Leaving the cult: Penn State student advocates against La Luz del Mundo church

The Daily Collegian, Pennsylvania/February 28, 2020

By Christina Baker

Editor’s note: The names of the individuals interviewed for this story have been changed in order to protect their identities.

On June 3, 2019, Naasón Joaquín García, the leader of La Luz del Mundo, was arrested on charges of human trafficking, production of child pornography and forcible rape of a minor.

On June 4, 2019, Penn State student Alex was told of García’s arrest in church. He was warned that LLDM should be his only source of information on this subject, and told not to read articles about the case because the news was “the devil working his way into casting doubts in you.”

Alex went home and immediately read everything he could about García’s arrest. He read the attorney general’s entire report of García’s crimes.

Then, Alex found r/exlldm, a subreddit for former members of LLDM.

Alex’s journey — from a fourth-generation member of LLDM to a leader of the effort to dismantle it — has brought him to Penn State with a sense of purpose and belonging.

La Luz del Mundo (in English, The Light of the World) was founded in Mexico 1926, when Eusebio Joaquín González said he had a vision of God speaking to him. González changed his name from Eusebio to Aarón and founded LLDM on the belief that he was “the Apostle” chosen by God to lead the church.

When González died, he was succeeded as Apostle by his son, Samuel, who was then succeeded by Samuel’s son Naasón.

Over the years, LLDM expanded throughout Mexico and into dozens of other countries, including the United States. The church has claimed to have five million members since 2000.

This claim, Alex said, “is a gigantic exaggeration.” (Some estimates place the membership as low as one million.)

In Alex’s eyes, LLDM is a cult.

Although he acknowledges that many cults are far more extreme, Alex can detail a number of ways in which LLDM is repressive and cult-like.

In Alex’s words, the following rules LLDM members must follow are “cult-like”:

  • "You can only marry within the church.”
  • “There’s a strict dress code, on women especially.”
  • “I have to have short hair, the women have to have long hair, they can’t look like men.”
  • “There’s no premarital sex, there’s no drug use, there’s no drinking.”
  • "I can’t grow a beard because I’ll look too much like a Muslim. The ban on growing a beard isn’t grounded in the Bible at all.”

Members of LLDM are also pressured to contribute large amounts of labor and money on a regular basis, according to Alex.

Alex recalled the tactics used to solicit higher donations in the church in his hometown.

“They will post up how much money each family gave at the entrance of the church, like in the lobby,” he said.

Members of the church are also expected to trust the Apostle to make their important life decisions — sometimes letting him arrange their marriages.

“I’ve been to weddings where [the bride and groom] are matched, and they don’t know who the f--- they’re marrying until they’re right at the altar,” Alex said. “Very awkward.”

Alex said he finds church members’ devotion to the Apostle to be a red flag.

“Everyone has a picture of the Apostle in their house,” Alex said. “I can tell you there are at least three pictures of the Apostle in my living room, next to pictures of my family and other stuff. It’s just very creepy.”

The church has also made no effort to distance itself from its leader, the current Apostle, who is currently sitting in prison on child molestation charges.

Although Alex has spoken online with people who are victims of this type of abuse, he said he did not witness any sexual abuse firsthand. Still, Alex said García’s arrest and the church’s response to it dealt the final blow to his faith.

Alex, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico, is a fourth-generation member of a fairly influential family within LLDM. He has extended family members in the ministry and said his parents are on a first-name basis with people in the highest echelons of the organization.

Coming to doubt his faith, he said, was like “death by a thousand cuts,” but there were “some giant hits."

“You just see some ugly things, and you read some books, you meet [former] members of other organizations,” Alex said.

One of the biggest blows to his belief was in 2014.

After the former Apostle Samuel died, Alex and his family were on a bus to Guadalajara, Mexico to attend his funeral.

While driving there, they saw another bus hit a woman and child. His parents interpreted it as the devil trying to prevent them from attending the funeral.

Alex interpreted it differently.

