Former Ignite School of Ministry Students Detail More Covered Up Abuses Against Children

Former Ignite School of Ministry Students Detail More Covered Up Abuses Against Children

Edited July 15 | Added further clarification on Ignite’s partnership with Urban Strategies.

Two more whistleblowers who formerly went to the School of Ministry at Ignite Life Center (ILC), a local church in legal trouble for covering up child sexual abuse, have come forward to give interviews on their experiences at the congregation. This doubles the total number of whistleblowers from, or formally from, ILC who have disclosed their experiences to GnvInfo. 

Three people from ILC have been arrested for committing sexual abuse against minors: (1) former employee and volunteer Gabriel Hemenez; (2) head pastor Mark Vega’s son Christian Vargas; and (3) associate pastor Jose Cruz’s son Noel Cruz. 

As with the previous two whistleblowers, both are anonymous. One is a man who left the church years ago, and the other chose to use gender neutral (they/them) pronouns to further conceal their identity. They left at some point within the past 18 months. 

They said they left ILC after finding out the ILC administration tried to handle reported sexual abuses internally. They said they realized it was a cult soon after leaving. They said they realized ILC used tactics that cults use, such as separating family members from their children and misusing biblical scripture. 

They reported a disturbing crime that allegedly occurred years ago but only just now became under investigation by the Department of Children and Families (DCF). They said, “To keep the child’s identity safe, I'm just going to say it’s one of the pastors under Mark Vega. This pastor’s child is a victim. It was a child-on-child incident, and the father and the mother were aware of the situation. They walked in on the situation, and they decided between both parents of the children; their parents both decided to forgive and stay quiet. The pastor, his wife, and the other parents decided not to resolve it with the police due to the guidance of Mark Vega; they resolved it at a meeting in his house.”

The whistleblower disclosed the name of the pastor but asked that it be cut out of quotes and interviews to protect the victim’s identity. They said the perpetrator and victim were both of a disturbingly young age, with the child victim being between the ages of two and six and the child of the other family being between the ages of nine and twelve.  

The whistleblower went on to say, “We’ve been waiting for things to come up in the news, but nothing has come up. It has been reported to the police. From my understanding, the police have been investigating. It’s just a circle that shows Mark Vega is aware of these incidents and still not doing anything; neither are the parents. That little kid is a few years older now, and I don’t know. Immediately after the investigation began, the father’s position in the Ignite Refugio program was nullified. From what I understand, DCF has spoken to the family, but that’s all I know.”

The male whistleblower noted after his interview that Ignite’s Refugio program is separate and sometimes confused with another similarly named program ILC had from 2016–2021, called Ignite Refuge. Refuge was an emergency shelter for foster children, while Refugio was a program with the goal of helping unaccompanied minors. 

It was originally mistakenly reported that Ignite Refugio and Urban Strategies referred to the same program. In fact, Urban Strategies is its own company that partners with churches to utilize their facilities. Ignite Refugio is the name of the facility Urban Strategies is using.

It was also mistakenly reported that Ignite Refugio had shut down. A recent live streamed ILC sermon indicates that Ignite Refugio is in the process of shutting down, with Vega saying the contract ends in this summer.

The gender-neutral whistleblower said the unnamed pastor was let go from Ignite Refugio in April after his alleged cover-up was reported to the authorities. The gender-neutral whistleblower disclosed the Ignite leaders who had been let go from Ignite Refugio: Agustin Boissen, Esther Ombeon, Nicole Gomez, Jose Cruz, and Nicholas Bruce. 

Besides Jose Cruz, all the aforementioned individuals are still employed as pastors at ILC; they were only let go from the Ignite Refugio program. The only pastor entirely gone from ILC is Jose Cruz, who was employed as an associate pastor. He was reportedly let go or left shortly after his son, Noel Cruz, was arrested for repeatedly committing statutory rape against a minor child at ILC. Jose Cruz is no longer listed as a pastor on ILC's website, indicating he isn’t employed with them in an official capacity. 

The Urban Strategies website is vague about their goals. The site states they want to “equip, resource, and connect faith- and community-based organizations so that all children and families can reach their full potential.”

A 2015 report from Trac Immigration shows that children were transferred from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to Ignite Urban Strategies. It also shows that Ignite Urban Strategies was used as an ICE detention center. Furthermore, the report says that Ignite Urban Strategies was specialized for housing juveniles. 

