Residents in the small Georgia town of Flowery Branch say they are “almost jubilant” to see charges of rape and sexual abuse being brought against the leader of a church that had planned to develop a 300-acre religious center in the rural community of 8,000.
Naasón Joaquín García, the leader of the Light of the World Church, has been charged by the California attorney general with raping and abusing four teenage girls who prosecutors say were told they had to submit to his sexual demands to please God.
In a hearing this week where García was denied bail, Judge David Fields said, “religion was used against these girls. Victims were told that if they didn’t comply they were sinning. They were told that a king could have mistresses. And what is particularly disturbing to the court, is the allegation essentially that they would be ‘going against God if they disobeyed.'”
The defendant has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
“We don’t want to hear about anyone being victimized, especially children,” said Doug Davis, one of the leaders of the small town’s opposition to the church project. But he told Brian Ross on the Law&Crime Network program Brian Ross Investigates, “we’re almost jubilant and we feel a sense of validation in the fight that we’ve been trying to stop this complex from being built in our neighborhood. So it’s bittersweet.”
The World of Light Church claims to have more than a million members in the United States, with millions more in 57 countries around the world.
Until the arrest of the church leader, residents in Flowery Branch felt they were in a losing battle with the church over its plans to build a mega-development on a recently purchased parcel of 300 acres. They planned to “offer a space for commercial/retail, institutional uses, residential homes, mixed-use and church/fellowship.”
Now they say they have hope they can stop the project. “We are a small town,” Davis said in his interview. “We live here and love it here because we have that small town peace of mind.”
The battle between the church and the small town is reminiscent of the conflict featured in the Netflix documentary Wild, Wild Country, when a cult-like group from India moved into rural Wasco County, Oregon in the 1980s. In the end, Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers moved out when he and other leaders faced criminal prosecution.
Similarly, the Light of the World Church was likened to a cult by the California attorney general’s office when it announced charges against the leader, Garcia, who tells followers he is a living apostle of Jesus.
In a press conference announcing the charges, Attorney General Xavier Becerra said, “I hesitate to call it a church, or megachurch…Some people would probably call this a case of brainwashing or where these families are influenced,” while also labelling Garcia as “demented.”
Residents in Georgia say their opposition to the project is based mostly on the logistical challenges of a development of the size envisioned by the church.
“It’s going to put a strain on our schools. It’s going to put a strain on our taxes and our property values,” Davis said. “And once a year they have the Holy Supper that can be from 150,000 to 200,000 people. We’re just not equipped to deal with that sort of influx of people here.”
Church leaders had accused the Georgia residents of being racist because many of the church’s members are people of color.
A church minister, Jack Freeman, told followers in a sermon, “What’s happening in Georgia is a war, it’s a battle.”
He added, “it would be so easy for us to say, ‘you know what they’re racist…they’ve built a stronghold there and they have the city council and the government on their side. I can’t win this war. I’m leaving. We’ll find a different place.’ No. I’ve been trained for war.”
Davis says the rhetoric and the tactics of the church have been causes for concern.
“It is a little unnerving because we don’t feel like we are in a war. We feel like we are protecting our way of life in our community and we are trying to do the right thing for the lives of our children and for our quality of life.”
“We don’t want to be ran out of our homes and out of our community. But if they wanted to go about it a different way we would have welcomed them with open arms.”
[Image via Law&Crime Network]