La Luz del Mundo: Structure and Ritual-Ceremonial Organization of the Congregation
In this chapter we analyze the organization of the cult of La Luz del Mundo (LLDM), its ritualism and ceremonialism, the process of evangelist enculturation, and the life of the congregation as molded by the beliefs and dogmas of the sect. The scandals and controversies that have plagued LLDM, especially during the past decade, are well known in Mexico to scholars and the general public, but we do not think this is the case with students of religion elsewhere. Thus, we conclude the chapter with a description and analysis of LLDM as a destructive sect, aiming to clarify what this concept means and how it affects the nature and perception of evangelism.
The Syntagmatic Structure of the Cult
LLDM does not have an elaborate syntagmatic unfolding of celebrations in the yearly cycle. Unlike most Protestant evangelist sects and historical denominations, LLDM does not formally celebrate the traditional events of the yearly Christian cycle, with Catholicism’s being the most numerous and complex (and their celebration constituting one of the most important elements of being a Christian in good standing with the Church). Epiphany, Corpus Christi, Easter, All Saints and All Souls, Christmas, and other lesser events are remembered, but do not entail specific celebratory rites and ceremonies. The same applies to the daily and weekly events that take place in the temple. They lack the regularity of execution that characterizes the services of Protestant sects, such as the Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The main weekly service (dominical), the rough equivalent of the Catholic Mass, has a certain sequence of components, but it varies from one week to another. To a large extent, it is an impromptu gathering, the only constant of which is the glorification of the prophets; that is, it is explicitly designed as the most potent enculturating occasion of the cult of Aarón and Samuel. Let us begin with the latter and elaborate on these two aspects of the cult.
The dominical takes place on Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to noon. It is always well attended and may occasionally draw the entire congregation. It is conducted by either the minister-pastor or one of his assistants. There is, however, a daily service called La Oración (the supplication or entreaty) that takes place Monday through Saturday at 9:00 a.m. and at 6:00 p.m., which usually draws from twenty to fifty people, including children; it lasts for about forty-five minutes and is conducted by one of the deacons. In addition, the children attend catechism once or twice a week, usually on Wednesday or Friday; this is led by volunteers, men or women, and the class may last as long as an hour.
The dominical begins with the reconciliación, a communal prayer of thanks to the Lord, with the attendants on their knees, followed by silent prayers that last for several minutes. Then the attendants stand and ask the officiant to praise the Glory of the Lord, which he does like a litany, with audience as a chorus. This is followed by reading a chapter of the Bible, germane to the sermon of the week, given by the minister-pastor, which may last for half an hour or more. There is more chanting from an extensive hymnary, published by La Luz del Mundo Press and of standard use in all congregations. (The hymnary consists of psalm-like songs, which combine Biblical themes with explicit or implicit references to the life and deeds of the apostles, lauding them as the founders and perpetuators of all that is good in the congregation.) This part of the liturgy is punctuated by the somewhat hysterical shouts and cries of attendants, invoking the apostles by name, with women being the most vocal. The service concludes with an elaborate prayer for the apostle Samuel and his family and less elaborate ones for the various members of the hierarchy at the see.
The preaching in all these religious services (always conducted in the temple, a large and rather impressive structure) is much concerned with instruction on leading a good life according to LLDM morality, which consists mostly of being close to God, being helpful to fellow congregants, and, not least, remembering the apostles in their prayers; also, but with little insistence, there is preaching against drinking, smoking, and maltreatment of women, concerns highly emphasized by all other native and Protestant evangelist sects. An emphasis on education and on personal and household hygiene complements the temple-centered preaching and activities of the congregation. Literacy is a main concern, and if new converts cannot read and write, they are immediately assigned someone to teach them. There is a significant concern with personal appearance and with keeping one’s house and its vicinity clean and tidy, and the minister-pastor or his assistants do not hesitate to counsel or admonish congregants from the pulpit during the dominical when they are remiss. As a congregation, LLDM exhibits a pronounced concern to present a proper public image as a model for emulation, which is one of the main concerns of the weekly services.