The report states, “For the most recent 12 months (Oct 2014 - Sep 2015) for which data are available, a total of 21 detainees housed at the Urban Strategies Ignite Life Center-Gainesville left that facility.” The report's data states all 21 left ICE under orders of recognizance or supervision.

The report goes on to state, “For none of [the] detainees [was] Urban Strategies Ignite Life Center-Gainesville the first place they were sent when they were detained by ICE. All had been transferred in from another ICE detention facility.” 

The backside of the report says that during the aforementioned time period, three Guatemalan boys were transferred from Ignite Urban Strategies to Docket Control Offices (DCO) in Miami.

Further communication with whistleblowers shows Refugio was not the detention center from this report. Ignite Refugio, which housed kids on church grounds, began in 2021, and in partnership with Urban Strategies. The Ignite Urban Strategies referenced from this report in 2015 housed children in staff member's homes, with staff members commonly being affiliated with the church. It would appear that sometime between 2015 and 2021 the program disbanded and reopened in the Refugio format.

ILC’s Refugio/Urban Strategies and Refuge programs haven’t been referenced in previous reports about ILC. ILC appears to have numerous programs, many of which involve children. The approximate number of programs formerly or currently run by ILC hasn’t been independently verified. 

The ILC program that has primarily seen the public’s attention is the Ignite School of Ministry, as the Ignite Summer Internship program was run through the Ignite School of Ministry. Former ILC volunteer Gabriel Hemenez is currently sitting in prison for five years due to taking advantage of the Ignite Summer Internship to sexually abuse at least three children and one adult.

ILC shut down the Ignite School of Ministry website sometime after Hemenez was arrested; however, they have started a new website, which appears to be geared towards online schooling.

Vega has shown to have international intentions for the Ignite School of Ministry. Vega traveled to Brazil for an evangelical youth conference at the start of the month. In February, he collaborated the Ignite School of Ministry with an event held at a Brazilian church. Social media posts indicate Vega intends to build a church, or school of ministry in Brazil.

Both of the new whistleblowers reported an established and ongoing practice of cult-like behavior through the infliction of psychological and emotional abuse against children at the Ignite School of Ministry. 

In the male whistleblower’s interview, he called out head pastor Vega and Life Group Pastor Adolfo Gomez. “The reception started to fall off during my second year because I was ‘disobedient’ as they would call it. One of the leaders, Adolfo Gomez, had me sleep on a hard floor as a discipline technique. Or, they would put you on something called a ‘word fast,’ where, I guess, if you weren't compliant, you couldn't speak for a whole day, or you would get more punitive actions. At the time, it felt like, ‘Oh, okay, I'm growing with the Lord; I'm learning,’ but now, as a blossomed adult that understands the world, I’ve done a full 360. I understand that was a very oppressive and manipulative action, and in the name of God as a leader, that's not acceptable.”

The man went on to detail how Vega controls students’ personal lives. “Let's say, hypothetically, I had an interest in a girl. Mark Vega was the reigning authority over everything. If you like someone and they don't approve of them, then they're like, ‘We're not going to allow that, and there will be punitive action if so.’ They would change their demeanor. They were no longer as friendly as they once were. Because now, you’re not necessarily adhering to the word of the Lord through Mark Vega or one of the leaders. It’s very manipulative, abusive, and gaslighting tactics to make you conform to the image of what they want.”

Both whistleblowers detailed that Vega doesn’t hold himself to a high Christian standard. The gender-neutral whistleblower said, “For example, Mark Vega is against reading fortune cookies, so I thought if I read a fortune cookie, I was going to hell, and fortune cookies are bad. But Mark is okay with watching R-rated movies, so it's like he’s being hypocritical. It’s what he feels is okay. This is a man who cusses. If he’s a man of God, then why is he saying those things? Sometimes he makes the most sexual jokes.” 

The male whistleblower corroborated their statements, saying Vega uses biblical scripture to encourage handling crime internally. He said, “This scripture would be used to keep things internal and not have it be spread to the masses. They would use this scripture out of context to coerce the situation; Matthew 18|15: If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his faults. Between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell them to the church. If he refuses to listen to even the church, let them be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.' Jesus also preached, ‘Humble yourselves under the natural authority.’” 

