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See the Light 

Ex–church members struggle to reclaim happiness and financial health

Wednesday, Jun 27 2001
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

FOR MOST OF HER LIFE, IVETTE VILLASEÑOR has been searching for a god. She looked in vain for one in the traditional Catholic Church of her parents, in Pentecostal congregations, and among curanderos, Latino healers who practice indigenous faiths.

She thought she had finally found one seven years ago, when she walked into downtown L.A.'s Million Dollar Theater. She was enthralled by the powerful prayers and songs, and by the pastors who so dramatically exorcised demons. But within five years, she was out of money and in danger of losing her home, her marriage and her mental health. "The Universal Church inflicted so much suffering on me that to this day I still can't get over the pain," she says. "Not only did they leave me and my family broke, but they also used the very thing that I loved the most -- God -- to take advantage of my faith."

The darkest times of her life began in the autumn of 1994. Then a 24-year-old single mom living in Fullerton, she came upon the church during one of her shopping excursions along busy Broadway. The 2,000-plus-capacity auditorium was filled with Spanish-speaking immigrants like her. Led by a pianist, the cheerful songs were unlike anything she had heard in church. Infused with supernatural power, the pastors appeared to cure churchgoers by what they called the "laying on of hands," as they forcefully grabbed people by their heads and loudly prayed for them to get well.

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In 1995, a Universal temple opened in nearby Santa Ana's Yost Theater, a 1920s movie house, and she started going there. Pastor Sergio granted her request to be an obrera, a church worker. She soon fell in love with Gustavo Villaseñor, a 30-year-old aircraft-company supervisor from a small town in the Mexican state of Jalisco.

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

About a year after they married, Gustavo cut his shaggy light-brown hair and donned a white shirt and dress navy-blue pants to become an obrero. Gustavo dove into his new duties. His obedience to the pastors -- showing up at the temple every day after work, donating thousands at a time -- impressed even his wife.

On weekends, the Villaseñors took to the poorest parts of Santa Ana, along with dozens of fellow obreros, knocking on apartment doors to spread the word among Spanish-speaking Mexican or Central American immigrant families. Obreros were sometimes commanded to bring at least 100 new people to the temple on a Saturday morning.

During backstage meetings held before services, the Villaseñors were taught to be on the lookout for people who did not belong to the church or who stood out from the crowd. They were told especially to watch for journalists, investigators and others carrying cameras or tape recorders, which were strictly prohibited. As regular members, the Villaseñors contributed about $30 each service. Now, the amount grew to as much as several thousand dollars a pop because obreros, the pastors told them, must be role models.

Ivette became pregnant with her second child and decided to leave her job as a secretary at a law office to become a full-time mother. Left only with Gustavo's $35,000-a-year job, the Villaseñors' budget was strained when tithings, donations, campañas (see main story) and other contributions came to average $1,600 per month.

Gustavo Villaseñor was rarely at home, spending most of his free time at the temple. In time, Ivette found herself asking pastors why the church didn't have a program to feed homeless people or provide other charitable programs she believed the Bible commanded. Pastors blamed all of her doubts on demons. They would grab her head and exorcise her, sometimes for an hour, until she revealed a demonic manifestation. New pastors assigned to the congregation, sometimes every six months, quickly learned about Ivette's rebelliousness. She was a hard worker and therefore tolerated -- until, she says, Pastor Adilson Fonseca arrived. He showed up in 1997 and would remain for almost three years. (Now a bishop in Boston, Fonseca declined an interview request and referred questions to the Los Angeles hierarchy, which did not respond.)

Fonseca, according to former church members, is a stern man who would often, from the pulpit, scold members who did not tithe generously. "He would always tell us that the reason we were in the condition we were in is that we did not sacrifice to God enough," Gustavo says.

With most of their money going to church coffers, the Villaseñors slipped into debt, with little money for food and most of their bills unpaid. Ivette became a thorn in the side of Fonseca as she continued to question church practice and doctrine. What most infuriated Fonseca, she says, was that Ivette was trying to persuade her husband to spend less time at the temple and more with his family. "It was a tug of war between me trying to keep my husband for myself and Adilson trying to keep my husband for the church," she says.

Again and again, Fonseca would tell Gustavo -- in private and from the altar -- that his wife was possessed by demons. One time, he recalls, he had to make a $1,000 donation for a campaña. There was no food in the refrigerator, so his wife took $40 from his wallet to buy groceries. "I took to Adilson only $960. I told him that I couldn't make the $1,000 because my wife had stolen $40 from me to buy food," Gustavo says. Their marriage was approaching rock bottom.

ONE NIGHT, GUSTAVO WOKE UP WITH SEVERE abdominal pains and underwent emergency surgery. For a week, as he recuperated in the hospital, he thought about his life. "I reflected, 'I am in a far worse situation now than ever before. I have not stopped to hug my kids or my wife. We have no money and are further in debt than I ever thought that we would be.'"

When Gustavo left the hospital, he went up to Fonseca's office and handed him his white shirt and navy-blue pants. He no longer wished to be an obrero. "I told him that I would remain in the church as just another member."

Fonseca remained friendly with Gustavo, but not with Ivette. The final showdown came during a marriage-counseling session; Fonseca told Gustavo in front of his wife that he would be better off divorcing her. "She is possessed. She is incorrigible," husband and wife recall Fonseca telling them. "Leave her and find yourself another woman in the church. Maybe you can find a Brazilian wife."

Though they would barely talk to each other, Gustavo still loved his wife, he says. The truth finally hit him: The church was his problem, not his wife. Over the course of five years, he figured, they had donated about $70,000 to the church, and were another $70,000 in debt.

The Villaseñors reconciled and decided they must leave the church. Their departure left a profound mark on Fonseca. For months, members told them, Fonseca railed against the couple from the pulpit.

The Sunday after quitting the Universal Church, the couple accepted a friend's invitation to attend the Christian Embassy, a Pentecostal temple in Orange County, where they met Pastor Frances Huezo, the leader of its Spanish-language ministry. A certified psychologist, Huezo was shocked by their allegations. "I couldn't believe that people who preach salvation could also do such things," Huezo says. "What is worst, they claim to be a Pentecostal church. It gives us all a bad name."

It has been almost three years since the Villaseñors broke free from the Universal Church's hold. They went to counseling for about six months. Gustavo is now a $50,000-a-year foreman at an aircraft-parts company; he and his wife are slowly emerging from debt and are no longer on the verge of having their home repossessed. They find solace in helping others who have had similar experiences with the Universal Church.

"We are not doing this for us, but for others," Ivette Villaseñor says. "I want to let them know that now, after leaving the Universal Church, I finally stopped suffering."

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