GUADALAJARA, Mexico (AP) — Their spiritual leader is behind bars in California after pleading guilty to sexually abusing minors. Still, Naazon Joaquin Garcia’s legions of followers in his home base in Mexico remain fervently loyal to him, seeing his imprisonment as a challenge that will strengthen, not weaken, their church, La Luz del Mundo (Light of the World).

Recently in the main temple of the Christian Church in Guadalajara, as thousands gathered to pray for their absent leader during the Holy Supper, the holiest feast for La Luz del Mundo, it was clear that he continues to hold his flock. To gasps of surprise, Joaquin Garcia addressed the crowd by phone from his prison in Los Angeles, where he is serving a 16-year sentence.

“I see no bars separating me from you,” he told his followers. “I see your beautiful faces… because you are children of God.”

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Even outside the temple, the sound of his voice evoked emotions among dozens of worshipers guarding the entrances to the shrine. Almost everyone closed their eyes. Many raised their fists. Some knelt down and wept.

Near the end of the call, Joaquin Garcia asked his followers to raise their hands and voice to God and repeat after him, “I promise you, Lord, that no matter what the suffering, I will never leave you.”

It seems clear that many members of the church, which was founded in Mexico in 1926 and is now active in many countries, are not ready to give up Joaquin Garcia as their “apostle,” the term used for a church leader. Many believe that he was sent by God to preach to them and are convinced that he is innocent despite his guilty plea.

“The apostle always shows the determination to go forward,” said Fares Ruiz, who traveled from El Salvador to participate in the Holy Communion. “He is firm in his convictions and the church is firm in its goal to move forward.”

Ruiz told The Associated Press that his family has owned La Luz del Mundo for three generations.

53-year-old Joaquin Garcia was arrested in 2019 in California. He initially faced more than 20 charges, but most of them were dropped after a plea deal with prosecutors. The church argued that prosecutors hid or falsified evidence and said Joaquin Garcia pleaded guilty because he didn’t think he could get a fair trial.

“The Apostle of Jesus Christ had no choice but to accept with great pain that the presented agreement is the best way to protect the church and his family,” the church said.

The main base of the church is the area of ​​Guadalajara in the province of Hermosa, which means “beautiful province” in Spanish. Jericho, Bethlehem and Nazareth are the names of the roads that approach the white temple, which the locals call the “cake” for its white tiers that decrease in size as you climb up.

Members of the neighborhood congregation call each other “brother” and “sister” and take pride in helping each other. The church’s media relations office says there is no crime in the area.

The neighborhood has cafeterias, clinics, a recreation center, and a store that sells Bibles and children’s religious-themed games. On the walls hang pictures of Joaquin Garcia, smiling and wearing a tuxedo. A sculpture that spells out “innocent” in Spanish spans the main street.

Sarah Pozas, 49, is one of many residents of the area who believe their leader’s imprisonment has strengthened the church.

“I think it’s changed for the better in the sense that now we feel more united and we feel more empowered,” she said.

“Of course, it was a very difficult question for him and for us,” she added. “We all suffer something in life, but a person learns to recognize those moments when you see that God is doing something to help you, to go forward, not to let you fall.”

Another resident of the area, Sailem Castillo, also said she is upbeat despite the incarceration of Joaquin Garcia.

“We are doing very well, everything continues to work,” she said. “Ministers, pastors and deacons have the same responsibilities. They bless the bread and wine and do other things as if he were here, although he is not physically there.’

The jailed leader is the grandson of La Luz del Mundo’s founder: Eusebio Joaquín González, a military man who began preaching in 1926. He is known to members of the church as Aaron – according to him, as a result of the fact that God asked him to change his name.

Aaron’s wife was an early member of the church. Today it unites more than 5 million people in 50 countries.

La Luz del Mundo is sometimes called evangelical, but its members do not accept that term. Church teachings are learned from the cradle. Parents give their children biblical names and take them to the temple at the age of 40 days to promise that they will guide them to follow their path.

Most teachings turn into something ordinary. During the service, women sit on the right and men on the left. In some cities, people give more than 10% of their monthly income to the church. Bible verses are quoted to explain the behavior.

Castillo, a recently married 25-year-old, told the AP that the church advises members to “lead a decent lifestyle” in which women cannot drink alcohol or go on frequent dates. Like other women in the province of Hermosa, she wears dresses and skirts that do not fit her figure, avoids makeup and earrings, and wears her hair long.

Religion is “very demanding,” said Arlene M. Sanchez-Walsh, a professor of religious studies at Azusa Pacific University, a Christian institution near Los Angeles.

“It’s not enough to say ‘I’m converted’ or ‘I’m baptized,'” she said. “You must complete certain steps to prove your loyalty.”

For some young people, these steps include memorizing songs honoring the apostle, reading the Bible before bed, and refusing to marry someone outside the church.

“All of this shows that even though you are part of this world, you have adopted a very special way of life because you are a Christian,” Sanchez-Walsh said.

Those born into the community are baptized at age 14 because, according to the church, this allows them to decide whether to confirm or leave the faith. However, there are former members who say their ceremony was optional.

On the eve of baptism, during a ritual known as “revival”, children spend days of prayer and fasting in the temple. Revival consists in continually repeating “Glory to Christ” until young people speak in tongues to testify that the Holy Spirit has entered them.

For 43-year-old Raquel Haifa, the revival was a traumatic experience that she considers offensive because minors cannot opt ​​out.

“I was really crying because I was like, ‘God, release me from this, let this time go by faster,'” said Haifa, from Texas.

Journalists are now prohibited from attending services and taking pictures of church temples. Following the arrest of Joaquín García, La Luz del Mundo’s media relations team says they cannot make any official statements regarding his case as the trial continues.

On September 8, a lawsuit was filed in California against Joaquin Garcia and four members of the church who were allegedly complicit in the sexual abuse. The lawsuit was filed by five women who — under the pseudonym Jane Doe — were identified as victims in the original criminal charges against him.

He accuses Joaquin Garcia that, under the guise of religion, he forced his victims to serve him, first of all, which eventually led to sexual abuse for several years.

The case was difficult for some former members who distanced themselves from the church.

Speaking on a podcast titled “I Left the Sect,” Lo-ami Salazar said Hermosa province was her “happy place.”

“It’s horrible to know that this abuse was happening there, in my happy place, in my safe place,” she said.

Associated Press religion coverage is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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