The yearly cycle, on the other hand, consists mostly of the repetition of the dominical, with slight variations in ritual. The main events of the Christian yearly cycle mentioned above are perfunctorily remembered, but nothing specifically marks their celebration. In fact, of all the native and Protestant evangelist sects in central Mexico, LLDM is the most devoid of formal ritual and ceremonial elaborations. The discharge of the cult aspects, by contrast, is the most spontaneous; namely, congregants may participate in the services whenever they are inspired to speak out, or as they put it, whenever the Holy Spirit moves them (“cuando el Espíritu Santo se hace presente en ellos”). This invariably takes place once or twice during the dominicales, when men and women may verbally testify as to the goodness of God in solving their problems, keeping them from falling into temptation, steering them on the right path, frequently crediting the prophets for the good things they experience, and thanking them for it. These testimonies are sometimes accompanied by loud crying and shouts, which are echoed by the congregation. According to several minister-pastors and many congregants, glossolalia sometimes accompanies the individual manifestation of the Holy Spirit. These testimonials are the closest to speaking in tongues that we and our assistants observed the dozens of times we attended religious services in seven congregations of LLDM in the Córdoba-Orizaba region and Tlaxcala. We have no reason to doubt what we were told, but we cannot vouch for the classic trancelike and hysterical behavior that accompanies glossolalia, as reported elsewhere.
The LLDM celebrates only two events throughout the year: the birthday of Brother Aarón (the Santa Cena) and the day of his death. The dates of these celebrations fall, respectively, on August 14 and June 9. Evidently by agreement, after the death of Brother Aarón his son, Samuel, instituted these two celebrations, which became the equivalent of Christmas and Easter in mainstream Christianity. They are celebrated with a great array of rites and ceremonies, as if to compensate for the poverty of the yearly cycle. It should be noted that the fourteenth of every month is also regarded as part of the yearly cycle. When the fourteenth falls on Sunday it is considered most auspicious, and the dominical is celebrated with greater pomp, including the mañanitas (the singing of the traditional Mexican birthday song) for Brother Aarón at dawn in front of the temple.
The Santa Cena takes place in the Hermosa Provincia and lasts three hours, from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. It takes place on the same date and at the same time in all congregations of LLDM in Mexico and abroad. It is the most solemn occasion of the cult, and its central theme is literally the adoration of the apostles, particularly the son. We witnessed the Santa Cena three times in different congregations, in Fortín, Orizaba, and Tlaxcala, and the celebration’s sequence of ritual segments was exactly the same at all sites. It was a highly emotional ceremony, but little more than an extended version of the dominical, devoid of any original ritual elaboration; even the services of the most ritually poor evangelist sects exhibit more original complexity. The celebration is centered on the apostles, and the demonstrations of the weekly service are carried to a paroxysm of expression. There is much crying, weeping, singing, and the exaltation of the apostles reaches an epitome of verbalization. The adoration of God is secondary, as the apostles are credited with the faithful having found and learned to get close to Him. The experienced researcher of Protestant and Catholic manifestations of Christianity cannot help wondering how this egomaniacal sect came into being, but there is no doubt that Brother Aarón originally formulated the cult that his son has exaggerated to peerless perfection.
For the Santa Cena, the officiating minister-pastor wears a white suit, which is the only time through the year he does so, and this becomes the equivalent of the vestment worn by priests and some pastors of historical denominations. He begins the service by telling the congregation that the Santa Cena is taking place in the Hermosa Provincia; he then pointedly explains that the service is in honor of the apostle Samuel, the beloved son of the apostle Aarón, exhorting them to pray for him and to wish him happiness, good health, and a long life. Then he launches into a long string of exalting epithets of the apostle (referring to him as “savior,” “anointed of the Lord,” “the hope of mankind,” “beloved leader,” “liberator,” and so on), the central message being that without him LLDM would cease to exist and all the spiritual and material well-being that the congregation has achieved would no longer be forthcoming. This segment, continuing with the analogy of the Catholic Mass, on which the Santa Cena is evidently modeled, may be called the introitus and lasts for about forty-five minutes.
Then comes the antiphonal, or gloria, a long singing of psalms, taken from the Bible but also composed by the faithful of the Hermosa Provincia. Pieces composed by the faithful combine biblical psalms with exaltation of the apostle Samuel. The following is a typical one:
Es Israel un ejército imponente, todos formados como listos a luchar, / se ven ondear las banderas muy en alto, y en medio el pueblo sagrado, / está el que Dios ha levantado, un gran apóstol del señor.
