CHURCH IN THE NEWS
16 YEARS FOR CLERIC
Naason Joaquin Garcia. Courtesy Courthouse News
Shepherd of Mexico-based megachurch gets the clink
By TERRI VERMEULEN KEITH
City News Service
LOS ANGELES (CNS)—The leader of a Mexico-based evangelical megachurch was sentenced today to 16 years and eight months in prison for sex crimes involving three underage girls, despite emotional testimony by victims who asked a judge to reject his plea deal with prosecutors or sentence the defendant to a far longer prison term.
Naasón Joaquín Garcia—the leader of La Luz del Mundo (Light of the World)—pleaded guilty to two counts of forcible oral copulation involving minors and one count of a lewd act upon a child who was 15 years old. Each of the counts involved a separate minor, according to the Attorney General's Office, which handled the prosecution.
In addition to prison time, Garcia is expected to be ordered to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
During an emotionally gripping sentencing hearing, several young women pleaded with Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ronald Coen to set aside the plea agreement between Garcia and the Attorney Gen- eral's Office, saying they wanted the religious figure to face trial and more extensive incarceration.
One of the victims—identified in court only as Jane Doe 2—told the judge that the women were ready to face Garcia in trial and were "deprived of that right" and did not consent to "negotiating with this rapist." She
asked the judge to reconsider and give the 53-year-old defendant the "maximum sentence."
Coen, however, apologized to the women and said, "My hands are tied" in terms of the sentence he could hand down. But he told them, "The world has heard you. I promise you that."
The judge called Garcia a sexual predator.
During the sentencing hearing, a statement was read in court on behalf of another victim identified as Jane Doe 1, who said Garcia abused his power "to take advantage of me sexually."
"You deserve to stay in jail forever, but even then it would not be enough penalty," she wrote, addressing the defendant directly in her statement in which she referred to the church leader as a "predator."
She noted in her statement that a subsequent message on behalf of church leaders indicated that Garcia's rights had been abused in court and that he reluctantly took the plea deal because he believed he wasn't going to receive a fair trial.
She wrote that the victims' only hope was the fair judicial system in the United States, which she said has "failed us."
"He took my faith away. He took my purpose away," said a woman who was identified in court as Jane Doe 3. "He used me, used my faith in God and my innocence."
She said she'll never forget the day Garcia was arrested in June 2019 and her mother woke her up to go to church to pray for him.
"It made me feel so little and I didn't even have it in me to fight back,'' she told the judge.
She told Garcia that he deserved "to live the rest of your life in a cell," and urged the judge to reconsider the plea deal and "sentence him to the maximum amount of time."
A fourth young woman said she wanted "to see him held fully accountable and to expose him for the monster he is," and that the plea "robbed me of that opportunity."
"We want to make sure that this man is put away for life," she said, telling the judge at one point that Garcia had stolen her virginity and her faith. "How is this justice?"
Through a Spanish interpreter, the mother of one of the victims questioned why Garcia "did it to innocent little girls who loved him" and asked the judge to "take into account the years of pain he's caused."
The mother of another victim said Garcia had used their faith and desire for salvation "to trick us."
The brother of one of the victims called Garcia a "monster," saying he took advantage of his family's trust.
Garcia—who has been in custody since his June 3, 2019, arrest—had been set to go on trial along with co-defendant Susana Oaxaca, 27, who pleaded guilty to assault likely to cause great bodily injury.
A third defendant, Alondra Ocampo, 39, pleaded guilty in 2020 to four counts.
Supervising Deputy Attorney General Patricia Fusco told the judge Garcia was "someone that our victims looked up to" and trusted, and said they were "brave" for coming forward.
Addressing the victims, she said prosecutors understood this will impact them for the rest of their lives and that they're hopeful Garcia's guilty plea will help them move forward and empower them. She implored members
of the church not to harass the victims—at least one of whom said she and her family received death threats.
In a statement, California Attorney General Rob Bonta said Garcia's conviction "sends a clear message that sexual exploitation is never acceptable in California. We will hold you accountable if you break the law,'' he said.
"As the leader of La Luz del Mundo, Naasón Joaquín Garcia used his power to take advantage of children. He relied on those around him to groom congregants for the purposes of sexual assault. Today's conviction can never undo the harm, but it will help protect future generations."
The three defendants were initially charged in June 2019, but a state appeals court panel ordered the case to be dismissed in April 2020 after finding that Garcia did not waive his right to a timely hearing to determine if
there was sufficient evidence to require him to stand trial and that the hearing was not held within that time.
