Dozens of cars file in to the parking lot behind La Perlita, a small Mexican grocery next to a taquería, a tortilleria and a church with a dome in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Across the street, on the corner of Clay Street and West 12th Avenue, light pours from the windows of the church, drawing people towards the open doors.
It is 5:58 p.m. and inside the sanctuary the clock above the double doors leading into the sanctuary ticks quietly.
A handful of churchgoers sit on blue-cushioned pews, waiting for service to begin at 6 p.m.
At 5:59 p.m. a rooster crows outside. Then again. One of the members, a man in a tan suit jacket, takes out his bible and begins to read to himself. The rooster crows three more times.
The convocation begins at 6:02 p.m. More members file in, each one kneeling to pray in preparation for the worship service.
Sounds of the first hymn fill the church. A cappella voices start soft then grow with each verse.
A train rumbles by as members to prayer are called to their first prayer.
At 6:18 p.m. the moaning starts as a low murmur then steadily grows until the entire sanctuary is filled with wailing congregation members. The soft cries of a young girl are drowned out by men and women weeping as they kneel and pray the first prayer of the night. They are pleading for God to protect them and their living Apostle, Naasón Joaquín García.
Through daily services, frequent public activities and associated businesses like the taquería, the tortilleria and the Mexican grocery store across the street, the local La Luz Del Mundo church has become a central hub for the Hispanic community of Bowling Green, Kentucky.
The Light of the World church, formally known as La Iglesia del Dios Vivo, Columna y Apoyo de La Verdad, La Luz del Mundo, is a Hispanic evangelical church which started in Guadalajara, Mexico but has expanded to include congregations across the globe. Although estimates vary widely, the international church claims over 2,500 temples with as many as 7 million members in 54 countries.
While residents have positive things to say about the local congregation, the larger church has been met with controversy in its relatively short history, such as allegations of cult activity and sexual abuse by church leaders.
A holy history
According to Deborah Baldwin who reviewed Renee de la Torre’s book “Los hijos de la luz,” the church’s inception occurred in 1926 when Eusebio Joaquín González was told in a vision that to change his name to Aarón and to preach the word of God. González’s ministry led him to Guadalajara where he established the first Light of the World church.
The church is considered to be a restoration of the early Christian church as founded by Jesus Christ and continued by his apostles. According to the church, González was the first living apostle of the restoration of the primitive church. Members believe that after the last of the original 12 apostles died, God stepped away from man. The vision that González received was a call to be a direct connection to God and a way for God to become active in the lives of man again.
When González died in 1964, his son, Samuel Joaquín Flores, took over the leadership of the church. Until his own death in 2014, Flores continued his father’s work of expanding the international presence of the church. At the time of his death, the Light of the World church included congregations in 50 countries.
When Samuel Joaquín Flores died on December 8, 2014, members of the church once again worried that they would be left without the guidance of a living apostle. A few days later, on December 14, one of Flores’ sons, Naasón Joaquín García, was told in a dream to continue his father’s work to preserve the future of the church.
At that point in time, according to tradition, Brother Naasón became the third living Apostle of God, the spiritual leader and the international director of La Luz del Mundo.
The local congregation was founded in the late 1990’s and has been in Bowling Green ever since.
One of the founding members, Luis Martinez, says the church today is completely different than it was 22 years ago.
“When I arrived here there were about 22 members,” Martinez explained. “Today there are over 300.”
Not only has the local membership grown, the business surrounding the church has too.
Buying land to build the church and wider community is a model based off of the main church in Guadalajara. In 1952, the church’s founder, Aarón Joaquín González, purchased land to create la Hermosa Provincia – the Beautiful Province – in Guadalajara.
“If we serve God by following the doctrine of the Apostle of Jesus Christ, God will bring us prosperity,” Martinez said. “Today, we have a temple which we have as a home to anyone who wants to come.”