Israel [the congregation] is a majestic army, and the ranks ready to fight, / all the flags waving high, and amid the sacred people, / stands the anointed of God, a great apostle [Samuel] of the Lord.
Many psalms are sung, and this goes on for about an hour. (Parenthetically, all the singing during the services in many congregations is a capella, including that by organized choirs, but apparently the Hermosa Provincia has an excellent organ which lends luster to musical aspects of services at the see. Occasionally, local choirs are an integral part of the services; they lead the singing, which is echoed by the attendants.)
The sermon comes next; it is always delivered by the minister-pastor and is punctuated by admonitions to the congregation about being faithful to the beliefs and practices of the sect as laid out by the apostles. The sermon is usually an appropriate selection from the gospels that underlies the themes that the minister-pastor desires to convey to the congregation on this most solemn occasion of the yearly cycle. The content of the sermon may range from the significance of the sect’s teachings to the role of faith in the apostles for salvation, and from some crucial aspect of the history of LLDM to why it has expanded as the only true version of Christianity because of the vision and goodness of the apostles. The sermon may go on for as long as an hour, but usually lasts about forty-five minutes.
The final part of the Santa Cena lasts for about half an hour. It is basically a eulogy to the apostle Aarón, but also an exhortation to the congregation on the importance of the apostle Samuel for the growth and prosperity of the sect. Again, Aarón is remembered not only as the founder of LLDM but as the fountain of wisdom and love and everything good, whereas people offer their good wishes to Samuel for a long life and continuing leadership. The minister-pastor moderates the proceeding, but anyone, man or woman, is allowed to speak, to express their thoughts on the apostles and on what they mean for each individual and the congregation. Personal testimonials abound, and there is much crying and many expressions of joy by the congregants at belonging to LLDM.
The Santa Cena, in short, is the embodiment of the cult of personality that fundamentally characterizes the top leadership of a destructive sect.
Social and Kinship Environment of the Congregation
Pragmatically, the congregation may be considered as an extended kinship system from the standpoint of the social, religious, and economic life of congregants. What do we mean by this? Essentially, the patterns of interaction are those associated with a community that considers itself more related by kinship than as a settlement. The nuclear and extended family households composing congregations do not, of course, consider themselves descendants from a common ancestral couple, but they do function as a deme (Murdock 1949:63): they reside mostly in a circumscribed area, worship in common, and exhibit patterns of cooperation and exchange among congregants similar to those of an organic group. In fact, this amounts to a definition of the congregation, which makes LLDM a unique case among native and Protestant evangelist sects. The minister-pastor of a Zongolica rural congregation, in a very isolated mountain area some twenty-five miles from the city of Orizaba, told us that residential patterns afforded more protection against the occasional violence the congregants are subjected to by local Indian and Mestizo Catholics. This does not take place in urban environments, where entente has been reached with Catholics, and interfaith relations have not yet developed into open confrontation. 1
The economy and material culture of LLDM varies greatly. At the Hermosa Provincia, congregants include working-class people but also a significant number of lawyers, accountants, engineers, and other practitioners of the liberal professions. This is the rule among the apostle’s male incondicionales; they constitute the leadership core of the sect, and are not so much religious as economic advisors in charge of managing and investing the considerable wealth of the sect. Their homes are well appointed, and their lifestyle is comparable to the affluent Mexican upper-middle class, including access to travel and the best that money can buy for personal gratification; they are a truly privileged group.
In the urban congregations, the leadership, almost always of lower-middle-class status, has a comfortable middle-class lifestyle; the rank-and-file faithful, invariably of working- and lower-middle-class status, have a living standard better than that of the average working-class residents of the cities or towns where they are located. In rural congregations, the status of the leadership is the same as in urban congregations, while the rank-and-file faithful are Mestizo campesinos (peasants owning parcels of land of less than two to five hectares in size), a few working-class daily laborers migrating to nearby cities, and a sprinkle of pequeños propietarios (small landowners, with parcels of land as large as 12 hectares). 2 There is, of course, a significant degree of variation. For example, in the lowlands and midlands there are no Indian Mundists, whereas in the highlands a considerable number of Indians are members of local congregations.3 Moreover, LLDM congregations flourish most successfully in small towns close to larger industrial cities, such as in the Córdoba-Orizaba region, the Tlaxcala-Pueblan Valley, and the Valley of Mexico. One thing is certain everywhere: Mundists are economically better off than the general population of the regions where the congregations are located.