“It was just very ugly,” Alex said. “It was very ugly, and I was supposedly on the way to mourn this thing, and I saw that and I was just like, ‘I just don’t understand this. There’s no possible way that God could be orchestrating this.’”

But within LLDM, not all people who lose their faith stop going to church.

Kate, a moderator on r/exlldm who met Alex on the subreddit, said LLDM “brainwashes” its members and was told she would risk death by leaving. Kate left the organization 10 years ago.

“They make you afraid of even just having negative thoughts about the church,” Kate said.

If someone does leave the church, they also lose their social life and standing in their community, and often lose their relationships with their family.

“When [your family calls], they don’t call just to ask how you are,” Kate said. “They call to tell you that you need to come back.”

Because Alex was still living with his family, he waited a while to voice any concern about his beliefs. When he finally told them in 2014 that he was having doubts about his faith, he said he was worried how they would respond.

It is not abnormal in LLDM for parents to kick their children out of the house for voicing doubts.

However, Alex’s parents slightly “broke the rules,” he said, and instead arranged meetings with high-level members of the ministry in which he discussed his faith.

These meetings were not effective in securing Alex’s beliefs. He said they got slightly “contentious” at times, but he stayed with the church until 2019.

Alex came to Penn State for graduate school in 2018. The distance to the nearest LLDM church, two hours away in Lancaster, affected his decision.

He said he continued attending LLDM services out of fear.

“I would drive two hours to Lancaster, go there for the night, and then just show my face and leave,” Alex said.

The term r/exlldm uses for telling your family that you no longer believe in the organization is “coming out,” and Alex was “closeted.”

However, Alex was open with his friends at Penn State about his history with LLDM and his belief that it was a cult.

Vincent, Alex’s friend who is in the same graduate program, said he was worried for Alex when he finally decided to “come out” to his parents.

Vincent said he has experience counseling people with several organizations, including The Trevor Project — a national nonprofit organization that provides crisis and suicide prevention for LGBTQ young people. He said he saw a lot of similarities between those people’s situations and Alex’s situation.

Alex still lives with his family during the summer and on breaks, and he and Vincent were concerned that his parents might not let him talk to his younger siblings once they learned that he had left the church.

“I was not sure how his parents would react to him saying, ‘I don’t believe anymore,’” Vincent said. “Then they might say, ‘Well, then you can’t talk to your brother.’”

When Alex finally came out to his parents in August of 2019, the church had been escalating harsher language about ex-members, particularly those who left in the wake of García’s arrest, according to Alex.

One minister, Alex recounted, “called people like me gangrene, infectious; if you invite me to your home, I’m [going to] infect the minds of my siblings”

“They’ve since dialed back on that, but they still f------ said it,” Alex said.

However, his parents did let him come home for winter break, with a mutual agreement not to discuss his beliefs.

Growing up in the world of LLDM affected him, Alex said, and the process of leaving the church required a lot of deprogramming and new experiences.

“In some ways, it kept me back in terms of just growing up along with other people,” Alex said.

He didn’t start drinking until he was 24.

“There’s a silver lining to it,” Alex said. “I find knowing the Bible inside and out is pretty cool, because a lot of people don’t know that, and it’s helpful for when you read Shakespeare or whatever.”

In some ways, LLDM plays just as big of a role in Alex’s life now as it did before he left. Now, however, he’s working to dismantle it.

The main purpose of the r/exlldm subreddit is to offer support for people who have left the organization, Kate said.

“We just make sure that people can stay safe and also that they have a safe space to vent, talk about their experiences in the church, and just kind of where they are now in life,” Kate said.

The members of r/exlldm are concerned with helping others leave LLDM, especially their family members.

Alex is not a moderator on the subreddit — that’s still in the works — but he’s very involved.

“I love looking at it,” Alex said. “It’s one of the first things I do in the morning. I read every single comment that’s posted on there, every post.”

Because Alex is very active, people often message him directly.

Alex said people have messaged him privately to tell him that his posts inspired them to come out to their families, or helped them explain their decisions.

He has also received messages from people who are unable to leave the church because of family obligations.

