Former La Luz del Mundo 'cult' members protest religious event in Houston

The Houston First Corporation, which manages the George R. Brown Convention Center downtown, said it has "no legal basis for denying" the megachurch to host an event.

The Houston Chronicle/February 12, 2024

By Eric Killelea

The leader of La Luz del Mundo, a Mexico-based Christian megachurch with 18 Houston congregations, has been locked up in a California prison since being arrested on child sexual exploitation charges in 2019. Naasón Joaquín García, the 54-year-old self-described "Apostle of Jesus Christ," pleaded guilty in 2022 to sexually abusing three minors and has been serving a nearly 17-year sentence in prison. He is now facing another 40 years after being charged in October with two felony counts of producing and possessing child pornography.

Meanwhile, documentaries on HBO and Netflix have featured stories from former church members who claim they were brainwashed and sexually abused by leaders in the Christian church.

Regardless of the church's reputation, La Luz Del Mundo—"The Light of the World"—has managed to book an event meant to attract thousands of members from Houston and across the United States and Mexico to the George R. Brown Convention Center near Discovery Green downtown, taking place Monday through Wednesday. In the past two weeks, Houston church members have been distributing digital flyers displaying animated versions of García on Facebook to promote the "Holy Supper 2024" event. In one flyer, Garcia can be seen wearing a dark suit while offering the rite of the eucharist in which bread, called the host, and wine are consecrated, or holy. "Do this in remembrance of me," the flyer reads, the Spanish words referring to Jesus in the 1 Corinthians Bible verse—and also García's physical absence.

Judith Castillo is among the growing number of former members of the church's Houston congregations that have been asking state lawmakers, Mayor John Whitmire, city council members and Houston First, the government corporation that operates the George R. Brown Convention Center, to cancel the event. Castillo told them that both she and her daughter had been sexually abused by church members in Houston.   

"This convention is a way the church tries to prove that they're still powerful," Castillo, a PhD student at the University of Houston, said Sunday. "We need to protect the integrity of the city and protect our kids from the members of the church who will attend this event. So, knowing all the facts, why is the city allowing this message of corruption?"

In response to questions, Carolyn Campbell, spokesperson for Houston First Corporation, said last week in email that the sales team secured a contract with La Luz del Mundo to book the event in December at the 2 million square-foot George R. Brown Convention Center—which is billed as one of America's largest.  The corporation confirmed that it charged the client at "a regular market rate," though it refused to disclose specifics of pricing.

George R. Brown Convention Center opened in 1987 and expanded in 2001 to include an adjacent 1,200-room convention headquarters hotel known as the Hilton Americas-Houston. Houston First Corporation, formed in 2011 to manage the convention center, said that it generates revenue from hotel occupancy tax and downtown parking garages.

In a statement, Houston First Corporation said that it was "aware of concerns" regarding La Luz del Mundo which booked the George R. Brown Convention Center this week for "a series of religious services."

"Houston First has no legal basis for denying this group the ability to conduct their event inside one of the city-owned venues that we manage," Houston First Corporation said. "Allowing groups to meet within HFC-managed facilities does not imply any endorsement of the views or positions of these clients. As always, we will make every effort to ensure the safety of all attendees at events in our facilities.”

Houston Mayor John Whitmire did not respond to a request for comment.

Former Houston church members are not buying Houston First Corporation's rationale for allowing the event to take place here. Tania Campos, a fifth-generation member of the church in Mexico, who broke away from the church in Houston in 2014, said she believes La Luz del Mundo is hosting the event at the George R. Brown Convention "to show its members that are still in that they're still strong."

"It's all about money," Campos suggested. "They're in the eye of the hurricane because of the legal issues they are going through."

Elisa Flores, 49, who was sexually abused by a church member when she was 12-years-old and left the church in Houston in 2021, has been helping former church members speak out about their experiences. "This is the largest cult that nobody knows about," Flores said. "The apostle was above everything. Without him, we didn't have salvation. He basically was our God."

Flores described how the church will "manipulate" its members at the so-called Holy Supper. "You could only buy the food from the church, you stay where the church tells you to stay, you go to five prayers a day and you're spending all your money to come," Flores said. "It's a lot of money that's spent under a lot of force of control. If the church tells you to come to the event, you come. The blessing is in obedience."

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