LOS ANGELES (RNS) — The Mexico-based La Luz del Mundo plans to hold its Holy Supper ceremony in February in events across the U.S. even though its leader remains in a Los Angeles jail after he was arrested and charged with numerous sex crimes.
The exact date of the Holy Supper — a sacred rite that church members say memorializes the death and salvation of Jesus Christ — has not been made public. A church spokesman said members will be able to commemorate the ceremony in gatherings held in different states.
Jack Freeman, spokesman and minister for La Luz del Mundo, said the locations and date of the event will not be disclosed at this time.
In 2018, the church held the first nationwide Holy Supper in the United States at Glen Helen Amphitheater in San Bernardino. The five-day convocation was a sign of the movement's growing presence in the U.S.
Some observers have wondered whether the church would continue with the event after La Luz Del Mundo leader Naasón Joaquín García, who goes by the title of apostle, was arrested along with two co-defendants in June on suspicion of committing a slew of sex crimes involving minors.
García 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,” they would be going against God, according to the California attorney general’s office.
García, who has pleaded not guilty, is being held without bail.
Church members have maintained his innocence.
Headquartered in the Catholic stronghold of Guadalajara, Mexico, the church in the state of Jalisco has been hosting this event for decades, drawing worshippers from across the world. La Luz del Mundo, which translates into The Light of the World, claims 5 million members globally. About 600,000 people attended the Guadalajara gathering held Aug. 7-15, the church said.
Previous images of the Holy Supper celebration in Guadalajara show the ceremony evoking strong emotions among worshipers, with people singing, yelping and crying in the presence of García.
Freeman, the church's spokesman, said the Holy Supper is just one example of how the church continues to move forward amid these allegations.
In August, more than 6,000 people were baptized during the the Holy Supper convocation in Guadalajara, the church said. Freeman said the event attracted more people than anticipated.
“We’re not slowing down. We’re still growing,” Freeman said.
In December, church members attended events across the U.S., including one at Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles, to commemorate the fifth anniversary of García's leadership, Freeman said.
Freeman called the circumstances surrounding García's imprisonment "an unfortunate situation."
"We stand by his innocence," he said.
La Luz del Mundo was founded in 1926 by García’s grandfather, Eusebio Joaquín González. The church rejects the concept of the Trinity and teaches that Jesus is God’s son and that church leaders, like García, his father and grandfather, are his apostles. They eschew religious symbolism, viewing crucifixes as idolatry.
A number of La Luz del Mundo temples are in Southern California, predominantly in Latino communities such as East Los Angeles, Huntington Park and San Bernardino. There also are temples in Redlands and Pasadena.
During worship, genders are segregated in the pews, and women cover their hair and wear long, modest skirts. Followers of La Luz del Mundo do not celebrate Christmas or Easter, but they do recognize the birthdays of García and the other apostles.
García's father was the subject of child sex abuse allegations in 1997, but authorities in Mexico never filed criminal charges, according to The Associated Press.
Daniel Ramírez, a Claremont Graduate University associate professor of religion, said it makes sense that the church would continue hosting the ceremony given how much it has invested in its U.S. presence.
"They wouldn't want to lose momentum," Ramírez said.
It's unknown how this scandal could ultimately affect the state of the church in the U.S., but Ramírez said La Luz del Mundo could potentially grow in membership in the wake of these accusations.
That was the case when García's father faced child sex abuse allegations.
La Luz del Mundo’s followers saw those accusations as proof of discrimination against them by Mexico’s Catholic majority, who often refer to them derogatorily as a sect or cult. Ramírez said that the group's leaders have in the past used setbacks to their advantage when growing the group.
"They're strategists," Ramírez said.
Ramírez said that if there is no clear evidence against García that is readily available to the public, "the church may very well add this to its long-standing persecution narrative and grow as a result."
Reporter Aysha Kahn contributed to this report.