Vincent said he thinks Alex is well-suited to this work.

“Alex is one of the most caring people that I know, so I think that his activity on the subreddit is more than educational, and [it’s] support-based,” Vincent said.

Vincent added Alex is a “very level-headed person,” which Vincent said makes Alex equipped to deal with internet trolls on r/exlldm.

Most of the trolls on the subreddit are current members of LLDM who try to harass ex-members into returning to the organization. Kate said the trolls will also try to out ex-members and compromise their anonymity.

Alex said he reaches out to them directly.

“One time this person posted something about ‘the Apostle is suffering in prison for y’all, you guys should return, he did say he wanted people to return to the church, he’s gonna forgive y’all, etcetera,’” Alex said. “I contacted the person directly. They didn’t strike me as very informed or intelligent, and then I asked the person, ‘How old are you?’ He’s like ‘Oh, I’m 12.” I was like ‘s---.’”

Kate and Alex both said the subreddit has a good atmosphere, although Kate is currently dealing with harassment from trolls.

“[People on the subreddit] have disagreements, of course, but we’re rather civil about it,” Alex said. “We keep reminding ourselves that having disagreements is the way we got here.”

Kate said when she first left LLDM, she felt “really alone.” r/exlldm helped her heal from the trauma she experienced when she left 10 years ago.

“It brought a healing, knowing that I wasn’t alone, knowing that my story wasn’t as unique as I thought,” Kate said.

Alex said that despite all of the “emotional labor” he puts into the subreddit, he cannot see himself stopping.

“It’s important,” Alex said. “I don’t want to grow up and not have done what I’m doing right now.”

Alex is currently spearheading an effort on r/exlldm he calls “Operation: Trojan Horse,” in which members of the subreddit who still go to church will leave slips of paper with the subreddit’s URL in places that other church members will find them.

The goal, Alex said, is to let members of LLDM know that it is okay to doubt their faith and that there is a larger community of people who do not support the organization.

Alex said he finds hope in the fact that García seems likely to lose his impending trial.

After the verdict, regardless of the result, Alex plans to come out to his friends and extended family.

Although he cannot be sure what effect this will have, Alex hopes that by coming out he can “normalize dissent.”

Alex said he has a good reputation in his community. He’s a second-generation immigrant and first-generation college student and he helped several younger members of his community with their college applications.

Because he’s unmarried, “when I go back home, people still think I’m a virgin.”

He hopes that letting people know that he left the church will either change their perception of ex-members or change their perception of him.

“I like the fact that I have a good reputation and I will be able to very quickly flip the script on them,” Alex said. “I have no doubt that there will be a friend, or two or three or five, that will stop talking to me.”

However, Alex said he hopes to be as “diplomatic” about coming out as possible.

He added he hopes that other ex-members will come out after García’s trial as well. He envisions what he calls an “I am Spartacus” moment, in which a wave of ex-members reach out to their family and friends and offer to help them grapple with the results of the trail.

Alex said he is most bothered by what he considers to be “a lack of honesty within the community.”

“I just want people to be honest about the things they are told, and the sort of coercive relationship that they’re in,” Alex said.

Since leaving the church, Alex said he has seen several counselors. He has taken steps to come to terms with his new reality.

He has found it helpful to express himself artistically, and he also goes to jiu jitsu.

“It helps to be fighting people, so you don’t think about stuff,” Alex said.

Additionally, Alex finds meditation to be helpful. Although it’s not religious, “it feels like praying,” he said.

Alex said he would like to find a community of secular or atheist students, or ex-cult members.

“I know there’s people on this campus that have left cults, or other things like that. And if there’s any way I can help them, or they can help me, or we can keep in contact, that would be cool,” Alex said.

Still, Alex feels as though he’s found some sort of community with his classmates.

“They’re very supportive,” Alex said. “I’ve told them about this, they know I help on the subreddit. I send them news stories, just so they can click on it, give it a view or something like that, just to rack up the numbers. They help in that way, they’ve helped the most.”

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