Over half a million pilgrims from over 50 countries descended upon the western Mexican city of Guadalajara last week to participate in an annual ceremony at the spiritual home of the little-known Christian denomination: Luz del Mundo.
Mexico’s second largest religious denomination after the Catholic Church, the Luz del Mundo (Light of the World) was founded in Guadalajara in 1926. It now claims to have approximately five million members, the majority spread across the Americas and Europe.
Luz del Mundo’s national spokesman, Eliezer Gutierrez, told Latin Correspondent that the purpose of last week’s celebrations, known as “La Santa Convocación,” was for devotees to “renew their pact with the lord”.
The culmination of the week-long event was a reenactment of the Last Supper, in which the pilgrims, all dressed in white, broke bread and sipped wine to symbolize their continued commitment to their faith, Gutierrez said.
The church claimed the event drew 537,000 devotees from five continents this year, 177,000 more than in 2014.
Is it a cult?
The Luz del Mundo does not celebrate Christmas or Easter, making the Santa Convocación the most important date in its calendar.
That Last Supper ceremony, which took place on August 14, coincides with the birthday of the movement’s late founder, Aaron Joaquin Gonzalez, a veteran of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the anti-clerical Cristero Wars of the 1920s.
Renee de la Torre, a Mexican sociologist and expert on the church, told Latin Correspondent that Luz del Mundo has often combined traditional Christian celebrations with important events from the lives of its spiritual leaders so as to create a “cult of personality” around them.
Believers are known for their devotion to the church figureheads. The funeral of the founder’s son and successor, Samuel Joaquin Flores, drew almost 600,000 mourners to Guadalajara last December, with devotees reportedly describing him as a parent figure and “the mouth of God”.
Despite such tendencies, Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of several books on religion in Latin America, told Latin Correspondent that it would be unfair to label the church a cult.
“Historically, the Catholic Church has employed both the terms sect and cult to denigrate most other types of Christianity,” he said. “As the largest non-Catholic denomination in the nation with the world’s second largest Catholic population, Luz del Mundo has been the object of an inordinate number of smear campaigns.”
The church of the poor
The epicenter of last week’s celebrations was the lavish Hermosa Provincia Temple, a vast, 12,000-seater place of worship located in a working-class district on Guadalajara’s east side.
The church initially drew its support from low-income Mexican families, although it now counts many professionals such as architects, engineers and lawyers within its ranks, de la Torre said.
Chesnut noted that members pay a tithe of 10 percent of their income to the church, whose primary appeal is its emphasis on “faith healing, strict norms of conduct and self-help within the congregation.”
Historically, he added, “the Catholic Church in Mexico and throughout Latin America adopted a preferential option for the privileged, while Luz del Mundo and Pentecostalism in general have been churches of the poor that reflect their religious tastes and preferences. In powerful ways Luz del Mundo is actually more culturally in sync with working class Mexicans than Catholicism is after five centuries in the country!”
Like the Catholic Church, the Luz del Mundo has long been dogged by allegations that its ministers have not always lived up to the values they espouse in the pulpit.
Joaquin Flores, the late head of the church, was accused of raping and sexually assaulting several young devotees, with one of the accusers then claiming he was abducted by Luz del Mundo members who stabbed him 57 times in a warning not to speak out.
The church has consistently denied the allegations.
Throughout the last century the Luz del Mundo was also been accused of undermining the supposed divide between church and state through its close relationship with Mexico’s dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
Experts say the neighborhoods surrounding the Luz del Mundo’s temples in Guadalajara, where the homes of many local members are concentrated, have benefitted from the church’s political connections.
For years, de la Torre said, church members would vote as a bloc in favor of the PRI in return for “economic support,” including subsidized utility bills, preferential access to public works and permission to change street names in the areas around its temples.
This alliance proved ideal for both the Luz del Mundo and the PRI in a region that was long considered a bastion of Catholicism and a stronghold for the right-wing National Action Party (PAN), Chesnut noted.