Church Members Throw Out Their Preacher

The locksmith worked nervously on the backdoor lock of a small white church in El Mirage.

Behind him, anxiously waiting in the blistering heat, were a dozen church members and volunteers who'd been forced out of its congregation by former Pastor Guadalupe "Lupe" Davila.

They say they all were victims of the preacher, mostly because they demanded an accounting of church finances.

On this day, the estranged group was intent on evicting the pastor, cleaning up the church's finances, and taking it back for the community. Davila had no knowledge of the plan.

Since his appointment as pastor of Primera Iglesia Bautista Camino al Cielo in 2009, Davila had taken in an unknown amount of money from volunteers and members who'd opened their hearts and their wallets to support the congregation and improve the church's building and youth center. The group believes he helped himself to a portion of the money.

Tens of thousands of dollars in cash, building materials, and new appliances for the church's kitchen were donated. Even though he was asked repeatedly, Davila refused to provide records about how the money was spent, the group says.

On this hot July 6 morning, the pastor — who had changed the locks since booting out members and volunteers — never showed up at the church.

When the locksmith finally opened the doors, the group swiftly made its way through the building. Several members went straight to Davila's office and cleared out his desk and bookshelves of personal belongings, including dozens of Bibles.

As they put everything in plastic bins, a DVD showing a topless woman pressing her forearm and hand against her breasts fell out of a tome interpreting the Bible's book of Revelations.

"Filthy Porn Stars," read church member Donna Hennig, quoting the DVD's title. "Eight hours [long]! Oh, my . . . Can you believe this? Well, we shouldn't be surprised."

The discovery was one in a series of revelations about the man they once revered as "Pastor Lupe," and it moved the church members to reorganize the church by filing necessary paperwork with the state and county.

In so doing, they formed a nonprofit organization and changed the name of the church from Camino al Cielo (Highway to Heaven) to Luz del Cielo (Light of Heaven).

As New Times reported in "False Profit" (June 27), church members and volunteers learned that Davila emptied nearly $3,000 in donations from a bank account established to improve the learning center for neighborhood children. They also learned that he used an invalid tax-exempt identification number to collect free food and other donations from local retailers, including Costco.

They discovered that Davila, a former Goodyear police officer, spent about five months in a federal prison for stealing about $6,000 from an undercover operation targeting drug dealers and gang members.

And they found out that Davila had carried on sexual relationships with at least two church members. One of the young women was his secret lover for about two years, but she ended the relationship after realizing he had other mistresses at the same time.

When she broke things off and stopped attending church, Davila barraged her with calls, text messages, and e-mails.

Even after she obtained an order of protection against him, he sent her more than a hundred erratic texts — one minute telling her he missed her and that God loves her and the next calling her a "fucking bitch" and a "fucking liar." In some, he wrote that he was "unsettled with remorse" and that he'd pray for her.

El Mirage police issued him warnings to stop, but he continued and was arrested March 22 for aggravated harassment and violating a court order. He spent several days in a Maricopa County lockup. In May, he pleaded guilty and was ordered to attend domestic-violence-intervention counseling and pay $650 in fines.

Davila, who'd been ordained at Skyway Church in Goodyear, was stripped of his ministerial license when these facts became known.

After Davila's arrest, members and volunteers compared notes. They were devastated to learn that he'd also bilked several of them, personally, out of thousands of dollars.

But as they worked to establish a board of directors (with a president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer) and a set of bylaws calling for financial accountability, Davila labored to take sole ownership of the church's building.

On June 10, he filed a "special warranty deed" intended to convey the building from the congregation to himself. County officials deemed the deed invalid because Jessica Matthews, a church member who signed paperwork giving the structure to Davila, doesn't have the authority to give it away.

Even after Davila was stripped of his ordination, he refused to step down. He continued to preach Sunday sermons and baptize new members.

When longtime church members learned that he had tried to obtain sole ownership of their building, they weren't surprised. Several said they'd suspected him of misdeeds for a long time.

The building is worth at least $86,000, according to the Maricopa County Assessor's Office, and might be worth much more because volunteers pitched in to give it a major facelift, inside and out.

County officials note that another flaw in Davila's plan to own the building was that a nonprofit cannot enrich an individual with its property. Rather, such a building can only go from one nonprofit to another.

After finding the porn DVD, the church group packed up items of value, including computers and other electronic equipment, and removed them from the building.

One volunteer previously had brought musical equipment to the church, including speakers, to use in a music ministry for children. When he fell out of Davila's good graces and was forced out, Davila told him the items had been stolen.

Yet when the building was searched, several reportedly stolen items were found locked inside a church storage room.

Three of Davila's supporters drove up as the group was finishing its work, shouting that Davila was getting vilified unfairly.

Before they left, the group members evicting Davila painted over Primera Iglesia Bautista Camino al Cielo on the church's sign and replaced it with the new name. They also pulled down all remnants of Davila's administration, including a large poster of him hanging in the learning center.

They changed the locks and posted notices on the property that Davila was no longer welcome at the church.

The new church leaders have closed the church temporarily, expecting to reopen it in August. They've created flyers explaining the Davila debacle to pass out in El Mirage.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo