Divine Retreat

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Thronged by faithful at Guadalajara headquarters, Samuel Joaquin Flores leads the Light of the World Church as a kind of messiah who claims a direct link to Jesus. He’s been taking his vacations at a lavish ranch compound near San Antonio, built in part on the labor and tithings of his fanatically devoted minions. Associated Press photo
 

A mysterious ranch east of San Antonio, home to a Noah’s Ark of exotic animal species, serves as an opulent family haven for the iconoclastic leader of Light of the World Church, a controversial Mexico-based denomination followed by allegations of child sexual abuse and intimidation

By TODD BENSMAN

The San Antonio Express-News

KINGSBURY, Tx. -- Almost every day, at least a few of the 27,500 motorists who drive Interstate 10 through this speck of a ranching community pull over to check out a curious fenced ranch just off the highway.

Easily visible from the interstate, twin white domes of a massive structure poke up like mushrooms on the 340-acre forested reserve. A giant bronze bison statue stands in plain view, as do live stick-legged emu birds and ostriches.

But tourists never get through the well-appointed limestone facade entrance that seems to beckon them into The Silver Wolf Ranch. As they have for 10 years since the property came under new ownership, polite Spanish-speaking workers shoo away the camera-toting motorists with the same unrequited promise; the ranch will open soon, very soon. It never does, though.

The land, a 40-minute drive from San Antonio, remains just as enigmatic to immediate neighbors left to ruminate — sometimes darkly — about relentless construction activity, howls of unseen wolves, reports of gun-carrying guards, and especially the tint-windowed SUV caravans for which the gates do occasionally open.

“I don't know nothing; I don't want to get involved,” said neighbor Jesse Weinaug, who owns a cattle ranch next door. “They don't come over here. I don't go over there. It ain't none of my business.”

But now the curtain can be thrown back from The Silver Wolf Ranch. The San Antonio Express-News was given limited access to parts of the property and to those who speak for its long-hermetic owners.

The property, it turns out, is the private playground of a Mexican family that has grown immensely wealthy and politically powerful while ruling as a dynasty over the controversial religious denomination known as Iglesia La Luz del Mundo, or The Light of the World Church. The Pentecostal-like denomination's supreme leader, the iconoclastic 71-year-old Apostle Samuel Joaquin Flores, is viewed as a messianic figure to be worshipped as a direct link to God and obeyed by church faithful in Mexico and abroad.

"Apostle Samuel" (center) in a photo published in a Mexican newspaper. His critics in Mexico claim he leads an armed militia to intimidate dissidents. Denomination officials deny a militia exists and claim the gunman (right) is carrying a toy. courtesy photo

READ THE FULL EXPRESS-NEWS STORY HERE