In Guadalajara’s Hermosa Provincia neighborhood, the headquarters of La Luz del Mundo, hundreds of worshipers walked to evening prayer Wednesday, a day like none other for Mexico's largest evangelical church.
Naason Joaquin Garcia, the church’s leader, a man considered by congregants an apostle of Jesus Christ, had just been sentenced to nearly 17 years in prison for committing acts of sexual abuse against girls from his community.
But church members here stand steadily by him, holding that he’s innocent. Kneeling, they prayed for Garcia, the third member of his family to lead the church, the third to be accused of sexual misconduct.
“Are we firm?” a congregant cried.
“Amén,” the members answered.
“Do we keep believing?” he asked.
“Amén,” they replied again.
Despite maintaining his innocence since his arrest at Los Angeles International Airport in 2019, Garcia abruptly pleaded guilty Friday to two counts of forcible oral copulation on a minor and one count of committing a lewd act on a child.
He had faced allegations from five accusers and allegedly committed crimes between 2015 and 2019. Prosecutors have claimed that the alleged victims were told that if they went against Garcia’s desires they were going against God.
The first victim to testify during Garcia's sentencing hearing in Los Angeles Wednesday morning told the court that, because of Garcia, she had suffered “more trauma and pain” than she could ever endure. All she wanted, she said, was to “tell the world who this man really is.”
“I feel that this plea allows him to escape the true consequences” of his actions, she said.
“All I’ve ever known was the church, it was my whole life,” she continued.
“I’d always been taught that we couldn't refuse his desires,” she said, describing how other church members convinced her she was “lucky” to “receive his blessing.”
She said she had served as Garcia's servant and sex slave, forced to wash his clothes, scrub his toilet and perform a sex act on him every morning. The abuse went on every day for years, she said.
As he sentenced Garcia, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ronald S. Coen called the church leader in an orange jail jumpsuit a "sexual predator." “I’ve been a judge for a long time,” he said. “I'll never cease to be amazed at what some people do [in the name of] religion.”
Three women — Alondra Ocampo, Susana Medina Oaxaca and Azalea Rangel Melendez — had been accused of facilitating Garcia’s crimes. Prosecutors alleged they groomed his victims to acquiesce to the abuse and discouraged them from reporting it.
Ocampo pleaded guilty to three counts of contact with a minor for a sexual offense and one count of forcible sexual penetration. She had been prepared to testify against Garcia at trial. Oaxaca pleaded guilty last week to one count of assault likely to cause great bodily injury. Rangel remains a fugitive.
Even as his case proceeded through the courts and investigators described prurient allegations of girls being raped and photographed in sexual positions, Garcia has maintained the support of church officials and many congregants.
They see their spiritual leader as the victim of a vast conspiracy hatched by overreaching prosecutors and lying, embittered ex-parishioners. They have dismissed Garcia’s guilty plea as the outcome of a rigged justice system.
And 1,500 miles away from Coen's courtroom, it’s hard to miss loyalty to the leader in Hermosa Provincia. This is where Garcia grew up and where church members began to settle in the 1950s under La Luz del Mundo’s first apostle, Garcia’s grandfather.
Large blue metal letter blocks spell out #INOCENTE on one end of a promenade painted with orange, gold and green stripes that leads to the church. Congregants pose for photos by an arrangement of flowers several dozen feet tall that forms the numbers "53" in honor of Garcia’s May birthday.
Signs on homes proudly assert support for Garcia. “We’ll see each other again… and it’ll be glorious!” says a sign outside one. “#Honorable” says another banner.
In a lengthy statement issued Wednesday afternoon, the church said it supported Garcia's decision to plead guilty and doubled down on the idea that the plea sprang from his inability to get a fair trial. The plea, the church said, would allow him to "minimize his prison sentence in order to regain his freedom."
Calling him "the Apostle of Jesus Christ," the church said Garcia "had no choice but to accept with much pain that the agreement presented is the best way forward to protect the church and his family."
Garcia, the statement said, "will continue ministering to the church. This is a path that God has placed in front of him for a reason, as he did for Apostle Paul."
Patricia Fortuny, a Mexican anthropologist who has studied La Luz del Mundo for decades, said the church “won’t lose its popularity from one day to another” and could survive by portraying Garcia as “a victim that has been destroyed by the unjust world.”
Sergio Meza Jr., a dockworker in the port of L.A. whose parents were former La Luz del Mundo missionaries, left the church about three decades ago. Meza, 49, said he thinks a trial laying out the evidence against Garcia would have resulted in more people leaving the church.
“The guy is [now] more of a martyr to save the name of the church and his own people,” said Meza.
In the days before the sentencing, Hermosa Provincia residents went about their normal lives. Women in floor-length skirts rode bikes down streets with names like Jerusalem and Jerico.
At a 6 p.m. church service Monday, a congregant read a letter she said came from Garcia. He had written that his case “is not important to me” and instead urged members to focus on how “in our faith we’re winning because the church has shown the world its strength,” she said.
Such letters remind members that Garcia hasn’t forgotten them.
“He was appointed by God, and God can’t be wrong,” said Jemima Chavez Ubaldo, 37, a resident whose family has belonged to the church for generations.
Like many congregants, Cirilo Ramirez, a 77-year-old minister who has spent decades as a missionary for the church in places like Chicago, Puerto Rico and Colombia, compared the charges against Garcia to persecution faced by Jesus and his apostles.
“What’s happening is not new,” he said. “All the apostles have suffered, and their crime was preaching.”
Betzabe Ramirez Herrera, a 33-year-old church member, said that after the plea deal was announced, Catholic relatives had asked her family members if they would leave the church. They quickly responded they wouldn’t. Ramirez said that she thought Garcia had been obligated to plead guilty to avoid a harsher punishment.
“He’s such a good man,” she said. “We know him because he’s walked our streets, has come into our homes. He’s humble. He knows us.”
Hundreds of congregants made their way to the towering temple here Wednesday to pray for Garcia the morning of the sentencing. And they continued to pray and sing hymns as Garcia’s hearing progressed.
Dozens of followers sat on the pavement outside the church and on lawn chairs they brought with them. They got on their knees to pray for Garcia. Some sobbed.
“This is going to be a spiritual push for us to be closer to God,” said Leticia Mendez, 62, who sat on a red lawn chair.
Hours later, after Garcia's sentence had been meted out and the evening service ended, Areli Hernandez Ramiro, a receptionist for the church, said the news pained her but she felt calm “because I believe in him.”
Hernandez, 45, said Garcia has taught her to be a good mother and instilled moral values in her two adult children, pointing to how they’ve never tried alcohol.
“I’m here with a lump in my throat,” she said. “We’ll be here waiting for him. We’re not going to crumble.”
Ormseth and Jany reported from Los Angeles, Miller from Guadalajara.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.