Another significant aspect of LLDM congregations is their political awareness and strong support of the party in power. The sect was founded two years after the PRI came to power, and from the very beginning Brother Aarón cultivated relations with its leadership, a policy continued by Brother Samuel. As we have indicated, this strategy has served LLDM well through the difficult times the sect has experienced in the past decade. When the PAN came to power in 2000, the leadership did not waste any time in cultivating the PRI’s successors, apparently to good purpose. The leadership from top to bottom encourages the rank and file to vote in local and national elections, and to cultivate an image of patriotism and support of the party in power. Encouraging people to vote and be patriotic is self-serving, but at least the former fosters the good citizenship that Mexicans most certainly are in need of. This is also a trait that evangelist sects do not in any way encourage, and that the Jehovah’s Witnesses impede.
The incidence of extended family households in these congregations is higher than that of the general urban population of central Mexico. In the Fortín congregation, they comprise about 15 percent, compared, for example, to less than 8 percent in the city of Orizaba. Quite often, the extended household is composed of unrelated nuclear families, which is the result of new-convert couples living with those who proselytized them (a common pattern of conversion among Mundists), sometimes for as many as two years, until they can get on their feet economically to establish a neolocal residence. The general population is aware of this initial help—as we elicited from several Catholic working-class informants—which is probably an inducement in the process of conversion.
Although entertainment in the general, conventional sense (dancing, going to the movies, watching television) is not a significant part of the daily life of congregants, visiting among families and gathering socially at home are important practices frequently encouraged by the leadership of the congregation. Families often get together for the consumption of food, drop into each other’s houses unannounced, and frequently organize more elaborate affairs where all congregants are welcome. In fact, the social life of congregants takes place mostly in private homes, and everybody knows they are welcome without being invited.
Despite the strict subordination of women, husbands at home treat their wives kindly and do not interfere with their administration of the household. Most marriages are close and affectionate, and apparently there is none of the physical and psychological abuse all too common among the population at large. Children are under the strict control of parents, and enculturated from an early age to obey and respect them. Regarding issues around dating, friendship, jobs, and many other activities outside the congregation, they seldom make decisions without consulting their parents. Until they marry, girls (who are encouraged to marry as late as twenty-five or twenty-six) are watched carefully, and parents discourage their offspring from marrying exogamously, but they relent when there is a distinct possibility that the prospective spouse’s family may be converted.5 Young men are also encouraged to marry late, and it is not uncommon that they do not until the age of twenty-nine or thirty. These patterns of late marriage are peculiar to LLDM congregations, whose leaders insist that a person should be mature and economically solvent, an economic state quite at variance with that of the region’s population. This state of affairs continues into adulthood, when married men and women continue to consult their parents for many of the decisions they have to make in their new role as parents. Despite the destructive aspects mentioned above, the family lives, overall interactions, and personal behaviors among Mundists are better than those we have observed among lower- and working-class populations in central Mexico, a fact which again is considered worthy of admiration by unbiased Catholic observers.
Mundists celebrate birthdays, their children’s graduations, and occasionally special secular occasions such as Independence Day and the Fifth of May; such events invariably take place in one of the houses of groups of families that acknowledge ties of several years’ standing. These groups of families, usually composed of nine to fifteen households, are, so to speak, the loose units that constitute the entire community: they include both nuclear and extended families that are unrelated and related by bilateral kinship ties; these groups may be functionally defined as nonlocalized extended families. There are a considerable number of households, perhaps as high as 25 percent, who do not reside on the land owned by the congregation where the temple is constructed. They are nonetheless an intrinsic part of nonresidential extended families, but the social gatherings and celebrations must take place in a household within the area of the temple; in the case of Fortín, there is an extension of seven blocks in the outskirts of the city. In rural congregations, the temple lands are much larger and invariably all congregants reside there.
