Close to 600,000 people flooded into Mexico’s second-largest-city, Guadalajara, this month to pay respects to Samuel Joaquín Flores, the 77-year-old head of the evangelical Luz del Mundo (Light of the World Church), who died on 8 December.
Known to his flock as the “Servant of God,” Joaquín Flores’ body lay in repose for a week in the vast Guadalajara temple, dressed in a dark suit, whilst two rows of believers, one for men, and one for women, filed past for a final glimpse of their leader. The line grew steadily, and it is estimated that church members, many of them weeping inconsolably, had to wait at least four hours to see his body.
“I feel like when my parents died,” Luz del Mundo follower José Luis Ceron Rosales said. “Nothing compares to that man. At least I’ve never met anyone else like him.”
“It’s a feeling of irreparable loss,” César Augusto Candelaria said. “We understand that he was the mouth of God on earth, but humanity hasn’t always celebrated its men of God.”
To these devotees, Joaquín Flores was an apostle and visionary preacher with a direct line to the Creator. To others, he was a spiritual and sexual opportunist who fostered a personality cult with himself at the center.
Either way, Mexico has lost one of its most important religious figures. In the five decades since Joaquín Flores took over leadership of the church, Luz del Mundo became the richest and fastest growing Pentecostal church in the country. Membership expanded to an estimated five million people in 37 countries, and the church established itself as a major political force.
Formed by Aaron Joaquín Gonzalez, the father of Joaquín Flores, in 1926, Luz de Mundo describes itself as a return to uncorrupted Christianity.
Women wear long skirts and are forbidden from makeup or jewelry. The sexes are separated during services and no dancing or clapping is allowed, but weeping and speaking in tongues are encouraged. There is a strong emphasis on family values and marriages are mostly kept within the community. Alcohol and dating are strictly forbidden.
The church is known for its bizarre architecture, including a mock Taj Mahal in Chiapas, Mexico and a replica Mayan pyramid in Honduras.
The enormous Guadalajara temple was completed in 1992, and is decked out with flashing neon-lights and a multi-colored ceiling. The housing surrounding the structure is sold to believers at reduced prices, so church members make up the vast majority of the neighborhood. The streets have names like Jordan and Nazareth, and a Ministry for Honor and Justice keeps tabs on locals, making sure they pay their tithes and dress appropriately.
Rival evangelical churches have often complained that Joaquín Flores built a cult of personality. Renée de la Torre, a Mexican sociologist and expert on the church, supports this claim, but points out that this was established by Aaron, not Samuel.
“Many Pentecostal churches disagreed with the way in which the church sanctified Aaron, and later Samuel. For example, the main church celebrations are related to important dates in the leader’s lives, such as birthdays. The hymns and prayers were focused on Aaron, and then Samuel, and not so much on the figure of Jesus Christ.”
Throughout his leadership, the Catholic Church frequently complained that Joaquín Flores sought political power and manipulated his relationship with the ruling party. He was accused of securing special treatment, such as cheap water and electricity for the temple neighborhood, in exchange for encouraging his followers to vote as a bloc.
A few days after the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide in San Diego, California, Mexican Protestant theologian Jorge Erdely Graham even accused Luz del Mundo of having similar potential. In fact, no evidence was ever produced to support the claim.
Erdeley Graham also claimed that Joaquín Flores formed an elite group of highly trusted devotees who worked as a kind of secret police. They operated a network of informants and suppressed dissent using a range of tactics, from verbal intimidation to torture. According to Erdeley Graham, these devotees were so close to the leader that he would arrange their marriages, and name their children.
Allegations of rape and sexual abuse were also thrown at the church. One of the accusers was kidnapped and stabbed 57 times in an attack he blamed on Luz del Mundo, although Joaquín Flores was never found guilty of any crime.
Yet these criticisms did little to damage the leader’s standing, and probably strengthened an authority that was always defined in opposition to the outside world.
“Within the church they spread the message that he was a victim of attacks from the exterior,” de la Torre told themexicanlabyrinth.com. “This was also taken as proof of his saintliness, because Christ was crucified in much the same way. This type of strategy is very recurrent when there are scandals in religious environments.”
Luz del Mundo representatives have argued that critics are simply intolerant of their faith. These persecution fears may be more than paranoia, given that over 80 percent of the population is Catholic and the Vatican has often reacted with hostility to the growth of Protestantism in the area. “Sects, like flies, need to be gotten rid of,” claimed Catholic spokesman Girolamo Prigione.
“In a sense the Catholic Church has been a little bit envious,” anthropologist Patricia Fortuny told themexicanlabyrinth.com. “The followers of Luz del Mundo are comprised of the lower social classes and there are millions of them.”
It is this group in particular that the Roman church has struggled to engage in recent years, with a range of new religious movements gaining ground among Mexico’s poor. Evangelicalism has risen, as has interest in the cult of Holy Death.
Nevertheless, Catholic Cardinal Jose Francisco Robles Ortega, the Archbishop of Guadalajara, was among those who sent a personal letter of condolence to the family, suggesting a new, more diplomatic approach to an increasingly powerful organization.
“I think the mistreatment of the church has lessened,” sociologist Luis Rodolfo Moran told themexicanlabyrinth.com. “They have integrated into Guadalajara society, although they are still seen as peculiar outside of the city.”
Jalisco State Governor Aristoteles Sandoval was careful to make a personal appearance for the funeral, suggesting that the church still has an extensive political reach.
Joaquín Flores will be succeeded by his fifth son, Naason Joaquín Garcia, 45, who announced that he had received a divine message calling him to lead.
The new church leader said that he had sought counsel from God to help with the pain of bereavement when suddenly he received the message.
“I heard a powerful blaring voice, like a tide of rushing water,” he told the congregation. “It asked, ‘why are you asking me to comfort you? You must comfort my people!’ I thought it was someone playing a joke on me but there was nobody there and I was surprised and scared. I fell to my knees. The voice said, ‘Naason, you are the Head of this ministry.’ I told him, ‘no, not me.’ I said that when my father died I already had a destiny but he told me, ‘no, your destiny is with me and with these people that I entrust to you.’”