The Attorney General's Office subsequently re-filed the case, which alleged that the crimes occurred in Southern California between June 2015 and June 2019.
Garcia was ordered in August 2020 to stand trial on 23 felony counts, including forcible rape of a minor, forcible oral copulation of a person under 18, unlawful sexual intercourse, lewd act on a child, extortion, conspiracy and possession of child pornography.
State prosecutors alleged in the complaint that Ocampo told a group of minor girls that they were going against God if they went against any desires of Garcia, whom the church called "the Apostle of Jesus Christ."
The Guadalajara-based Pentecostal sect has branches in 50 nations and claims more than a million members worldwide. While the criminal case was pending, the church repeatedly insisted on Garcia's innocence.
In a statement posted on Twitter following a court hearing last month, the church said it has "complete confi- dence that the time will come when the innocence" of Garcia "will be proven in a court of law."
"Truth shines in the darkness and lies can never extinguish it," the church said in the statement, in which it indicated that it was "surprised that the judge did not dismiss the case."
Churches condemn hate, urge action after mass shootings
By HEATHER HAHN, Contributing Writer
BUFFALO, NY (UMNS)—Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church stands a few blocks from the grocery store where a gunman opened fire May 14 — killing 10 people and injuring three.
But for members of the largely Black congregation in Buffalo, what officials labeled a White supremacist attack hit far closer to home.
One member lost an inspiring teacher. Another lost her beloved uncle. The church’s pastor, the Rev. George Nicholas, is close to the family of Aaron Salter, the retired police officer who died trying to stop the gunman.
On Sunday, they and an interracial crowd of worshippers came to Lincoln Memorial to mourn, to begin to heal and to discuss what following Jesus requires.
"See for us Black folks, we are familiar with suffering," Nicholas told those gathered. "This ain’t news to us. We’ve been here before and we’re just desperately waiting for God’s people to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us not just for a moment, not just for a vigil, not just for prayer time. I’m talking about standing with us."
Nicholas was among the United Methodists calling for prayer and action after a weekend that not only saw a mass shooting in Buffalo but also across the country in a Presbyterian church in Southern California. The Rev.
Doug Williams, senior pastor of Laguna Country United Methodist Church in Laguna Woods, Calif., said his church is reaching out to its Presbyterian neighbors to find out what is needed.
"We are going to try to meet those needs if we can," he said. "We’re going to offer prayers and support. I know that's cliché, but it does give comfort to folks."
Laguna Woods started as a 55+ community that has since grown into a city. A gunman opened fire at a lunch banquet of a Taiwanese Presbyterian congregation that shares a building with Geneva Presbyterian Church. The attack killed one person and wounded five others. Investigators say the killing was motivated by political tensions between China and Taiwan, and they have also labeled the mass shooting a hate crime against Taiwanese people.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, the U.S. has seen more than 200 mass shootings as of the 19th week of 2022. The Gun Violence Archive defines mass shootings as an incident when four or more people are shot or killed — not including the shooter. The attack in Buffalo is the deadliest so far this year.
Bishop Mark J. Webb, who leads the Upper New York Conference that includes Buffalo, released a statement immediately after the attack calling for prayer for the wounded and people who lost loved ones.
"As the Church of Jesus Christ, we condemn hatred, injustice and sin in all its forms," the bishop said in his statement. “Violence against another, whether with a gun or with another weapon, is sin and we must stand against it."
Investigators say the 18-year-old suspect in the Buffalo killings allegedly laid out in a 180-page manifesto why he wanted to kill, including his belief in a racist conspiracy theory that White people are being replaced by Black people and Jewish people. The suspect then recorded himself driving to the Tops Friendly Market and carrying out the attack, law enforcement officials said. The gunman targeted a largely Black neighborhood, shooting 11 Black people and two White.
United Methodist leaders across the denomination condemned the attack and called for prayer. The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, called the shooting an act of "domestic terror," noting that the shooter reportedly used assault weapons and wore tactical gear.
"As United Methodists, we take seriously Christ’s words 'to love our neighbor as we love ourselves,'" she said, quoting Mark 12:31. "We affirm that hate and racial terrorism has no place in our society. As Christians and Americans, we need to unite and rid the influence of White supremacy, White nationalism and racism — hate ideologies that severely veer from Biblical teachings and The United Methodist Church’s Social Principles."
The agency is pushing the U.S. Congress to address gun violence and urging The United Methodist Church to continue its work of addressing systemic racism and racial violence.