The church building itself, sometimes referred to as a temple, is unique. Its spire, a miniature version of the main temple in Guadalajara, towers over the other buildings in the neighborhood. La Luz del Mundo churches are known for their distinct, grandiose architecture. The local temple is no exception with its large, white columns, high windows and golden lions that guard the entrance to the sanctuary.
Inside the sanctuary, velvety, dark blue curtains adorn the windows, fresh flowers line the altar and two giant golden wings frame a stained glass window which sits above the baptismal font. A long center aisle separates the two rows of pews, dividing the church into two sections – men on the left, women on the right.
Church doctrine emphasizes the importance of modesty and eliminating earthly distractions by separating the sexes is one way to achieve that. Women wear long, ankle-length skirts to show modesty and cover their heads whenever they are in the temple as a sign of humility.
Growing up Godly
Rachel Ortiz, 24, was raised in La Luz Del Mundo. Her family attended the Light of the World church in Mexico and continued going to the local congregation after they moved to Bowling Green in 1999.
Growing up as a member of the Light of the World church was challenging at times.
“Sometimes it is difficult because we follow the teachings of Christ and some of those are not to our convenience, but we also have chosen to follow those mandates in hope of an eternal reward,” Ortiz said.
While Ortiz found support within her community, people outside of the faith were not so understanding. Ortiz remembers being teased in high school for wearing long skirts every day.
“I remember kids would come up to me and say, ‘Do you sleep in a skirt? Do you go swimming in a skirt? Do you play sports in a skirt?’” Ortiz said. “I know some kids would be like, ‘I’ll give you five dollars if you wear jeans tomorrow.’”
Ortiz said it was a difficult period of time since much of the teasing was not a way for people to be genuinely interested in what the church believed, but a way to single members out because they were different.
Criticism and controversy
The church is no stranger to criticism. After the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide in March of 1997, critics pointed to other religious groups and organizations that they felt had the potential to be cults.
According to an article published in the L.A. Times, Samuel Joaquín Flores, Naasón’s father and the second leader of the church, has been accused of rape and sexual assault but was never convicted of any of the alleged crimes.
The church denies any wrongdoing. Although there are allegations, there is no definitive proof that the church is a cult. Most of the controversy has been at the top tiers of the church leadership but ridicule has trickled down to the lower levels of the church.
“There used to be a sign at the entrance of the buildings that said ‘Little Mexico’ but one day someone came and wrote all over it ‘Go back to your country,’” Ortiz said, describing an incident of prejudice that the church experienced.
Ortiz says the church teaches members to be respectful towards others, even when they are not afforded the same treatment.
“Even though they may say whatever they say, we’re taught to show absolute respect toward everyone and to be accepting of everyone,” Ortiz said.
According to church doctrine, absolute respect is an aspect of the church doctrine that has been championed by the current Living Apostle of God, Brother Naasón Joaquín García.
Like his father before him, Brother Naasón, as he is known by his church, is working to expand the global reach of La Luz del Mundo. In his attempt to bring the knowledge of Jesus Christ to all nations in the world, Brother Naasón plans to tour every established La Luz Del Mundo congregation in the world.
Rachel Ortiz remembers when the Living Apostle visited the church in Bowling Green. She was one of a few members who was able to have breakfast with Brother Naasón.
“I guess you have to be there, you just feel the connection,” Ortiz said, smiling as she recalled the experience. “It was an amazing feeling, honestly. I was just like ‘Wow, what do I even do?”
Working for a common goal
Steak sizzles on the griddle in the back corner of the small industrial-style kitchen as Irma Guillen, 49, lays a piece of aluminum foil in the bottom of a styrofoam to-go container. She scoops the meat onto tortillas she placed on top of the aluminum foil before closing the lid, placing the container into a plastic bag and running the order to a customer waiting by the register near the front door of the taquería.
“Work in the taquería is constant,” Guillen said, as she sits in her wood-paneled living room, just a block away from the busy restaurant.
