014 and has attended the Holy Supper in Guadalajara. “You’re bumping into each other because you’re shoulder to shoulder, but you’re happy.”
La Luz del Mundo has successfully appealed to working-class Latinos abroad and in the U.S. by promising to bring order to their lives. Congregants, experts say, benefit by finding support networks that help them rise professionally.
Though bishops and various types of clergy make up the church’s order, it revolves around the apostle. In December 2014, Garcia rose to the head after the death of his father, Samuel Joaquin Flores, who had taken over after his own father. Garcia spends most of the year giving sermons to followers around the globe, according to ministers.
“They receive words from the apostle in their far-flung church with the same emotion you would imagine from early Christians receiving a letter from Paul,” said Daniel Ramirez, an associate professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University.
Garcia’s father never faced charges when he was the subject of sexual abuse allegations. At the time, the church painted the accusers as unreliable and used that episode to point to persecution against the church, Ramirez said.
Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School and a former prosecutor, said the church’s decision to open its doors to reporters is not typical for religious organizations whose leaders have been accused of abuse.
“There’s always a risk to this openness,” she said. “They might have convinced themselves there’s nothing to see, but they don’t know how it’s going to be seen through the eyes of others.”
Unlike the Catholic Church, which can survive the conviction of priests, Levenson said, La Luz del Mundo’s entire future could be thrown into jeopardy because its leader is on the line.
“This may be an all-or-nothing situation,” she said.
Other attorneys said that when religious organizations vigorously defend their leaders against accusations of sexual misconduct, they dissuade potential victims from coming forward.
“What the religion should be saying is let justice play its course, these are serious allegations, he’s been charged,” said John Manly, an attorney who has represented hundreds of plaintiffs in sexual abuse cases.
Jason Dormady, an associate professor of history at Central Washington University who has researched La Luz del Mundo, thinks a conviction would result in schisms and loss of members but the group would survive.
He pointed to allegations that Garcia’s grandfather had an affair with or raped a woman, which he and the church leadership denied at the time. In response, hundreds of members in Mexico left to form their own church or join another.
Other religious groups have continued after the fall of their own leaders, Dormady said. After the 1844 assassination of Mormon church founder and prophet Joseph Smith, for example, Brigham Young emerged as his successor.
For the members who remain with La Luz del Mundo, “I think what you’ll see is them saying God has chosen a new leader for us, that the Holy Spirit has revealed it will be such-and-such, and they’ll move on from there,” Dormady said.
But even if the church survives a conviction — perhaps by changing its structure or with a new apostle — the transition could weigh heavily on its members.
Mike Arias, an attorney who has represented victims of abuse, said that these types of cases are profoundly damaging for communities.
“When all the priest abuse cases were coming out, you had people question not necessarily their faith in the church but those who were leading the church, and how this could happen,” he said. “I don’t know whether these people will question whether this is really an apostle of God.”
For now, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Tatum, the parishioner, said he took personal offense when California’s attorney general called the apostle “sick” and “demented” this month in a news conference, during which he asked potential victims to come forward.
“Naason Joaquin is a representation of the mercy and greatness that God brought to the Earth,” Tatum said. “He’s a living example of Jesus Christ.”
He compared the allegations against the apostle to persecution that Christ’s apostles faced in biblical times.
“You have an individual who is respected by millions and millions of people,” he said. “Someone who has that much influence around the world, without a doubt, sooner or later, allegations will come out.”
Times staff writer Brittny Mejia contributed to this report.