Twelve church leaders were charged with a massive labor trafficking scheme that involved forcing homeless people to panhandle as a way of raising money for the church.
Turns out the pastors at Imperial Valley Ministries, a non-denominational church in El Centro, California, held homeless people as slaves, threatening to take away their kids if they didn’t cooperate.
We know all this because of an indictment from August against IVM’s pastors, including Pastor Victor Gonzalez, which was just unsealed yesterday.
We’re all too aware that church officials aren’t necessarily ethical (you don’t need to look beyond the Catholic Church for evidence of that, though you could). By that logic, this isn’t all that surprising. It is, however, illuminating.
According to that indictment, the ministry offered shelter to more than 30 homeless people as long as they signed a contract that required them to obey IVM rules. Those rules included never leaving the premises by yourself, turning over money and ID to the director, not to discuss “things of the world” with each other, only reading the Bible, and — last — “none of the above rules apply to the pastor or his family.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of California says this quickly turned into “forced labor.” The IVM pastors demanded the victims “panhandle up to nine hours a day, six days a week, for the financial benefit of the church leaders.”
“The indictment alleges an appalling abuse of power by church officials who preyed on vulnerable homeless people with promises of a warm bed and meals,” said U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer. “These victims were held captive, stripped of their humble financial means, their identification, their freedom and their dignity.”
Defendants are alleged to have extorted the surrender of participants’ Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards obtained through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), administered by the CalFresh Program, by using actual and threatened fear of economic loss. The IVM leaders allegedly then used the SNAP benefits for improper purposes, including providing them to ineligible persons, and improperly instructing the intended recipients to not seek or accept outside employment.
Many of the victims said they were held against their will at the church’s treatment homes, including those that didn’t require drug therapy at all. Brewer said this was “the most significant labor trafficking prosecution in this district in many years.”
All the victims are now free and receiving care. The defendants include a dozen IVM leaders ranging from ages 29 to 52. If convicted, they all stand to spend the rest of their lives behind bars.