United Women in Faith, formerly known as United Methodist Women, noted that the massacre is only the latest high-profile shooting in which authorities say the suspect was motivated by hate. Those include last year’s shootings at Atlanta-area massage parlors that left eight dead, including six Asian women; the 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, that targeted Latinos; a 2018 assault on a synagogue in Pittsburgh and the 2015 attack on a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
"We name the simple truth today: White supremacist ideology is a poison to our country and anathema to the gospel of Jesus Christ," said Harriett Jane Olson, top executive of United Women in Faith.
The Rev. Giovanni Arroyo, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, also expressed horror and grief at the attack. The agency offers resources to work toward racial justice.
"All our church and community leaders must act to undo the work of racism that’s deeply rooted in our society," he said. "We must take responsibility for this ongoing work. Every anti-racist action and conversation is a step in the right direction."
Nicholas, the pastor of Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church, challenged the visitors to his church’s Sun- day service, to speak up when someone in their social circles says something racist. "If you say nothing, you are complicit," he told those gathered.
He spoke in front of an altar rail lined with 10 yellow roses — each representing a life cut short in the Buffalo attack.
In an interview on May 16, Nicholas said The United Methodist Church as a denomination also needs to do more to address the sin of racism. He said that includes digging into its own history of racial segregation in 1939-1968 that has left its shadow on today’s church.
Nicholas said many clergy colleagues have reached out to him since the May 14 brutality. But he wants them to understand that this is a long-term battle. The challenges of segregation, poverty and health disparities faced by Black people in Buffalo will still be there when the television cameras are gone.
"We need to be working on a daily basis to really build what Dr. Martin Luther King talked about as 'the beloved community,'" Nicholas said. "But it takes real work. It takes introspective work. It takes painful work. And some- times it takes sacrificial work and it takes holding ourselves accountable as a denomination for a racist past and some of our current racist practices."
Heather Hahn is assistant news editor for United Methodist News Service.
Women worship at First Wesleyan United Methodist Church of the Deaf in Mutum Biyu, Nigeria, the Nigeria Episcopal Area’s first church for the Deaf community. Photo by Ezekiel Ibrahim, UM News.
Church in Nigeria ushers in first- ever deaf congregation
BY EZEKIEL IMBRAHIM, Contributing Writer
MUTUM BIYU, Nigeria (UMN)—The Nigeria Episcopal Area of The United Methodist Church recently welcomed its first church of the Deaf. Resident Bishop John Wesley Yohanna introduced the new congregation, First Wesleyan United Methodist Church of the Deaf in Mutum Biyu, Gassol, in Taraba State.
Deacon Albert A. Pena, the first ordained Deaf pastor in The United Methodist Church in Nigeria, said the congregation’s 30 members had belonged to several mainline denominations, as well as nondenominational churches, before joining the new church.
Yohanna asked the congregation, "Do you believe that God is calling you to worship in The United Methodist Church? If so, can I hear you affirm that?" Signing in unity, all responded, "Yes, we believe."
The congregation shared in Holy Communion and songs of praise.
The bishop appointed Pena as pastor in charge, under the supervision of the Rev. Philip Audu, Taraba West District superintendent.
Felicia David, coordinator of ministry with the physically challenged, thanked Yohanna and other leaders for their support through the Southern Nigeria Conference evangelism ministry. All played a role in the actualiza- tion of the ministry. David presented a token donation to help support the new congregation.
In his homily of hope, Yohanna declared, "Time is coming when no one shall be physically challenged." Read- ing from Matthew 11:1-11, he recalled a conversation between Jesus and a follower of John the Baptist. Jesus advised, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and good news is proclaimed to the poor."
He assured the congregation that Jesus came to liberate. "We need only believe in God," Yohanna said. "One day, we will be healed of every kind of challenge when Jesus returns to take us home. We will be like Jesus as we all dwell in his presence."
Pena thanked the bishop, David, director of evangelism the Rev. John Simon Jatutu and Southern Nigeria Conference leaders for the successful establishment of the church. He also expressed gratitude to the Rev. Chan Kim for his immense support to the ministry of the Deaf.
In a 2015 speech at Banyam Theological Seminary, Pena said creating a new church for the Deaf was essen- tial. "About 80 percent of them," he said, "either take solace with a nearby church, where they are half-fed or become passive Christians because of lack of a good shepherd."
The Deaf congregation began gathering for worship seven years ago.
Using sign language, Patricia Joseph said, "I am very happy with the response of The United Methodist Church, who welcomed us into their family. Our dream of becoming a church is fulfilled today. Glory be to God!"
Ezekiel Ibrahim is the communicator for the Nigeria episcopal office.
United Methodist News Service