By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
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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