San Antonio Express-News


Luz del Mundo: Flocking to see the light


Sean Mattson
Special to the Express-News

GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Every August, a single man summons to his towering temple here tens of thousands of pilgrims from around the world in the name of God and the faith his father founded more than 75 years ago.

The annual celebration of Luz del Mundo — Light of the World — converts a working-class neighborhood into a teeming cauldron of religious fervor.

According to church organizers, about 250,000 followers attended throughout the week, culminating with a commemoration Saturday of Christ's Last Supper — and the birthday of the sect's founder.

But it's "Apostle" Samuel Joaquin Flores who steals the show.

Throughout the week, uniformly veiled women with skirts down to their ankles wailed on their knees at Joaquin's carefully orchestrated apparitions.

Men knelt on cement, looks of anguish on their faces, their hands and heads rhythmically tapping on the walls of the Luz's 270-foot-tall temple.

Songs in honor of the 67-year-old Joaquin filled the air.

"He is the king here on earth and the bearer of the gospel of Christ," said Juan Gutierrez, a mineworker from Zacatecas.

The 40-year-old husband and father of four brings his wife and kids to Guadalajara almost every year for the celebration.

Joaquin's followers believe he was handpicked by God to be their link between the Bible and its teachings; the bridge between this world and the next.

Placed on the same spiritual plane as Jesus' apostles, Joaquin is their flesh-and-bones St. Peter.

"The central element after Jesus Christ is Brother Samuel. But then, it is the inverse, because without the Brother Samuel we can't get to Jesus," said Sara Susana Pozos, Luz del Mundo's subdirector of international affairs.

For the faithful across Mexico and in almost 40 countries around the world, participating in the annual celebration presided over by Joaquin is akin in principle to a Muslim's lifelong goal of traveling to Mecca.

The exception is that followers feel they must make the trip every year, unless impeded by illness, finances or a similar service held in their country.

"They are promised salvation if they come, in such a fashion that if a person dies without coming that year to the temple, he would be in danger of being lost to hell, more or less," said Elio Masferrer, an anthropologist at Mexico's National School of Anthropology and History, who has studied Luz del Mundo extensively.

Some followers might disagree with Masferrer, but there's no written point of comparison: The Bible (normally a Spanish Catholic translation) and a small hymnal are Luz del Mundo's only institutional documents.

The religion's strict structural guidelines are a verbal tradition, handed down by Joaquin and his father, Eusebio Joaquin Gonzalez.

Enforced by an intrusive church hierarchy, most notably among the faithful in Guadalajara, many Luz del Mundo followers say they have to ask for permission to travel.

Since its founding in 1926, a debate has been raging whether Luz del Mundo's seemingly arbitrary, dynastic and vertical power structure makes the religion a potentially dangerous sect.

Investigators who have analyzed Luz del Mundo constantly wrestle with the dilemma of respecting religious freedom while picking apart what some have criticized as a multinational family business.

"If people want to enter into that kind of structure, we have to respect those kinds of decisions," Masferrer said.

Largely ignored but skillfully adept at survival under decades of rule in Mexico by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Luz del Mundo suddenly was thrust into the limelight in 1997.

That year, a handful of former followers accused Joaquin of sexual wrongdoing. Fears also emerged that Luz del Mundo was headed the same way as the Heaven's Gate, the California suicide cult that claimed 39 lives that March.

The sex accusations were dismissed by the state as unfit to warrant a criminal investigation, and most academic investigators are content that Luz del Mundo, though precariously vulnerable to the wishes of one man, isn't a mass tragedy waiting to happen.

The attention, however, coincided with the emergence of a more intrusive media in Guadalajara and the consolidation of a politically plural government, said Juan Carlos Esparza, a professor of sociocultural studies at Guadalajara's Instituto Technológico y de Estudios Superiores del Occidente (ITESO).

Esparza said Luz del Mundo responded to these new challenges by launching a massive public relations campaign.

The campaign appears to have paid off. Luz del Mundo claims 5 million followers worldwide, at least 1.5 million of whom are in Mexico.

Were that true, Luz del Mundo would be Mexico's second-largest religion after Catholicism — an often-cited but unsubstantiated claim.

Official figures from the 2000 census give Luz del Mundo 70,000 followers over 5 years of age in Mexico, well behind groups like Jehovah's Witnesses, which registered more than 400,000 believers.

But the popular belief in Luz del Mundo's sheer size and probable exaggerations of the group's political clout have helped the church earn considerable respect, even among the extremely conservative and predominantly Catholic political class in Guadalajara.

The mayor of Guadalajara even spoke at Luz del Mundo's welcoming ceremony last week and bestowed a special recognition for Joaquin's "humanist" efforts earlier this year.

Many Guadalajara Catholics admire Luz del Mundo's faithful for their lives of abstinence from alcohol and tobacco and their institutional efforts to fight illiteracy and promote human rights.

But what goes on behind closed doors in Luz del Mundo still is shrouded in mystery.

"They have a sort of double face — what they present on the outside and what could be going on inside," said Oscar Molgado, part of a team of ITESO students who did a three-month study of Luz del Mundo.

They said their interviewees would not speak without permission from religious superiors.

Cesar Mascareñas, a faculty of medicine professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, faced similar obstacles when compiling a psychological profile of Joaquin and his secretive inner circle.

Joaquin declined to give Mascareñas an interview (he has not spoken with the news media for at least 20 years, say collaborators) but the doctor extensively interviewed a group of defectors from Luz del Mundo's inner circle, which he calls a "destructive sect."

"We're definitely dealing with a psychopathological person," said Mascareñas of the general profile of Joaquin's inner circle, adding that they appear to demonstrate symptoms of "malign narcissism" and paranoia.

Mascareñas also profiled followers. He determined the majority are regular, intelligent people.

His only concern was that many — not all — followers display a lack of critical judgment, which would make them vulnerable to the whims of Joaquin.

"Without critical judgment and with an unconditional obedience, anything could happen," Mascareñas said.


San Antonio Express-News
Section A, page 19A
August 15, 2004