Like all churches, La Luz Del Mundo, translated as “The Light of the World,” has its own unique practices.
Those rituals have led some people to call the relatively new Christian denomination a cult.
And with plans to build a huge development in Flowery Branch, local residents launched a Facebook group to call attention to these concerns and started a petition against the proposal.
Flowery Branch officials even posted on the city’s website a question-and-answer page for the church’s unofficial 272-acre multi-use development proposal off Hog Mountain Road near the affluent Sterling on the Lake subdivision.
Now, those who oppose the church have been given new ammunition, and La Luz is facing heavy scrutiny nationwide after its leader was arrested this week on 26 felony charges involving human trafficking, production of child pornography, forcible rape of a minor and other crimes.
California prosecutors announced that Naason Joaquin Garcia was taken into custody along with co-defendants Alondra Ocampo, Azalea Rangel Melendez and Susana Medina Oaxaca — all of whom are affiliated with the church.
Prosecutors say Joaquin Garcia and his co-defendants committed the crimes while leading La Luz Del Mundo.
"This is very unfortunate, however, we stand by the international leader of the church, Naason Joaquin, as we know that he is a clean and good man," Jack Freeman, a spokesman and local leader of La Luz, told The Times on Wednesday, June 5. "I have never witnessed anything other than respect and care from him. We are certain that this will come to pass and he will be found innocent on all allegations."
Among the charges are accusations that Garcia and the co-defendants engaged in lewd sexual acts with minors “by means of force, violence, duress, menace, or fear of immediate and unlawful bodily injury.”
A copy of the complaint is available here.
“Garcia and his co-defendants allegedly coerced victims into performing sexual acts by telling them that if they went against any of his desires or wishes as ‘the Apostle,’ that they were going against God,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
The organization has been the subject of controversy for years as it has spread from Mexico into California and other places.
Garcia is a naturalized resident of the United States, and his family owns a ranch outside San Antonio, Texas. His father was accused of similar crimes in the 1980s, but was never formally charged.
In a press release, the church proclaimed Garcia’s innocence, and that “we trust that these unsubstantiated allegations do not degenerate into religious intolerance and discriminatory acts against the membership of the church.”
An international presence
The church was born in Mexico in 1926 and claims more than 1 million followers worldwide with many branches in the United States.
The leadership is controlled by a single person, handed down from son to son over three generations, with Garcia considered an “apostle” by church doctrine and members themselves.
Its Marietta branch, the first church La Luz established in Georgia, appears ornate inside the worship hall, with a white, honeycomb-shaped backdrop and sculpted wings that reach toward the pews.
However, there are no crosses on display, no Virgin Marys or flowers or rosaries speckling the walls of the church. Those are considered false idols. There’s no communion, either.
Women sit on one side of the pews, wearing colorful, knitted veils (they do not cover their faces), and the men sit opposite the aisle.
Most parishioners are Latino, many of them first- or second-generation immigrants, and a wide swath come from middle- and working-class socio-economic backgrounds.
So, what might the average church-going Hall County Christian find in common with La Luz parishioners?
Bible study. Prayer. Christ as savior. Those are a few critical examples.
Still, the contrast is undeniably sharp. For example, important dates and ceremonies for La Luz include a Holy Supper, held each August, and the birthday of Garcia in May.
In a visit to La Luz’s churches in Marietta and Gainesville — which has about 1,000 and 100 congregants, respectively — reporters from The Times found congregants kind and freely willing to discuss the perception of their church.
A service at La Luz can feel both solemn and formal, while at the same time frantic and wistful.
When parishioners pray, usually without direction, and sometimes directly for the “apostle” Garcia, they can appear almost hysterical, with women wailing, even sobbing, while the men can be heard moaning in a kind of low growl.
Church leaders say they encourage their congregants to pray with all their heart and all their body, and the weeping appears to cease immediately when the prayer is finished.
“Simply because the Lord has told us to pray for one another – even to our enemies,” as one parishioner described the service. “Our prayers aren’t just for us.”
Their prayers are to God alone, they insist, for thanksgiving and reconciliation, for gratitude and forgiveness.
When the pastor is sermonizing, the church resembles many in the South, where call-and-response is common between preacher and parishioner.
