From an L.A. prison phone, La Luz del Mundo megachurch leader addresses followers in Mexico

Naasón Joaquín García, head of the Mexico-based La Luz del Mundo megachurch, pleaded guilty in June to sexually abusing girls from his congregation and was sentenced to nearly 17 years behind bars.

But his congregation has continued to pray for its leader from more 1,000 miles away at the church’s temple in Guadalajara, where it held its Holy Supper, the church’s annual pilgrimage and most sacred practice.

García addressed his followers via phone from a Los Angeles prison, the Associated Press reported.

“I do not see the bars that separate me from you,” he said. “I see your beautiful faces … because you are the children of God.”

García originally faced 36 charges, including human trafficking, rape, child pornography and forcible oral copulation of a minor, and was held on $90-million bail. Five women, known as Jane Does, said he sexually abused them between 2015 and 2019 and were told that if they went against García, they would be going against God.

Despite maintaining his innocence since he was arrested in 2019 at Los Angeles International Airport, García unexpectedly pleaded guilty to two counts of forcible oral copulation on a minor and one count of committing a lewd act on a child in exchange for a reduced sentence.

Despite the conviction, García’s loyal followers have pledged to stand by him.

“The apostle always shows determination to move forward,” Phares Ruiz, who traveled to attend the Holy Supper and whose family has belonged to the church for three generations, told the Associated Press. “He’s firm in his convictions, and the church is firm as well in its purpose of moving forward.”

Sara Pozos, 49, told the wire service that García’s imprisonment has “united the church” and changed it “for the better.”

“It has been a very difficult issue, of course, for him and for us,” she said. “We all suffer something in life, but one learns to know those moments where you see that God is doing something to help you, to get ahead, not to let you fall.”

Former members of the church have spoken out about the alleged sexual abuse they suffered.

Sochil Martin said her aunt offered her as a “sexual servant” to García’s father, who was the church’s leader, and then to García, his successor. Martin said García’s plea deal felt like a “slap to the face” to his victims. She’s also concerned that other potential survivors won’t come forward after seeing the Jane Does be subjected to harassment and intimidation by church members.

“What are these girls gonna think? There is no justice, especially if you’re Latino,” she said.

La Luz del Mundo said in a statement released after García’s sentencing that he “had no choice but to accept with much pain that the agreement presented is the best way forward to protect the church and his family.”

Garcia is the grandson of the church’s founder, Eusebio Joaquín González, known to the congregation as Aaron. The organization has churches in East and West L.A., Orange County and Palm Springs.

The five victims also filed a civil lawsuit earlier this month in the Los Angeles Superior Court, seeking damages against the church. They also named García, his wife and children and three other women in the suit, who they said either know about the abuse or helped groom them for García.

According to the lawsuit, the women said they were “routinely coerced” since they were children to believe that García’s wishes were direct orders from God and that if they didn’t obey, it would “lead to catastrophic consequences including, but not limited to, eternal damnation, unspeakable tragedy, infertility, and countless other harms.”