Victor Gonzalez, the former head of Imperial Valley Ministries, a non-denominational church in El Centro, California, was sentenced on Friday to six months in jail plus six more months of home confinement. His wife was also given a time-served sentence. Both pleaded guilty to benefits fraud, but the details of their case reveal something far worse. These people used their faith to justify cruelty.
The allegations from 2019 were shocking. A dozen IVM leaders including Gonzalez subjected homeless people to “forced labor, coercing them to surrender welfare benefits and compelling them to panhandle up to nine hours a day, six days a week, for the financial benefit of the church leaders.” They basically trafficked people with nowhere else to go, all to make some cash.
The victims in question believed the church was taking them in and giving them a safe space to stay, so they signed agreements to obey the church’s rules. They soon found out they were trapped inside the buildings, had to give up their identifications (to prevent them from escaping), weren’t allowed to discuss “things of the world” with their fellow inmates, were only allowed to read the Bible, and were subject to “discipline” if they broke any of the rules. (That punishment included possible threats of starvation.)
In addition to the panhandling, the church leaders took benefits the victims received through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to line their own pockets to the tune of over $100,000.
While the other church leaders face their own punishments, the Gonzalezes pleaded guilty to benefits fraud (though the additional counts of forced labor, document servitude, and conspiracy were dropped). They faced up to 20 years in prison for the fraud, so Victor Gonzalez getting sentenced to a mere six months in jail is a relative slap on the wrist. It’s not clear why he received such a light sentence.
One of the (many) troubling facts about this case was how Gonzalez spent years living rent-free in a church-owned home, earned a salary, and got an occasional $1,000 “blessing” from the church. He did all this on the backs of the people he exploited. How much longer was he able to get away with all this because he ran a church? At any point, did the seriousness of his crimes bother his conscience? We don’t know if religion inspired the cruelty or if it was just the cover story, but all of this is a reminder that adding faith to a fire usually makes things much worse.