LOS ANGELES (RNS) — It took Raquel Guerra years to get over her fear of thunderstorms.
Growing up, she believed rain and lightning were signs that the end of the world was coming. If that happened, Guerra worried that her sins, like the time she stole a candy from Walmart or that one day she talked back to her parents, were enough to send her to hell.
“I was like, OMG, it’s happening — the end. The sky is opening. It’s all over,” said Guerra, 41, a former member of La Luz del Mundo, a tight-knit Mexico-based Pentecostal movement that claims 5 million members around the world.
Guerra and her family attended a La Luz del Mundo church in Bexar County, Texas. Her childhood and teen years were devoted to the church, where she would attend daily evening services or volunteer cooking and selling food for the church.
Early on, she began to doubt the church’s teachings about the Judgment Day being near and feared “evil spirits” were luring her away from salvation.
Still, the church played a major role in shaping her life. At 14, the church convinced her parents to allow her to marry a 16-year-old boy after they had premarital sex. Getting married felt like the right thing to do because she had sinned, Guerra said.
“I felt forced in a way that if I didn’t, no one else in La Luz del Mundo would ever want to marry me since I wasn’t pure, as they call it,” she said.
They had a child together. Then, said Guerra, they divorced when she was 18.
A year later, Guerra left the church because she was pregnant and in a relationship with a man who was not part of La Luz del Mundo. An insular community, the church frowned on relationships with outsiders, Guerra said. She recalls church leaders saying the child was a product of sin.
The church did not respond to requests for comment, but in a statement denied the charges against Garcia. “The Apostle of Jesus Christ has always adhered to the law and demonstrated full respect to government institutions and the dignity of all persons,” the statement said.
Transitioning to life outside the church wasn’t easy. She didn’t know anybody who could relate to her specific anxieties, like the way she felt during thunderstorms, or who could understand why she was married and divorced so young. For years, she could not find anyone who could sympathize with what she had been through.
That changed a year ago when she found an online community of former La Luz del Mundo members like herself on a message board — known as a subreddit — at Reddit.com. Known as EXLLDM, the message board has about 1,400 subscribers and has been active since about 2017. Members are anonymous and have usernames like FreeAndLovingLife, secular_mind and free4romthatcult.
Guerra stumbled upon the group in June 2019 when news emerged about the arrest of Naasón Joaquín García, the leader of La Luz del Mundo. García, who goes by the title of apostle, was charged with sex crimes involving minors. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial in California. Guerra scoured the internet for church-related news and eventually came across the subreddit. She scrolled through the online discussions, created a username and soon started chiming in.
The message board appears to include comments from former and current members of the church who are nonbelievers but remain involved with La Luz del Mundo for their families and loved ones. EXLLDM defines itself as a place for “exit support and comfort” that encourages civil discussion, personal experiences and “occasional laughs.” Users must abide by a set of rules to participate in discussions. The message board’s rules forbid “argumentative apologists” and harassment and do not allow members to post any identifying information like phone numbers and personal accounts.
“I had no idea that so many other people felt the way that I had been feeling for years,” Guerra said of the group.
A range of discussions take place on EXLLDM, from updates of García’s court case to more in-depth conversations about the theology of the church or explanations about why people left.
In one discussion, a user imagines the “wild” and “perhaps impossible” possibility of church members secularizing La Luz del Mundo. In that vision, they would continue to meet weekly, cook meals and have festivals — basically keep the community of the church — “without all the religious nonsense.”
In other exchanges, they talk about failed relationships they attribute to the church and encourage one another to seek therapy. One discussion provided tips on how to fake receiving the Holy Spirit while at church to please parents.
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. Worshippers yelp and cry during services. In February, an ex-member sued the church and more than a dozen of its leaders, alleging decades of abuse at the hands of the group’s leaders.
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. Last month, a former member sued the church and its leaders, alleging years of abuse.
Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, a professor of religious studies at Azusa Pacific University, said people who leave churches like La Luz del Mundo “leave the only church they know, the only one that will save them.”
It’s very much a family thing, she said.
“Breaking away is disloyal and because of the Latino family dynamic, it’s an affront to the family, regardless of the religious stuff,” Sánchez-Walsh said.
Lloyd Barba, a professor of religion at Amherst College, said the raw emotion expressed in the subreddit stands out. It makes sense that they remain anonymous, Barba said.
“Many fear reprisals both personally and against their families in the church,” he said. “La Luz del Mundo for the most part is comprised of very tightly knit congregations who often fellowship with other La Luz del Mundo congregations nearby.
“There is too much of a risk of being outed, so venting anonymously allows one to vent just for the sake of venting, but also in hopes of finding like-minded folks in their ranks,” he added.
Aaravis Galaviz, 25, joined the subreddit a few months before García’s arrest. She was already active on Reddit, and one day, she decided to look up what kind of religious communities were in the platform. That’s when she found EXLLDM.
Galaviz was born into the church. Her mother converted at the age of 16 after her older sister, Galaviz’s aunt, joined.
“Then they started bringing the rest of the family,” Galaviz said. She said her grandmother was raised Catholic, but the family was never active in the faith.
She grew up going to the Redlands temple and, despite her family’s objections, stopped attending services by age 15. Going to church gave her so much anxiety that she would yank and pull her hair during services. She remembers the church as having “a very strong sense of unity, but there was no individuality.” When she was 18, she moved out of her parents’ house.
After García’s arrest, Galaviz decided to publicly share her thoughts on La Luz del Mundo on Facebook, using her real name. Toward the end of 2019, she was less active on the subreddit as she was publicly raising awareness of García’s arrest and the church.
Last November, she helped organize a demonstration against García outside a Los Angeles courthouse, with protest signs that read, “This was not a blessing, this was hell!” and “Say no to child abuse!”
Galaviz said she went public because she felt the case wasn’t getting enough media attention.
“I said, ‘If I can at least spread it through my circle, we have to do our part,’” she said.
Guerra’s story is similar.
She said being part of the subreddit encouraged her to publicly talk with reporters and share her thoughts through social media platforms. She would see how the stories of anonymous former church members were often discredited as “fake” by current La Luz del Mundo worshippers.
Guerra said she “wanted to come out and say, ‘No, there are real ex-members who are actually talking about their negative experiences.’”
After she left the church, Guerra said, she still attended a few services. It was hard to be fully out of the community that she spent so much time in.
“You’re so scared or traumatized, you don’t even want to talk about being a nonbeliever,” she said.
Now, she’s married with four children, including a stepchild. She still has a relationship with her mother, who is in her 80s and is showing signs of dementia, but they don’t talk about the church.
Guerra said the Reddit group has helped her “feel comfortable to be able to express myself.” She even found others who bonded over similar fears of thunderstorms.
“I know that there’s now more people who actually feel the same way I do. It’s out in the open.”
Reporter Aysha Khan contributed to this report.