Guillen works as a cook at the taquería. She used to work every day until the church started dividing the work between teams of people, assigning each team to a day of the week. Now Guillen works on Wednesdays.
The work that Guillen and others do at the taquería is voluntary.
“Nobody receives a salary but we know that we have all agreed on doing this work, which we do with love, with dedication and through faith,” Guillen said.
People have said the reason workers are not paid is to enrich the pastor but Guillen says that is simply not true.
“The work is for the church,” she said. “Everything that is done in the church is done for the same purpose: to achieve the goal we have set for ourselves and to give God joy.”
Guillen has been a member of the church for seven years.
“[Before joining the church] I already knew but never obeyed the word [of God],” she said. “[Since joining] I have been trying to walk on the right path.”
Guillen says her life has changed since becoming a part of the Light of the World community.
“I go with confidence everywhere I go because I know I am already fulfilled [through the Word of God],” Guillen said. “I know I make mistakes, I have imperfections, I have faults but with the commandment [of God] my fulfillment is perfect.”
According to a study from Pew Research Center conducted in 2014, the religious identity of Latinos in the United States is shifting. The local evangelical congregation is part of this larger trend. In the United States, Hispanics account for 18 percent of the nation’s population. While about 55 percent of Latino adults in the United States still identify as Catholic, about 22 percent are Protestant – 16 percent of which are considered evangelical.
Growth of the church seems apparent to members like Luis Martinez.
“This temple has changed 180 degrees,” Martinez, 50, said. “I remember sitting on benches made of a piece of wood laying on top of cement blocks. There wasn’t air conditioning. The columns were falling.”
Martinez says people used to tell him that the church was on the wrong side of the train tracks.
“When I arrived in this area, it was a very poor neighborhood,” Martinez said. “There are people who did not step in these neighborhoods because they said it was very dangerous.”
Today, members and neighbors alike say the area has changed.
Ronnie Ward, the Public Information Officer for the Bowling Green Police Department, says while there may not be any statistical information to back it up, the atmosphere of the area feels like it has changed.
“The church has really changed the temperature of the area,” Ward said. “It has changed the whole look of the area, really seems to have brightened it up.”
Georgia Burkins, 51, lives around the corner on West 13th Avenue. Before she moved into the neighborhood, people told her it was not a good place to live. Burkins says that after two years of living in the area, the warnings she got could not have been more wrong.
“I really like it over here,” Burkins said, watching her grandkids play in the yard. “It’s a good place where I can sit outside and just enjoy myself.”
Burkins says she and her family have been to several of the festivals that the Light of the World church has had. In her eyes, the members of the church are wonderful people.
“They are very nice,” she said. “You would think that they wouldn’t be like that, you know, by a strange person or different culture or something but they ain’t nothing like that. They treat you real nice.”
Funding for the future
Rain, falling at a steady drizzle for the majority of the day, collects in the canopies of tents set up around the parking lot behind La Perlita. It is May 5, and the members of La Luz del Mundo are having a festival to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.
A woman uses the end of an umbrella to hit the water off the top of her canopy. Nearby, cotton candy has disintegrated in its machine. Two bouncy castles sit abandoned on a small patch of grass near the building for the tortilleria.
“Change your money into tickets, that’s the way to get from booth to booth,” a voice says over the speaker system, momentarily interrupting the Hispanic music playing in the background.
Across the street, in the church, Luis Martinez sits with fellow congregation members in the darkened sanctuary. A projector screen at the front of the church shows a live transmission from the main Light of the World church in Guadalajara.
Outside the church window the bouncy castles start to deflate, as members in the sanctuary bow to pray, in sync with the transmission.
Later, Martinez will say that, in spite of the rain, the festival was a success. The money raised will eventually help the church expand and build a new temple.
“The Light of the World church, she keeps moving forward,” he said. “It will never stay on one level but will continue to rise up – as the word of God says – like the light of dawn.”