The invitation to pray together went out last week to millions of members of La Luz Del Mundo. A California court of appeal had dismissed criminal charges against their leader Naason Joaquin Garcia, and the Mexico-based religious group was cautiously optimistic.
"Let us be prudent," the invitation advised, "and wait on legal proceedings, trusting that the awaited day will come, because the Church is confident in the honorability of the Apostle of Jesus Christ."
Garcia, 50, has led the organization, also known as the Light of the World Church, since late 2014.
The charismatic preacher was born and raised in the Guadalajara neighborhood where his grandfather started this religious group, and where his father served as its leader for 50 years.
Today, the neighborhood is something like the Vatican for members of La Luz Del Mundo, which makes Garcia something like their Pope.
The charismatic preacher was arrested last summer at LAX, after three girls and one woman in L.A. County reported abuse to the California Department of Justice's clergy abuse tip line.
The California attorney general's office, which is prosecuting the case, says Garcia used his authority within the church to coerce young girls into sex acts. Garcia denies these allegations.
In June, Garcia was charged with lewd acts upon a child, conspiracy to commit human trafficking and forcible rape. At his arraignment, Garcia pleaded not guilty and waived his right to a speedy preliminary hearing.
In July, Garcia was arraigned on an amended complaint that also included new charges for the possession of child pornography. At that arraignment, he also pleaded not guilty.
In September, Garcia's attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that he had not waived his right to a speedy trial on the second set of charges and that he was being held unfairly. The trial court denied his motion, and Garcia's attorneys appealed to the California Court of Appeal.
The court of appeal reversed the trial court, dismissing the case on a procedural basis. The court did not weigh in on the merits of the criminal case against the pastor. The court of appeal dismissal isn't final for 30 days, and Garcia will continue to be held in jail until then. State prosecutors say they have the option to re-file the multiple felony charges against him.
Throughout the ordeal, Naason Joaquin Garcia and his supporters have denied the charges.
Garcia's criminal trial is in limbo, but for now, he'll keep running La Luz Del Mundo from behind bars, as he has for the past 10 months.
A LIVING 'APOSTLE'
Garcia isn't simply the leader of this religious group, which claims hundreds of churches around the world and dozens here in Southern California. The organization's millions of followers believe Garcia to be God's only living apostle in what they call the one true Christian Church -- just like his father and grandfather before him.
His central role in the religious movement was on full display at a choir concert held in his honor at LA's Grand Park back in December.
"This is the fifth anniversary of the man who we -- who has been sent by God, the leader of our Church as well," said Ari Martinez, a lifelong church member from East L.A. "We're just celebrating his work. He's been working tirelessly since I've known him."
Martinez was one of about 2,000 church members gathered to celebrate the half-decade since Naason Joaquin Garcia took over as La Luz Del Mundo's apostle after his father, Samuel Joaquin Flores, died in December 2014.
Choir members from temples across Southern California sang their hearts out in front of L.A.'s City Hall.
Nicholas Ynda is a pastor at the downtown L.A. temple. He says spirits are high even with their apostle behind bars.
"The theme or topic is to be grateful to God for the last five years of blessings that we've received," said Ynda. "Of course, everyone knows about the ongoing criminal case. It's something that the Church is going through.."
Garcia's five years as 'the apostle' have been defined by his efforts to grow the Church outside Mexico, opening churches in all 50 U.S. states and 58 countries worldwide.
"Naason's originality was to tour the world continuously and try to argue that this is a universal church rather than Latino or Mexican," said religious scholar Massimo Introvigne, managing director at the Center for Studies on New Religions. "He more or less succeeded."
Ynda, who was baptized into the church 16 years ago, said he believes the accusations might actually help the church grow: "It does bring notoriety to the church, of course, and it is possible that God could use that for the growth of the Church. If you look in the scripture, men of God have been talked about poorly, and God turns that around for good things often."
The idea that a jailed church leader could be good for a religion might sound hard to believe, but it's backed by sociologists and religious scholars.
"Outside attacks and ridicule actually reinforce religious groups," Introvigne said. "Members realize how they see themselves is very much different from how the world sees them and normally react by strengthening their community engagement and commitment. Even if the apostle is found guilty, history and sociology show that high commitment groups do not decline and may even grow."
As the Grand Park event came to a close, the crowd broke into a chant of support for their apostle.
"Somos de Naason Joaquin," they chant. "We belong to Naason Joaquin."
THE HOLY SUPPER
In February, with 'the apostle' still sitting in an L.A. jail cell, more than 10,000 members of the Light of the World Church from all over the West Coast packed the Pomona Fairgrounds grandstand for the group's annual Holy Supper event.
Women sat on one side, wearing veils and wailing out in prayer. Men sat on the other, just like inside Luz Del Mundo temples.
"The world's already made a decision on who we are," said Jack Freeman, a minister from Redlands. "They call us a cult. They call us violent. They call us brainwashers, they call us so many different things. But right here, we're in our biggest event, and we're just here happy, we're joyful. Nobody's forced. We're here with our own free will because we want to be a part of this."
This annual event is the U.S. twist on the group's annual Santa Cena gathering at the Church's headquarters in Guadalajara, which draws hundreds of thousands every August.