Courtship, with the consent of the parents of the young man and woman, is short-lived and closely supervised, and almost invariably leads to marriage, which is the most meaningful event in the life cycle. The religious ceremony takes place at the end of a dominical, on a date chosen by the parents of the bride and groom in agreement with the minister-pastor. After the civil wedding is performed by a justice of the peace (presidente municipal), the celebration takes place in the house of the groom’s parents. It is the most elaborate social event in the life cycle of Mundists, but it lacks the ritual elaboration that characterizes the traditional Mexican wedding. The only thing worth noticing is the admonition of the minister-pastor to the couple to honor the apostle, remember him in their prayers, and live according to his precepts. As one can see, the process of enculturation of the faithful is endless.
Kinship behavior beyond the nuclear family is another salient aspect. Two levels of realization may be distinguished: the nonresidential extended family (see below) and the congregation as a whole. Within the nonresidential extended family, men are very close to one another, and any action group of a social and religious nature that may temporarily be formed is recruited from within it, such as the teams that proselytize in working-class neighborhoods and in the countryside. Within the congregation as a whole, except for religious occasions, men do not come together often, but they know that were they to have a need at any time, any member of the congregation would be willing and ready to help. Women, on the other hand, form attachments within both the nonresidential extended family and the congregation at large, and the strongest are with women not related by kinship. Groups of four or five get together to knit, gossip, and exchange ideas. Such planned gatherings are quite commonly long lived, and, irrespective of what they do, they are basically self-support groups to which women turn for comfort and to discuss problems.
Another institution absent in LLDM is compadrazgo. One minister-pastor pointedly said that “nuestra religión no malgasta ni tiempo ni dinero en inconsecuencias como el compadrazgo” (our religion squanders neither time nor money on frivolities like compadrazgo). He went on to say that the congregation provides all the spiritual and social support that any individual may need.6 This trait of LLDM was instituted by the apostle Samuel when he succeeded his father; compadrazgo was described to us as a distraction from the adoration of God and diminishing the economic contribution of the faithful to the maintenance of the see. To us, this prohibition is another explicit subterfuge by Samuel to enrich his coffers; a Catholic informant, otherwise sympathetic to what the congregation does locally for its members, referred to it as “un negocio redondo para Samuel” (Samuel’s sure and profitable business). Moreover, it appears that the apostle does not permit the faithful to engage in relationships that would lessen their complete dedication to his personality cult. Local congregants, given their strong endogeny, do not need compadrazgo relationships as a means of building social and economic networks; the close-knit structure of the congregation more than compensates for the absence of compadrazgo.
The vast differences in LLDM between center (La Hermosa Provincia) and periphery (the hundreds of congregations throughout Mexico) is a unique phenomenon in Mexican religion, but not so in the United States, where the case of the Father Divine sect immediately comes to mind, and more recently that of televangelist Jim Bakker. This is the reason LLDM has attracted so much attention among the country’s overwhelmingly Catholic population, despite the fact that Mexicans are aware of the sexual abuses and pedophilia perpetrated by priests. 7
The Study of Religious Sects in Mexico
In 1997 almost an entire issue of the Mexican journal Revista Académica para el Estudio de las Religiones was dedicated to LLDM. It does not deal with the congregations of LLDM, as we have done in this book; rather, it is concerned exclusively with the see. From a sociological, anthropological, and psychoanalytical standpoint, and with the inclusion of testimonials of former members of LLDM, the authors of this publication analyze and describe what transpires at the Hermosa Provincia and among the leadership of the sect, including an array of sexual and financial abuses and malversation of tithing, as well as discussions of the definition of “sect” and “religion” and what constitutes a “destructive sect.”
This important publication, the first of its kind in Mexico, owes much to anthropologist Elio Masferrer. It deserves a close examination, which we undertake in this section for the benefit of English-reading students of religious studies, particularly evangelism and fundamentalism. Other publications on the same subject will be mentioned as well.
The Revista Académica para el Estudio de las Religiones is published by the Centro para el Estudio Científico de las Religiones (Center for the Scientific Study of Religions), a nonprofit association of professional students of religion (anthropologists, sociologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, journalists, and others) whose purpose is to spread knowledge of religion, especially regarding sects that appeared in the course of the twentieth century. The journal aims to make available to the reader theoretical, methodological, and empirical resources for understanding contemporary religious diversity, adequately differentiating among available religious options, and studying the organizational dynamics of religious institutions. These are laudable aims, and as far as we are aware, there is no journal in the United States in which a comparable array of scholars addresses these scientific and practical problems.