The Gainesville church is located in a renovated home off Pearl Nix Parkway near Atlanta Highway on the city’s predominantly Latino west side.
Parishioners described themselves as ordinary citizens – engineers, architects, teachers, clerks, auto repairmen, poultry plant workers, stay-at-home mothers – trying to contribute to the community and looking to something they believe is greater than themselves.
And not all parishioners are Latino.
“It’s OK for them to feel that way,” Kelly Portillo, a white woman who was introduced to the church by her husband, said of those who believe the church is a cult.
Portillo said the church and its leaders advocate for the concept of “free will,” that neither she nor anyone else has been forced into the church, and anyone is free to leave at any time.
“I fell in love with it,” Portillo added. “Anybody is welcome.”
Phillip Manley, also white, said he grew up Baptist but joined the church after marrying his wife, who is Latina.
“I actually kind of felt that way, too,” he said when asked about the perception that La Luz is a cult. “I didn’t understand it.”
But Manley said his experience has been nothing but rewarding, and the church has more in common with its protestant Christian brothers and sisters than many might expect.
“We believe in the same things,” he added. “We just worship differently.”
Plans in Flowery Branch
Representatives of La Luz working on the Flowery Branch project are acutely aware of the perception they must overcome.
In fact, the church took out a full-page advertisement in The Times in March stating its intentions for the development and specifically denying that it is a cult.
La Luz hasn't filed a formal application for its proposed development – yet – but on its website and in preliminary documents provided to the city, it has proposed a project that includes a hotel, retail space, and multifamily and single-family homes.
The project also would call for a school site, fellowship hall, administrative offices and cultural center/park.
La Luz has called this project “City of Light of the World” and is the church’s “first effort to build cities where the values that distinguish human beings are cultivated, (people) live in an atmosphere of peace, equity, solidarity and, above all, on the principles that human beings can achieve the harmony of living together by applying the statutes of healthy coexistence that the Lord Jesus Christ left to his apostles in teaching.”
Flowery Branch’s webpage gives some basic details about the proposal and steps ahead if the rezoning needed for the project to move forward is ultimately sought. There is an explanation about public hearings and City Council decisions, including that two votes separated by about 30 days that would be required before the action is final.
In a statement to The Times this week, Flowery Branch City Manager Bill Andrew wrote, “The city of Flowery Branch is not privy to the allegations in the state of California against the leader and other representatives of La Luz del Mundo. Regarding any potential rezoning application by (the church), the city council’s role would be focused on applying the land use decision criteria set forth in the city’s zoning ordinance. Currently, no application for rezoning has been filed by the (La Luz Del Mundo) organization.”
Meanwhile, an online petition to stop these plans has garnered more than 8,400 signatures as of 3 p.m. on Wednesday, June 5, with many added after news of Joaquin Garcia’s arrest was made public.
“The massive influx of followers that would come into the area would adversely affect our roads and our schools,” the petition states. “Right now, Hog Mountain (Road), Spout Springs (Road), and numerous secondary streets are under strain already. Something of this magnitude would cause more traffic nightmares.
“The masses that would come to this compound and flood our streets is more than what our infrastructure can handle.”
Freeman told The Times this spring that La Luz will make its name and headway with the work it is already doing in the community, including joining the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce and working with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Lanier.
Freeman said the church is always looking for ways to be involved in the community and will continue looking for ways “we can work together.”
In a Youtube video uploaded on May 29, Freeman speaks to a congregation about the challenges the church faces in Georgia and Hall County.
“There is something that makes us unique and special and different than all of these billions of people that surround us, and that’s the work that God has done in our hearts to believe,” Freeman said. “Your brother has run into so many over there in that place of Georgia that also claim to be Christians and claim to be fighting for their faith, but they’re fighting for something that is non-Godly. They’re fighting for something that is very fleshly. They’re fighting for something that is very worldly. They are fighting with prejudice and hatred and judgmental-ness.”
Freeman said the church would fight for its place in Georgia.
“We are not going to lay down and give up and allow ourselves to be taken captive or move or run off,” he said in the video.
In the meantime, church leader Garcia will also have to battle inside a California courtroom.
“Crimes like those alleged in this complaint have no place in our society. Period,” said Becerra, the California attorney general.
The Associated Press, Tribune News Service and Times reporter Jeff Gill contributed to this report.