Ignite Life Center Has Ties to Mariano Rivera Foundation

Ignite Life Center Has Ties to Mariano Rivera Foundation
Former Yankees Pitcher Mariano Rivera standing next to Christian Vargas who is facing charges for sex crimes against children

Updated: March 5th: Added photos

On January 23 and 25, Mariano Rivera, a five-time World Series champion, shared a photo where he is standing alongside Christian Vargas, the son of Ignite Life Center's senior pastor. Vargas is currently facing charges related to sex crimes against children.

Rivera established the Mariano Rivera membership program with Ignite Life Center in June 2021; however, Rivera and Senior Pastor Mark Vega have a relationship dating back to the 1990s, when Rivera played as a pitcher for the Yankees and Vega served as the team’s chaplain.  

In March 2020, Vega’s spouse, Lisa Vega, became executive director of the Mariano Rivera Foundation.  

Additionally, Esther Omeben, who is the program director for Urban Strategies, one of Ignite’s many federal programs, previously served as the program director of the Mariano Rivera Foundation. 

According to a Gainesville Police Department Supplemental Report, it was reported to senior pastor Vega and associate pastor Jose Cruz that their son’s Christian Vargas and Noel Cruz had repeatedly committed statutory rape on church grounds. They decided to call a meeting with several members of Ignite’s leadership, which included Lisa Vega and Omeben. 

During the meeting, Noel Cruz and Vargas admitted to taking advantage of the victim, and there was an agreement that the sexual activity between them and her would stop. Vega reportedly explained to the meeting's attendees, “Jail will not solve the issue,” and elected to handle the matter internally without resistance from other leadership members. 

Mariano Rivera (holding large scissors) | Jose Cruz ( wearing orange sweater) | Esther Omeben (wearing white collared shirt & standing next to Mariano Rivera)

Noel Cruz was arrested and charged with sexual battery on February 19th, 2024, for these incidents. Vargas is not being charged for this due to Romeo and Juliet laws; however, he is awaiting trial on two charges for allegedly raping a 12- to 13-year-old girl when he was 17, as well as making unwanted sexual advances towards a 14 year-old girl when he was 17 and 18. They were both released within a week of their detainments on bonds of $100,000 and $40,000 respectively.

Additionally, Gabriel Hemenez was arrested on July 6th, 2023, for sexually abusing three minors who were placed in his care during a month-long youth internship program held by Ignite Life Center in July 2021. He is expected to plead guilty this month.

A member of Ignite Life Center who chose to remain anonymous for safety reasons issued a statement against Mark Vega, accusing him of inflicting emotional and psychological abuse through a student curriculum called “servanthood.” 

“Mark Vega recruits young and vulnerable minors to join his organization, which has been psychologically and emotionally abusive. Members have been disciplined in bizarre and archaic ways, like being forced to pick up rocks in the hot sun. Deep cleaning the church was part of the student curriculum and was called servanthood. In many instances, students were required to surrender their phones to the staff members for a nine-month program. That rule was eventually modified, but staff members still had the authority to go through a student’s personal messages, photos, and private information.” 

The church member went on to raise concerns about an Ignite campus being built in Brazil, saying that Brazilian churchgoers may be unaware of Ignite’s trouble with the law.  

“I attempted to message a dozen people from Brazil and was only able to get into contact with one person. The person said that they would tell the pastor of their church, but I don’t know if they did or not.”

When asked if they believed pastoral staff at Ignite would potentially flee to Brazil to evade prosecution, they said they wouldn’t put it past them. 

“I’ve never considered them leaving the country for that. I thought of their multiple locations as more of a greed and money thing, but I wouldn’t put it past these calculated, manipulative psychopaths.”

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