In “Sectas destructivas: Definiciones y metodología de análisis” (“Destructive Sects: Definitions and Methodological Analysis”), Jorge Erdely discusses several cases of religious terrorism during the past generation, and ably and rather exhaustively defines the concept of “sect” (and, by extension, “destructive sect”), as distinct from “religion.” Erdely views the differences from several standpoints: sociological, psychological (and psychiatric), theological, linguistic, historical, medical, philosophical, and scientific. Analytically, he discusses the criteria for these definitions, indicating the congruent factors and their adequacy for the study of sectarian movements. This is a very useful exposition on several aspects of recent sectarian movements, and, as far as we know, the first of its kind in Mexico.
The article by Elio Masferrer, “Iglesias y nuevos movimientos religiosos: Un esfuerzo por aclarar la confusión” (“Churches and New Religious Movements: An Endeavor to Clarify Existing Confusion”), very ably describes and analyzes a number of terminological issues concerning the churches and sects that proselytize in Mexico today. But his article is much more than that. He etically discusses various definitions of “church” and “sect” that have been proposed by Mexican and foreign scholars; he assesses their interrelationship, and emically endeavors to come up with a scientific definition of “sect.” Moreover, he classifies the origin and derivation of new religious movements (NRMs) and indicates some of their characteristic traits. These are laudable aims that are critical for the scientific study of religion, which in Mexico is still in its infancy. Masferrer pointedly asserts that people do not usually know about theology and teleology, and they convert to another religion or sect because its ritualism and ceremonialism appeal to them and for what it has to offer socially and economically (Masferrer 1997a). This is an insight fully corroborated by our research on evangelism in central Mexico.
“Milagro, misterio y autoridad: El triángulo de adoctrinamiento sectario” (“Miracle, Mystery, and Authority: The Triangle of Sectarian Indoctrination”) by John Hochman is an attempt to explain the rise of new sects and their origins. He analyzes their constitution, emphasizing their negative attributes and oftentimes harmful aspects, listing the most deleterious components, such as authoritarianism, exploitation of the faithful, claiming messianic origins, psychological pressure to keep individuals from defecting, and so on. Using the example of Jim Jones’s People’s Temple, he analyzes the relationship among miracle, mystery, and authority, and how they reinforce each other. Although he does not use the term, what Hochman actually does is present a description of a destructive sect, and we can see the striking parallels between Jim Jones and the apostle Aarón. From this standpoint, the Hermosa Provincia of LLDM is clearly a destructive sect; that is, despite the good work of its peripheral congregations, the economic abuses perpetrated by the see and the complete subordination of women are traits that by Hochman’s definition make this overall a destructive sect.
ítico sobre la relación líder-feligresía en la iglesia ‘La Luz del Mundo’” (“A Psychoanalytic Study of the Leader-Faithful Relationship in the Church of La Luz del Mundo”), by César Mascareñas de los Santos and Jorge Mascareñas Ruiz, is on a topic that implicitly underlies our analysis of the relationship of the apostles Aarón and Samuel. This is a mode of analysis that we did not attempt to undertake because it lies beyond our area of expertise. Although we have some doubts about its explanatory efficacy, we concede that it might be possible to gain an understanding of a sect like LLDM by examining the personality and behavior of its founder and present leader. With an extensive array of observed and written evidence, the authors of the article present a plausible picture of the modal personality of Brother Samuel and its malignant consequences for the organization of the see in particular and the life of the congregation in general. (We read this article after we had completed writing most of the present book, and we were pleasantly surprised that our analysis of the apostle Samuel from the standpoint of congregations comes to essentially the same conclusions, although our study does not entail any psychological sophistication but is an extrapolation from social factors. The picture this article paints is in fact even bleaker than what we have to say about him.) The authors analyze in-depth the personality of Brother Samuel and what he has done, and continues to do, in shaping the organization of LLDM and conditioning the life of the faithful. The authors describe and analyze Samuel as suffering from narcisismo maligno (malignant narcissism), trastorno delirante paranoide (paranoid delirious derangement), and even delirio de grandeza (delusions of grandeur), and discuss how these combined psychotic traits affect and mold the congregation, fostering a perception of Brother Samuel that amounts to deification. They call this syndrome trastorno psicótico compartido (shared psychotic derangement), and it accounts for the sexual (at the see) and economic abuses (in all congregations) such as justifying sexual intercourse with young women and men (as when he tells a boy of fifteen, “Yo soy como los ángeles que no tienen sexo, puedo disfrutar de un hombre o una mujer sin cometer pecado” [“I am sexless like the angels, I can enjoy a man or a woman without sinning”]) and demanding tithing and encouraging presents from the faithful in all congregations. This is indeed “un negocio redondo” for Brother Samuel.