The man went on to summarize the connection between celebrity baseball player Mariano Rivera and ILC. “Mariano was one of the best closers of all time with the Yankees. He and Mark grew up in the Bronx. Mariano Rivera also opened a foundation with Ignite [called the Mariano Rivera Foundation], and there was a building at Ignite they transformed for that. They would take at-risk groups, and one of the people that attended told me they would bring the children up, and Mark would be like, ‘Look how broken they were; now look at them,’ using them as poster children of Ignite’s ‘greatness.’ They would use Mariano as a catalyst for Ignite’s growth. They did that to me when my mom died, testifying about me on stage, saying, ‘Look at him broken; he wanted to commit suicide; his mom died, but through Ignite he found freedom.’ At the time, I thought I was indebted to Ignite, but it wasn’t even like God did the work. It was Ignite. It was sickening.”

The man went on to say that Vega and Rivera have been friends for “30-40 years” and that he believes Rivera either “knows what’s going on and keeps it on the hush or doesn’t know because Mark gives him his side of the story.”

Rivera posted pictures of himself standing with Vargas on the Mariano Rivera Foundation Facebook page in January. Social media posts also prove the whistleblowers' statements regarding Vega and Rivera having a long-standing friendship. 

Both whistleblowers detailed that ILC has more friends in high places. The gender-neutral whistleblower said, “I feel like Mark has relationships everywhere. His wife, Lisa Vega, has a really close relationship with Preston Bailey. He’s a huge celebrity that does these wedding designs; he did it for Kim Kardashian's wedding. Lisa Vega has a partnership with him and her flower company, Fiorebela.”

Lisa Vega and Preston Bailey

The man said that ILC has more connections with GPD than was previously reported. “GPD had a pretty strong tie with Ignite, though Bobby White, the Basketball Cop, I don’t know if he still is, but he was a GPD officer. He brought Shaq to Florida not too long ago. He got famous for that. So Bobby White was the one who initiated the donated basketball court at Ignite. It was like $15,000. That’s some strong affiliation with GPD because they were given a basketball court by the Basketball Cop Foundation, and Bobby White worked for GPD at the time.”

The other whistleblower said that Vega has his congregation believing that the reports about ILC published by GnvInfo are “An attack from the enemy.”

The male whistleblower disclosed that he confided in Ignite about a personal situation, and they misused biblical scripture in an attempt to shame him. “This was one of the main reasons I left. I had a miscarriage with my ex-girlfriend. Let me tell you how they handled it. You could probably perceive not well.... There’s a story in the second Samuel where David slept with Bathsheba and Bathsheba bore children, like King Solomon, but essentially the prophet Nathan told David that because of this, David’s son Solomon would live but he would have a child die. Adolfo Gomez said verbatim, ‘Do you know that story about David losing his firstborn because of sin. That’s what happened to you.’ You cannot make this up. I was like, ‘I never wanna see any of you guys again.’ This is literal psychological torture; psychological warfare. You cannot tell me the next day you love me when that's how you treat people who don't agree with you, and yes, maybe in a Christian sense, I wasn't doing the right Christian things. I was living in sin. I will admit that, but that's not how you remediate it. That’s not how you bring someone to restoration. At least for me, as a Christian, you need to talk to that person. And why would you meet with me in front of other people? One of my good friends said he remembered years ago that meeting that occurred. So how many other people witnessed this too? It just breaks my heart that people would be treated that way.  I can't imagine whoever else has been treated that way.”

Time will tell if reports from whistleblowers continue to corroborate ILC’s legal consequences. When Noel Cruz was arrested last February, an anonymous whistleblower stated that his father and Vega attempted to handle the incident internally days before a GPD Supplemental Report proved their statements correct. 

This page may be updated when more information about all the aforementioned allegations is received.

The full Q&A-style interviews with the whistleblowers may be released over the weekend.

ILC has a long and growing list of coverups, civil lawsuits, criminal cases, and inappropriate actions that have been covered on GnvInfo. Over a dozen articles pertaining to ILC can be found on the page linked below.  

Ignite Life Center Investigation - Gainesville Public Information Services



Jack Walden

Jack Walden

Jack Walden is the creator of Gnvinfo and a 2nd year journalism major at Santa Fe College. From general information, to exposing falsehoods and corruption, Jack seeks to deliver the truth.
Gainesville, FL