Growing up, Sandra Martinez’s world revolved around La Luz del Mundo church. She shoveled dirt as a teenager to help build a new church in Houston.
Years later, when the church asked congregants to help support their missionaries, Martinez said she and her husband donated the deed to their house and moved into an apartment.
After Martinez, now 37, left the church, she was able to preserve her relationship with her mother, a current member. But that changed in early June, when Naason Joaquin Garcia, the head of the church, known to followers as “the apostle” of Jesus Christ, was arrested and charged with multiple counts of sexual abuse.
Mother and daughter exchanged a heated, long string of texts. They haven’t spoken since. Her mother, who would usually visit Martinez and her children every month, has not come by.
As the church aggressively backs Garcia, former parishioners are quietly wrestling with the news of his arrest. The more than a dozen former members The Times spoke to cited a variety of reasons for leaving a church that had once been so central to their lives, including potential backlash for dating outside of their faith and feeling unaccepted because they were gay. Some said they simply no longer believed in the apostle.
Like Martinez, some former church members have found a sense of community in a Reddit group with more than 800 members, where individuals anonymously discuss developments in a criminal case that has repercussions ranging from Mexico — where La Luz del Mundo was founded — to dozens of countries around the world.
But the group has also become a focus of Garcia’s defense team.
In a brief filed Wednesday, they alleged that a witness for prosecutors searched for people in the Reddit group who would be willing to participate in a plot to frame the apostle that would help her sell a documentary she was making about Garcia and the church.
The brief alleges that the witness, whom they do not name, falsely claimed Garcia raped her and that she coerced two minor witnesses into engaging in child pornography to frame Garcia. It says that in a Reddit post, she solicited funds to finance her documentary and discussed the need to get damaging footage of Garcia “being legally served for rape, embezzlement and fraud” in order to have better “B-roll.”
Defense attorneys also said that she cast herself online as a scorned former lover of Garcia and wrote about falling in love with him.
“She harnessed the power of social media in search of anyone else with an ax to grind,” they wrote.
The California attorney general’s office, which is prosecuting the case, declined to comment. But state prosecutors have said that the charges leveled at Garcia so far are the tip of the iceberg, and they have asked other potential victims to come forward.
A few of the former church members interviewed said they no longer speak with relatives. Others say they try to avoid talking about the arrest with loved ones. Most now say they feel validated in their decision to leave the faith.
Martinez said the online community makes her feel connected with other people who say they are no longer speaking with family members.
“Even though we don’t know each other personally, we’re basically all going through the same exact thing, and we are all needing that support system right now,” she said.
The leader’s grandfather founded La Luz del Mundo — the Light of the World — in 1926. Garcia, his father and his grandfather all became charismatic leaders of the fast-growing church. The church has Pentecostal features, including speaking in tongues, and is based on a strict interpretation of the Bible. An annual gathering of hundreds of thousands, called the Holy Supper, commemorates the death and sacrifice of Christ.
The arrest of Garcia has made some members of the Reddit group set ground-rules when dealing with their relatives.
On Father’s Day, Jonathan Perez, 32, a grant writer in Los Angeles, texted his siblings before a gathering with one request: No speaking about La Luz del Mundo.
Perez left his home and church in East L.A. at age 19 after feeling unaccepted as a gay man. Because his relationship with his parents has been a “work in progress” since he left the church, Perez said, he has kept to himself how he felt about Garcia’s arrest.
When they sent him a news release from the church that said Garcia was innocent, Perez decided to hold his tongue.
“We don’t want to lose our parents in the course of this,” he said.
Meanwhile, the church has pushed out a social media campaign dubbed “We are light,” in which members speak in video messages about the values they gained from the faith.
“Now is the time to work harder, now is the time to pray more,” Ken Rosenfeld, Garcia’s lead attorney, told congregants in an interview with Berea Internacional, an organization that contracts with the church to provide La Luz del Mundo-related news. “Now is the time to stand up stronger because you are under attack.”
Renee de la Torre, a researcher in Guadalajara for the Center of Research and Graduate Studies in Social Anthropology who has studied La Luz del Mundo, said that Garcia is so central to the church’s identity that questioning him can cause high tensions among family members.
“Whoever questions is an infidel and is seen as the enemy,” she said. “That doesn’t only happen in La Luz del Mundo — it happens in many groups that are focused on the supernatural qualities of religious leaders.”
Patricia Fortuny, a Mexican anthropologist, said that La Luz del Mundo stands out among other Pentecostal churches in that respect.
She referred to a video that shows Garcia’s son being presented to the church in 2007. Addressing him in a thunderous voice, Garcia declares that if he leaves the church, “forget that you have a father, forgot that you have a home, my doors will close to you forever. But if you serve God and the church, my arms will always be open.”
Jack Freeman, a church minister and spokesman, emphasized that the church does not blacklist people if they decide to leave the church and that “there is no aggression involved.”
“Free will and the ability to make your own decisions is a right that God has given us,” Freeman said. “For me to say you are the enemy and we are at war against you, that is not my position.”
A 25-year-old former youth minister for the church from Los Angeles, who did not want to be identified because he feared backlash, had quietly harbored doubts about his faith for years.
After Garcia took over in 2014 following the death of his father — the previous apostle — the young man’s misgivings about whether Garcia had truly been appointed by God grew deep. He was troubled by the veneration heaped by followers on Garcia, whose initials are inscribed in congregants’ hymnals and shawls.
When Garcia was arrested, the young man finally told his parents, both devout church members, that he did not believe in the apostle. His crestfallen mother and father asked what had happened to the son they once knew.
Claudia Eunice Hernandez, 28, a general medical practitioner in Mexico City, sympathizes with posts on Reddit in which people describe feeling alienated after having left the church. She recalled feeling guilty when she left after dating someone from outside the faith.
“You are not allowed to doubt or think bad things about [the apostle] because that’s a sign that the enemy is using you,” she said. “In those cases, you are supposed to pray more, ask God to rid those thoughts, so that you can be in God’s good graces.”
Hernandez has talked to her father, a church member, about the charges.
“She has her point of view and we have agreed to respect our differences; if not, we lose our fraternity as a family,” said Jesus Hernandez, 54.
He said he has been a member practically his entire life, “not by imposition or tradition but by conviction.”
Sergio Meza Jr., 46, a dockworker at the Port of Los Angeles, has followed the criminal case closely since the apostle’s arrest. He spent his childhood moving with his parents — both former La Luz del Mundo missionaries — to different cities in Texas and Mexico to help build or expand churches, mostly in impoverished areas.
His family left the church about three decades ago after they moved to Los Angeles. His father, Meza said, began receiving backlash in public sermons at church for deciding to no longer be a minister. When they left as a result, his extended family stopped talking to his parents.
Meza would like for more church members to question the legitimacy of the apostle. He thinks that desire comes from a sense that he has lost a group of people from his life. People that his father, his mother and Meza loved.
“There were funerals, there was birthday parties that we were not wanted at,” he said. “I don’t think there is hurt anymore; I think we’re beyond that. It’s like unearthing a dead body and emotions resurface.”