Paloma Escalante’s article “El abuso sexual y el uso simbólico del concepto religioso del padre” (“Sexual Abuse and the Symbolic Use of the Religious Concept of Father”) is a sequel to the one above. Escalante focuses on the sexual abuse that goes on at the Hermosa Provincia but does not, as we have indicated, take place at the local congregation level—at least not in the areas of central Mexico covered in this book. Her article deals with the sexual abuse of children in general, including by Catholic priests, but what is relevant for the present book is what she says about LLDM, which is based on her discussions with six former members of the sect who were abused by Brother Samuel when they were from thirteen to eighteen years old. A most perverse rationale he gave for raping a thirteen-year-old girl was to tell her that she should offer her virginity to the Varón de Dios (man of God) as the most valuable thing she had; and besides, he argued, the rape would help him to get rid of a terrible headache. Escalante complements the previous article by detailing additional “justifications” for the abhorrent behavior that goes on at the Hermosa Provincia.
The issue of the journal concludes with two documentary articles: interviews with three sexually abused former members of LLDM, and a 1997 public declaration by Brother Samuel. These pieces are not directly relevant to our study of LLDM, but the public statement by Brother Samuel is pertinent to the following section.
Media reporting, including dailies, weeklies, and television, has served to inform the general public about the abuses that are committed by the apostle Samuel and his immediate collaborators; these on the whole corroborate the articles in the 1997 issue of Revista Académica para el Estudio de las Religiones. Brother Samuel’s public stand is a cynical denial of the charges of sexual and economic abuses leveled against him by independent investigators and the media. He portrays himself as an honest, dedicated evangelist whose only aim is the welfare of his flock.
Evidence Regarding the Leadership at the Hermosa Provincia and Its Inception and Development
From the very beginning of the sect, the charismatic Brother Aarón and his immediate associates have been a center of attention for their unorthodox evangelism. The succession of Samuel was marred by controversy, and even insiders question its legitimacy. But nothing provoked the interest of the general public until allegations against the apostle Samuel began to appear in mid-1995. Elio Masferrer, in an article entitled “Los destellos de La Luz: Crónica de una polémica inedita en nuestro país” (“The Sparklings of La Luz: Chronicle of an Unpublished Debate in Our Country”), also published in the issue of the journal under consideration, provides an excellent account of what transpires at the see. That article—together with those glossed in the foregoing section, and a few other sources—provides the materials on which the following discussion is based.
Early in 1994, the Hermosa Provincia came under the scrutiny of Masferrer and a group of anthropologists during an invited visit to the LLDM see. They were interested in some of the unusual aspects of the sect, such as the puritanical dress of its women (long skirts, no makeup, no jewelry), which greatly contrasted with the expensive attire and gold jewelry of the pastors. They were also startled by the exaggerated membership figures that were given: five million for Mexico and foreign countries. In an interview, a former representative (diputado) of the district where the Hermosa Provincia is located stated that “aparentemente son muy puritanos y probablemente lo sean, pero no tanto, a veces sus líderes les plantean a sus feligresas que el Espíritu Santo les ha revelado que tienen que acostarse con ellas y hay presiones. Han habido denuncias por abusos y violaciones sexuales” (apparently they are very puritanical, and maybe they are, but not so much. Sometimes the leaders tell women congregants that the Holy Spirit has revealed to them that they must go to bed with them, often under pressure. There have been legal charges of sexual abuses and rape).