This year's ritual was adapted to fight the spread of coronavirus, which, at the time, was just emerging as a threat in California. Freeman said it usually involves thousands of people drinking grape juice out of the same cup.
"But because of the scare of the virus and our desire to keep our members safe, each person gets a little cup now," Freeman said.
The event is about remembering the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and communing with God, said Freeman -- not worshipping Naason Joaquin Garcia, as the religious movement's detractors suggest.
"I care about him a lot," said Freeman. "I love him. I know who he is and I respect him very much, just as if you had a pastor who looked after your soul, you would love and care for him as well because of the spiritual nature of the relationship. But you're not going to worship him. You're not going to pray to him. You're not going to throw yourself at his feet like what's being said. That's ridiculous."
But as volunteers prepare the Holy Supper, representing the body and blood of Jesus Christ, the crowd sings a song called "Nard of Justice and Glory," about God choosing Garcia as his apostle.
"His election gave me a new reason to believe and proclaim," they sing. "Naasón, apostle of the Lord. Naason Joaquin!"
La Luz Del Mundo's apostle is what makes the religion different from other homegrown Pentecostal groups in Mexico, said Patricia Fortuny, with the Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology in Mexico.
She said Naason Joaquin Garcia is La Luz Del Mundo's greatest strength and also its greatest weakness.
"It's fantastic for the people," said Fortuny. "They feel special and chosen to be part of the primitive Christian church. But it's also a problem. Most Pentecostal churches in Mexico or the United States do not worship their pastors, and the ministers and pastors do not control or coerce the people in the same way that they do in Luz Del Mundo."
"THERE'S NO SIN IN HIM"
Some former members say the religious group's fixation on its central figure has led to a culture of widespread abuse.
This year's festivities in Pomona were interrupted by new allegations of misconduct against Garcia and also against La Luz Del Mundo, painting a different portrait of the church's presence in Los Angeles.
Sochil Martin, a lifelong church member who left the organization in 2016, filed a federal civil lawsuit against Garcia and La Luz Del Mundo. She claimed she was groomed from childhood to serve as a sex slave to two apostles, Garcia as well as his father, Samuel.
In her bombshell lawsuit, the 33-year-old accuses Garcia of running La Luz Del Mundo like a predatory cult of personality, manipulating members into donating all their time and money to the Church, and making himself rich in the process.
Garcia and the church deny these claims, and Martin's lawyers say the case is ongoing.
Martin claims she was told from childhood that the apostle was without sin and was even taught bible verses meant to justify his sexual contact with kids.
"I was told that he can do anything, and there's no sin in him," Martin told me in an interview recounting the charges in her lawsuit. "So when I would see things happening growing up, deep down inside I would ask myself questions, but you're supposed to slap yourself and say, 'Snap out of it, no. That's not a sin for him.' There's no sin in him. He can lie. He can rape. He can do whatever he wants, because he is the Servant of God and the apostle of Jesus Christ."
Before becoming the apostle, Garcia was a minister at churches in Huntington Park, North Hollywood, Santa Ana and the flagship temple in East L.A. That's where Martin first met him in 2003, when she was 16.
At that time, Garcia's father Samuel Joaquin Flores was the apostle and Garcia was launching the church's new communications department, Berea International, spreading La Luz Del Mundo's message to the world with radio programs, videos and social media posts.
Garcia enlisted Martin into years of unpaid work on the project and, she claimed in the lawsuit, later forced her to have sex with him.
Martin claims in the lawsuit that on one occasion, LDM members in Southern California were encouraged to donate gold jewelry and heirlooms to the apostle, which were melted down and used to paint the molding on his new home in Los Angeles.
Martin says cash donated at La Luz del Mundo's temples feeds Naason Joaquin Garcia's lavish lifestyle. According to the complaint, Naason Joaquin Garcia owns two private ranches in Redlands and South Texas, which house exotic animals and vintage cars.
"For far too many La Luz Del Mundo members, everything they have is taken by LLDM. Every dollar they make goes to La Luz Del Mundo because they truly believe their money will be used to do the work of God on Earth," Martin said. "But all the hard-earned money goes to making Naason and his enablers rich."
It wasn't until 2016 that she says she found the courage to leave the Church. That's when Martin claims Garcia dispatched three members of LDM leadership to try to buy her silence for half a million pesos.
"When his bishops came, they didn't bring a message of 'Hey, the Servant of God wants to talk to you guys and tell you how much he loves you,'" Martin said. "It was full on, 'What do you want and how much?' Our world just shattered. I thought, 'Oh my God, this is a business.'"
Since 2018, Martin says she has been working with authorities to help investigate and prosecute La Luz Del Mundo's leaders and prosecute Garcia.
She says she still feels the grip of the power institution everyday, but her lawsuit was one step towards freedom.
"In filing the case, it's sort of like taking my life back, proving to myself that I'm not that slave anymore, that I have power, that I have a voice, that I don't belong to anybody anymore. And it was sort of like coming out into the light."
And with the criminal case against Garcia in limbo, Martin says she hopes her civil case can help hold him accountable.