From then on, the see of LLDM became a focus of interest of researchers and journalists. The evidence on the deleterious practices in the Hermosa Provincia began to mount and expanded to Brother Aarón himself, indicating that from the beginning, even beyond sexual misconduct, the sect had been imprinted with its most questionable practices: extreme control of the faithful, exaltation of the apostles, malversation of the tithe, potential for inciting suicide, and so on. Indeed, it was these practices, as quoted above, that led Erdely to regard LLDM as a destructive sect. At this point, television joined the controversy, and several programs on TV Azteca, one of the main networks in Mexico, reported on the most sensational accusation against LLDM, namely, that it was potentially a suicidal sect. LLDM protested vehemently, and the controversy heated up and acquired political overtones. The Departamento de Investigaciones Sobre Abusos Religiosos (Investigative Department of Religious Misconduct) of the federal government did not want to intervene, and another television network defended LLDM against the charges that had been leveled against it. Partisans of the sect tried, unsuccessfully, to lobby among leading intellectuals and academics, alleging that its detractors were unfairly imputing unfounded charges.
As a result of all this, LLDM suffered a devastating blow at the top of the sect, but not necessarily at the congregational level, as our field research in central Mexico clearly indicates. The reason for this discrepancy, as Masferrer suggested, may be the great control that LLDM exerts over the faithful, such as strictly regulating what newspapers they can read and television programs they can watch. However, there is more than this reason: without direct experience regarding the desecrations of the leaders at the see, and an honestly led investigation by minister-pastors free of personal abuses, it would be difficult for local congregants to believe the stories of despicable deeds perpetrated by the apostle and his incondicionales. Be that as it may, as the exposure of the sect proceeded, the investigative emphasis shifted from accusations of potential suicidal tendencies to the sexual abuses of women and children, as formerly abused individuals related in detail their experiences with the apostle Samuel and other members of the hierarchy. This caused a greater shock among the general public, and most evangelist sects began to distance themselves from LLDM by saying that the sect was neither Christian nor evangelist.
Furthermore, the affair acquired political overtones. The media criticized the ruling party (PRI) for taking a lenient stance and not prosecuting LLDM. Some journalists, given the new freedom of the press inaugurated by the Zedillo administration, severely censured the PRI for its connection to LLDM, and a few academics asked the House of Representatives to impeach a deputy who had close ties with Brother Samuel.
The LLDM affair caused the general Mexican population to reflect seriously about the relationship between church (sect) and state, and reminded them of the necessity of keeping close supervision over religious groups to prevent abuses and actual infringements of human rights.
Since colonial times, Mexicans have been aware of individual cases of sexual abuse of children and adults by clerics, but never until this had they encountered a situation of collective abuse. As far as we are aware, the LLDM affair was the first such case exposed and scrutinized by the Mexican media in the best fashion of investigative reporting. This is a good example of how in recent times Mexico has been evolving toward civil responsibility and political awareness. We do not know whether there have been—or are—abuses of any kind by other sects and churches now active in Mexico. We have never been involved in applied anthropology (including sociology, psychology, and psychiatry) because we believe that those who engage in applied social science must have political clout in order to be effective. In the present case we have been proven wrong, and Masferrer and his associates must be commended for having galvanized public opinion to create religious awareness and political conscientization.
The foregoing reconstruction and exposition of the LLDM scandal also benefited by the work of Amatulli Valente (1989, 1999), Meyer (1976), Marzal (1988), and De la Torre (1995). From different standpoints, these scholars have contributed to our understanding of the curious phenomenon that this sect is, and of how the religious landscape of Mexico has changed during the second half of the last century. Indeed, all investigators cited in this section have been instrumental in undertaking an intensely focused task, the likes of which have not usually been undertaken in the United States, by either the media or the scholarly community. 8
We do not know whether the abuses committed by the leadership of LLDM will come to an end, but the exposure of the sect is a warning to all evangelist sects operating in Mexico that from now on the federal government will be much more likely to deal promptly with irregularities reported by the media and private investigators, including incidents of coercive methods of proselytism and pressure on members to stay in a sect. Despite the scandal, the incident has put in perspective the relationship of religion and the state, and has alerted the public to the subtle but real dangers that occasionally affect the practices of sects and mainstream religions, including the overwhelmingly predominant Catholic Church.